The sandwiches are square; bagels are the new bread trend in Melbourne
Forget avocado toast: Millennials have found a new brunch item to spend their savings on in Melbourne. The humble bagel is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with half a dozen specialty shops opening in the past two years, including in major locations like Swanston Street.
Bagel Bakery Soap has seen its wholesale orders increase by 50-70% since Melbourne experienced its first lockdown in March 2020.
Owners Ina and Sergiy Sambor report that the biggest increases are coming from suburbs within 10 kilometers of the CBD, such as Pascoe Vale, Moonee Ponds and the Eastern Midtown Suburbs.
“In areas where there are young workers, it’s a booming area for bagels,” says Ina.
Ring-shaped bread, common in cities with large Jewish populations like New York, is traditionally made by briefly boiling the rings in water and then baking them. It is the boiling that gives bagels their characteristic moistness and chewy exterior.
The balance between sweetness and a satisfying chew is the mark of a good bagel, according to James McMurray of White Bakery. He’s never visited America but challenged himself to make the perfect bagel when he opened his bakery in Berwick last December.
“For me, that was the mystery of trying to get it right; [it was an] infatuation.”
Berwick locals relish the reward, scooping up 100 bagels from Blanc Bakery every day, whether it’s plain poppyseed or jalapeño and aged cheddar.
“That [one] blew people away,” McMurray says. “People get so angry when they come in and they’re sold out.
Melbourne’s Jewish bakeries have been serving bagels for many years, although many are clustered in the city’s south central location. But recently the bread, first made in Poland, has been attracting a new generation of devotees from all over the city.
Many of the new players, including Bissel B. to Richmond and Ben Vaughan from Mile End Bagels were inspired by the ubiquity of bagels in New York.
“It’s a ritual,” says Bianca Fischer, marketing manager of Bissel B.. “You have a bagel in the morning before work. [We] noticed that there weren’t many in Melbourne.”
Bissel B. opened on Bridge Road in May 2020 and quickly cut and sliced 3,000 bagels a week. Its popularity has been helped by Melbourne’s lockdown, which has left sandwiches as one of the few options for dining out.
But the more-is-more approach to bagelerie toppings has also caught the eye. His Little Italy layers homemade meatballs with buffalo mozzarella and napoli sauce, while a special called Grand Central includes penne, vodka-tomato sauce, meat patty and pickles with dill.
“It fills them up, it satisfies them. But if you’re on a budget, it works for you, too,” says Fischer.
Chef Daniel Esposito, who opened Dan’s Deli at Toorak last August acknowledges that this is part of the sandwich’s popularity.
“Even though people are very rich, they still come here and it’s the same bagel no matter what.”
Savion, which supplies Bissel B. and Dan’s Deli, has increased production by around 600% since the Sambors bought the business in 2014.
Now they are working on automating some of their baking, thanks to a federal grant under the Manufacturing Modernization Fund.
Automation is the only way for them to meet the huge demand they are seeing in Melbourne from their hundred or so wholesalers, including some Coles and Woolworths stores.
The couple say the secret to good bagels is boiling them, not steaming the rings like some manufacturers do. They would know.
Ina has a background in chemistry and she tweaked Savion’s original recipe when she and Sergiy bought the business after being regular customers for over a decade.
McMurrary of Blanc Bakery says his secret is the malt syrup he adds to both the batter and the boiling water. Honey is more common in Montreal recipes but he finds it too sweet.
Mile End Bagels, which opened in 2016, uses the Montreal method of adding eggs to batter and baking in a wood-fired oven, which was assembled by two stonemasons from Canada.
Co-founder Ben Vaughan says it gives Mile End bread more crunch, as opposed to the softer style of a New York bagel, and a more complex flavor. “You get a deep flavor in your bread, the seeds are really toasted and the flavor comes through.”
As toppings become less traditional, most bagel purveyors are happy for people to enjoy their bagels the way they want. McMurray, however, says overfilling is a problem. “It’s going to be very messy. It has to be nice and compact and easy to eat.”
More bagel shops are on the way. Bissel B. is also opening another location in the bagel heartland of Elsternwick. Vaughan and business partner Michael Fee plan to grow Mile End from two to five stores over the next 12 months, with a store opening in Richmond in July. The goal is to become as mundane as bagel shops are in New York and Montreal, rather than a cult destination.
Does Melbourne want to have so many bagel shops?
“I think the customer wins,” says Vaughan. “It keeps everyone on their toes. We just want to be at the top of this list [of bagel shops]no matter how long that list is.”