Of business and bagels

I had a freelance story in my old stomping ground of the Chronicle business section today — a Q&A with Noah Alper, the former owner of Noah’s Bagels.

Noah Alper at his first bagel store on College Avenue - photo by Paul Chinn/The Chronicle

You can read the story here.

When I was covering small business for the Chron, I received review copies of about a zillion (give or take a few million) how-to books about entrepreneurship. They all pretty much say the same things, and none of it is rocket science.

Likewise, the business advice in Alper’s new book, Business Mensch: Timeless Wisdom for Today’s Entrepreneur,  isn’t particularly new or earth-shaking, although he takes the unusual step of framing his advice in a context of Jewish ethics and culture.

But I enjoyed what he revealed about himself and his life. Not many would-be business gurus write about their failures along with their successes. And I can’t think of one, other than Alper, who writes about being committed to McLean Hospital (the Boston psychiatric hospital) as a young man. That takes some guts.

As with most interviews, there wasn’t space in the paper to print the entire conversation. One section that didn’t appear was an exchange about how Noah’s made its bagels during the time Alper ran it. (He sold the company to Einstein Bagel Bros. in 1995).

Noah’s catches a lot of flack from purists for not boiling its bagels — for selling bagels that are lighter and breadier than the platonic ideal of the New York bagel.

(Just read some of the comments about the story on the Chornicle web site and you’ll see how heated people can get about this.)

Alper chose the alternate method of steaming bagels – spraying them with water as they go into the oven – rather than boiling and then baking.

“Steaming requires less equipment and space, it’s safer, and it requires less skill,” he writes in Business Mensch. ” There is a major difference: A boiled bagel, unparalleled when it’s fresh out of the oven, hardens so quickly that in just a couple of hours it has the consistency of a doorstop. A steamed bagel remains soft enough that it can be used for sandwiches many hours after it’s made.”

Personally, I don’t mind the breadier bagels. But what is funny is that three days ago, we got a wonderful Chanukah gift from my parents in New York — a goody box from Zabar’s with smoked salmon and rugelach and bagels.

In our household, we all swear by Zabar’s smoked salmon — nobody anywhere in the Bay Area can come remotely close to its melting, buttery texture. They sent us a pound, and it was gone in two days.

But the bagels? Direct from the Upper West Side, aka the Old Country?

As fluffy as Noah’s.

Apparently if you are planning on shipping bagels 3,000 miles across country, you’d better steam them rather than send things that will feel like doorstops by the time they arrive.

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6 Responses to “Of business and bagels”

  1. Craig-o Says:

    You’ve now inspired me to try to find some memorabilia from Local 338, the International Bagel Bakers Union.

  2. Melissa Nappan Says:

    You brought back a 30-something year old memory…My father sent me a box of bagels when I was away in college. He lived in San Francisco, not New York, but even San Francisco bagels were superior to NO bagels, which is what I survived for four years in Yellow Springs, Ohio. However, my father, thrifty fellow that he was, sent them the cheapest way the post office would allow him. (Pony express, slow boat, fifth class…?) They arrived not only resembling doorstops, but a lovely greenish-blue mold color. It’s the thought that counts.

  3. Judy Pace Says:

    Good to know there’s a solid rationale for the new bagel. But sure wish someone around here would make them the old way . . . any recommendations out there?

  4. johnmangels Says:

    I enjoyed your piece in the paper and appreciated Noah’s comments about his business. I think the Evangelical Christians do a better business model than the Mainline Christians do. Part of me really doesn’t like the idea of a church running a business model and marketing itself. But Noah’s business model is pretty attractive.

  5. Tallit Katan Says:

    Thank you for the interesting post
    Happy Hanukkah and “Hag Sameach”!

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