Q&A: Why Black Seed's Bagels Were an Instant Hit
New York eagerly anticipated Black Seed Bagels (170 Elizabeth Street, 212-730-1950), a new shop from Mile End's Noah Bernamoff and The Smile's Matt Kliegman, and since the partners first opened the doors last week, the lines have been relentless. The place is offering a slightly different take on the ubiquitous baked good that's a deeply emotional part of this city's food history; the Black Seed version is a sort of cross between the Montreal bagel and New York City's historical rounds. Here, we chat with Bernamoff about the origins of the shop, the vision for the bagels, and what Mile End taught him about handling the queues.
Black Seed Bagels via Facebook
Tell me a little bit about you and your business partner and how Black Seed came to be
I'm Noah. I have Mile End, I'm from Montreal, and I love bagels -- I eat many on a daily basis. Matt owns The Smile. He's a New Yorker, and he also loves bagels. we've known each other for awhile. I opened Mile End on Bond Street, where the original Smile is, and we immediately became good friends. We have this Red Hook commissary, and part of it was a bakery where we produced fresh bagels. After Sandy, our bakery did not recover. Other parts of the commissary did, but the bakery was devastated, and we did not rebuild it. Matt's place Westway also got hit really bad. He reached out to offer help or to hang out and commiserate, so we would hang out and use each other therapeutically at these scheduled weekly gatherings. Soon, we thought maybe we would get a little enterprise going. Matt was lamenting that we no longer served bagels at Mile End -- he missed his daily bagel and lox. So we said, "Let's put together a bagel shop."
You've had huge lines for Black Seed, which echo the lines you had at Mile End, no?
It's a little different. At Mile End, we had pretty serious lines because we had major supply issue. I had a tiny little smoker, fridge, and restaurant -- and way more people came than I could serve. It was pretty jarring, especially for someone who'd never worked in a restaurant. I can't even remember really what that time was like. Here, we opened expecting one level of production, and now we're scrambling to make it through the day.
Any observations on handling lines like that?
When they happen, be super friendly, smile at everyone, make them feel super at home, and help them understand why there's a line. We're moving as quickly as we can -- we're putting out the product as efficiently as possible, but never at the expense of the product -- that's ultimately the most important thing. I think everyone appreciates that. If we were running a less good operation, we would favor speed over quality. Mile End could have put out more sandwiches if I sliced smoked meat on a machine, but I just wasn't willing to do that. Bagel shops here in the city use a rotating gas oven where you load multiple trays of bagels in at one shot. We're making bagels by rolling them by hand, boiling them in a kettle, and baking them in a wood oven five or six dozen at a time -- so we can make a fraction of as many bagels as we could the other way. But I'm not going to compromise the technique.
Why do you think you have a knack for creating concepts that garner lines?
I find myself thinking about concept, and ultimately, my places are reimaginations of the past. When I opened Mile End, I was offering smoked meat that's unique to pastrami -- it's really not even made the same as pastrami -- but to a lot of people in New York, I was serving pastrami. It was a throwback to a deli. Everyone knows a deli and pastrami, and they have an appreciation for pastrami, whether that's the style we made or the style at Katz's or the style at the corner bodega. People like different pastramis, and if you say to someone, "Okay, there's this place making a new pastrami," people really want to come and try it. It's the same thing with bagels. There are bagels everywhere: You can get them at corner bodegas, where they're kind of like the pastrami sandwiches that are made with cheese on white bread. It's a half-assed product. Those ubiquitous bagels have become a replacement for a roll or bread. So when someone comes in and says, "We're going to not do that; we're going to go back to when bagels were made in a special way, which made them unique from all other breads, with different flavor and texture, and they were a valuable good by themselves." People respond to that really strongly. We didn't open a Times Square circus -- we can't handle 7,000 people walking through every day. This is the scope of operation that I like to operate. I'm not interested in having a mega bagel store or a mega deli. If there's a demand and the supply is low, it backs up.
Talk to me about Montreal bagels and how they're different from or similar to New York bagels.
In general, Montreal is a very unchanging city. New York would be demolished and rebuilt a thousand times before someone sold a piece of real estate in Montreal. Bagel shops are unchanged -- there's no pressure to put something different out today than in 1957. There's a legacy that is carried forward. If something is good and not problematic and people are buying it, you don't need to change it; it is still good. That sort of traditionalism is one of my sort of motivations and inspirations at Black Seed and Mile End. Bagels are still hand-rolled, still boiled in honey-water kettles, still baked in a wood-burning oven. There's not a single bakery in Montreal where I'm not seeing those three things happen -- theatrics are a critical part of it. As for the New York bagel shop, I'm not a New Yorker beyond seven or eight years, so I don't know what it was like to experience the old time Brooklyn bagels. But I do know those bagels were hand-rolled, boiled, and of a size and stature that was manageable -- they were not meant to be used for making turkey sandwiches. That's a beautiful thing for me. At Black Seed, we're looking to both styles. A lot of people will come in and say, "Oh, it's like a Montreal bagel," just because it's not like a New York bagel as they know it. But if we were making this in Montreal, I'm sure people would come in and say, "This is like a New York bagel." The dough is a little bit more New Yorky -- we're using malt, salt, no egg, and high-gluten flour. But we boil it in honey. And we're baking in a wood-burning oven, which is very Montreal.
How did you develop these bagels? Who's doing the baking?
At Mile End, I was the chief cook and bottle-washer. I worked the line, I opened the door, and I closed the door. I lived there. At Black Seed, I'm very happy that I'm the restaurant owner. I have the benefit of having some really top bakers who worked for me in the past prior to Sandy. Dianna Daoheung was our baker then, and she transitioned to the front of house after the storm so she could stay aboard. Rob Rohl was also a baker until Sandy, and then he left to work in pastry elsewhere. When I approached them about the concept and about getting the band back together, everyone was psyched to take what we started at Mile End and work on it until we got to the point where we were happy with the product. Dianna and Rob were responsible for putting the process together. It was my insistence that we develop the bagel in a certain direction and work on things like homemade cream cheese. Matt's been an incredible partner -- I've never had a partner like him. He operates in the same vein as I do, very all-hands-on-deck. It was really great to work with him on getting Black Seed off the ground; he's a brilliant guy on the business side, and aesthetically, we see eye-to-eye. The Smile has an amazing crew, and I believe the same of my team. It was great to see them work together.
Despite your belief that bagels should not be used to create turkey sandwiches, you are doing some sandwich toppings at Black Seed. What's the vision there?
Simple, true to tradition, but they can be creative and modern-feeling. We decided early that we were not going to serve smoked meat or turkey. But we would serve cheese, fish. We'd bring some of the skills we developed at Mile End to some of the fish. I'm rreally happy to be working with Acme smoked fish; they're doing our rainbow trout, bluefish, and smoked salmon. We're really pleased with where we're at with the sandwiches. We just keep it really simple.
Black Seed bagels are currently available from 7 a.m. until the shop runs out, but Bergamoff says the place will eventually operate on a 24-hour production cycle.