Overwhelming demand for Bay Area bagels drives new wave of expansion

When Schlok’s opened in February, hundreds of people flooded the San Francisco bagel store’s online ordering page within minutes. The system went down – a problem the Toast ordering website has had with only one other food company in the country. Meanwhile, a line of eager customers snaked down the street hoping to grab one of the 500 golden bagels for the day.

The owners are not worried that the bagel market is oversaturated. In fact, they’re welcoming this next phase of the Bay Area bagel boom: an established scene with a variety of styles that could make the bagel shop as mundane as taquerias or pizzerias.

“A rising tide will hopefully lift all boats with more bagel shops opening,” said Schlok co-owner Zack Schwab.

bagels at Schlok’s new store in San Francisco.”/>

Customers line up for bagels at Schlok’s new store in San Francisco.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

Many local bagel outfits quickly outgrew their originally small-scale operations.

Poppy, for example, sells 850 bagels a week through delivery and at the Grand Lake Farmers Market, essentially as many as owner Reesa Kashuk can handle space constraints. Kashuk and her husband get up at 3 a.m. to hand roll, boil and bake just 72 bagels at a time in a two-tier pizza oven in an Oakland commercial kitchen. To sell more bagels, they should start cooking around 1am. Half of the business relies on pre-orders, which forces customers to commit to a dozen bagels on Monday and expect delivery at the end of the week.

But in a few months, Kashuk will be able to nearly quadruple its production when it opens its first bagel shop in Oakland’s bustling Temescal neighborhood. She’ll serve hundreds of bagels hot out of the oven throughout the day, channeling the New York stores that inspired her to learn how to make bagels before starting Poppy during the pandemic. There will be egg and cheese sandwiches, whitefish salad and classic Jewish pastries like black and white cookies.

Poppy has seen gross sales increase by $100,000 over the past year, largely due to the addition of the Farmers Market. To pay for the new space, Kashuk used the SMBX crowdfunding platform, who told him it would probably take him 60 days to reach his goal of $150,000. She met him in 11 days.

“It wasn’t really a race” against other expanding bagel pop-ups, Kashuk said, but “it was hard to see how I could scale with the current model.”

Reesa Kashuk, owner of Poppy Bagels, and her husband Mateo Kashuk bake bagels before sunrise in Oakland.

Reesa Kashuk, owner of Poppy Bagels, and her husband Mateo Kashuk bake bagels before sunrise in Oakland.

Stephen Lam/The Chronicle

The owner of Hella Bagels recently made the same observation. Blake Hunter outgrew his temporary home at the Hidden Cafe in Berkeley, where the wait could be up to 45 minutes for a bagel. He was only showing up once a week, growing from two to four staff, and still had to consider a lean menu to reduce wait times. He was trying to run a bagel shop out the back of a cafe that also had its own customers.

“As he (became) more and more busy,” Hunter said, “it was no longer tenable.”

Hella Bagels therefore left the Hidden Cafe at the end of March and Hunter is now seriously looking for a physical location in the East Bay. He felt increasing pressure as he watched competitors move on to permanent spaces with queues at the gate.

“You have to slap yourself and say, ‘It’s time.’ You’ve built something great and it’s time to take the next step,” Hunter said.

Chicken Dog Bagels owner Alex Rogers bakes bagels at a pop-up in 2020. He now sells bagels twice a week at Avedano in Bernal Heights.

Chicken Dog Bagels owner Alex Rogers bakes bagels at a pop-up in 2020. He now sells bagels twice a week at Avedano in Bernal Heights.

Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle 2020

However, not everyone is so staunchly supportive of growth. At Chicken Dog Bagels, a pop-up in San Francisco, owner Alex Rogers is content to sell just 250 bagels two days a week. He enjoys making each bagel himself by hand and talking to customers one by one as they pick up orders at Avedano in Bernal Heights. The business is small but profitable.

He has no immediate desire to grow.

“Right now the business is so pure. I do everything myself and my main goal is to make food. I know that as soon as I decide to open a bakery, my main job will change,” said Rogers.

Not all bagel pop-ups have had the same success. Fat Baby Bagels in Berkeley collapsed last year, and Eat Disco went dark after a handful of pop-ups in Palo Alto.

But Rogers remains buoyed by the growth happening around him. Every bagel outfit has its own loyal following. People line up at Boichik for a classic New York-style bagel. Others prefer San Francisco’s Midnite Bagel, which opens in the Inner Sunset on May 23, for its sourdough bagels in conventional flavors like black sesame buckwheat. Schlok fans love playing Goldilocks with the bagels, complaining that they were too huge before the owners adjusted the size, and now lamenting that they’re too small. (Another aspect of running a Bay Area bagel shop: navigating customers’ intense, nostalgic emotions around good taste, shape, fence and the price of a bagel.)

An assortment of bagels at Schlok's, a pandemic-born pop-up that recently opened in SF to huge demand.

An assortment of bagels at Schlok’s, a pandemic-born pop-up that recently opened in SF to huge demand.

Yalonda M. James/The Chronicle

This moment reminds Rogers of when he moved to San Francisco 20 years ago and there was little to no pizza scene to speak of – long before Pizzeria Delfina and the now-closed Una Pizza Napoletana , do not change that.

“Now it’s hard to imagine the city without really good pizza,” Rogers said. “I hope this bagel thing is similar – we’re going to see a bunch of places really establish themselves and change the dynamics of the city (and beyond).”

Poppy’s Kashuk is more concerned with the dangers of hype than with customers having too many options to choose from. Will the Bay Area ever get tired of endlessly debating bagels? (Probably not.)

“I love bagels and I’m not trying to say they’re not amazing food and I’m not super passionate and I don’t think about them all the time,” she said. “I keep coming back to: it’s just a bagel.”

Elena Kadvany is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @ekadvany

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