Bagels take a dip, but keep on rolling along

During the 1990s, bagels enjoyed such a yeasty rise in popularity that something had to give.

It did. Einstein's, the largest bagel chain in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection last year and closed 74 underperforming shops. Bruegger's, too, has scaled back its operation.

Despite these setbacks, bagels have hardly gone bust. In fact, Steve Shifman, who owns Elaine's Bagels, a network of six stores in suburban Detroit, says "bagel consumption is still going up.

"Demand for bagels is increasing, but you had such a huge [industry] expansion that it's taking time for the demand to catch up," says Mr. Shifman. His shops sell 40 or 50 varieties of bagels, and he is constantly pushing the envelope with creations like potato-Cheddar and triple-chip bagels, studded with chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch chips.

At the family-run Hot Bagel Shop in Houston, customers scoop up jalapeno and oat-bran, cinnamon-raisin bagels as well as the old standbys - plain, poppyseed, sesame seed, onion, and garlic. A breakfast bagel, served with picante sauce and filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, is also a big seller.

These explorations aren't limited to the little guys, either, says Marilyn Bagel, the author of "The Bagel Bible," which was published in 1992 and is in its third printing. She notes that her daughter is a fan of strawberry swirl bagels, made by Lender's, and that Pillsbury has come out with a rectangular bagel designed to fit in toasters. SJR Foods markets cream-cheese filled Unholey Bagels, and some companies make "bagel holes," as if bagels were stamped like doughnuts instead of extruded.

Companies are now reinventing the bagel, says Mrs. Bagel (her real name), because the novelty that made it the darling of the baking industry in the mid -1990s has worn off.

Mrs. Bagel calls these rolls with holes "the teddy bears of food. To me it's a smiling food product, a happy product. It's a food with personality" - and also one with an interesting history.

The first bagels, the story goes, were made in Vienna in 1683 to honor Poland's visiting king. Because the king loved horses, the dough was shaped liked a riding stirrup, or "Bugel" in German.

Bagels, as they became known, were brought to the United States in the 19th century by Jewish immigrants. They remained popular primarily in urban Jewish neighborhoods until Lender's introduced frozen bagels in 1962. This brought bagels to the national supermarket audience.

Bagels have outgrown their ethnic image and now enjoy the acceptance of the bread-eating masses.

The spread of the corner bagel shop, however, was another matter. That took place more gradually as bagel bakers from New York and New Jersey gradually relocated to other parts of the country, opened shops, and imparted their knowledge. Bagel-baking machines, a fairly recent innovation, were developed to enhance production.

This primed the market for the bonanza during the 1990s, when Americans turned to bagels as a low-fat alternative to doughnuts and croissants. In their purest form, bagels are 90 percent flour and water, and contain no sugar.

Besides their nutritional allure, they are substantial and portable, both factors that appeal to people on the go. Small bagels are an ideal snack in preschools, are filling, and are easy to serve.

Bagels quickly became as mainstream as tacos and pizza, and soon chains like Einstein's/Noah's and Bruegger's were in a fast-growth mode, opening hundreds of shops nationwide.

American bagel consumption doubled between 1995 and 1999, according to Business Trend Analysts, a marketing research company. And while some of the chains are struggling, the overall sale of bagels - whether fresh-baked, frozen, refrigerated, or off the shelf - is still purring along, with an estimated $4.7 billion in sales this year.

Don Hayes, a Lender's executive, told Baking Business that bagels are in about 40 percent of American households

What has hurt the chains and their fast-casual restaurant concept is simply the tremendous availability of bagels - including supermarkets, java joints, and Dunkin' Donuts, which added bagels to its sweeter menu. Now Dunkin' Donuts is the nation's largest bagel chain, even while riding the crest of a doughnut revival.

Bagels aren't going out of style, not now that they're being adapted to so many different taste buds. In fact, some observers note that bagels, once jokingly called "cement doughnuts," are becoming more doughnut-like - sweeter and less dense and chewy in some cases.

"I think a lot of these chains went away from the good, old-fashioned bagels," says Donny Wicks, who owns and runs Houston's Hot Bagel Shop with his brother and mother. "They tried to formulate the recipe and make it a little more like a flavored bread than what a bagel really is."

Some high-production operations make the dough at a commissary, freeze it, and ship it to local bagel shops for on-site baking.

Personal preferences in bagels and bakeries help explain why a mom-and-pop business like the Hot Bagel Shop has survived while major chain shops nearby have folded.

"People have very strong ideas about what kind of bagels they like," Mrs Bagel says.

Flavor and chewiness preferences vary from shop to shop and product to product. Most bagels are about 4 ounces, but the trend is toward larger bagels.

Elaine's Bagels in the Detroit area sells a 6-ounce size that many people don't finish. "At 65 cents a bagel," says owner Steve Shifman, "people don't mind if there's a little left to throw away or eat later in the day. The large size catches the eye and is better for sandwiches."

Bagels are the only bread that's boiled before baking, a step that modern, industrial ovens streamline by steaming the dough before cooking. Boiling or steaming helps create the crusty outside that prevents expansion during baking, making for the dense, spongy finished bagel.

Some people make their own bagels but Ms. Bagel says it's hard to beat the professionally baked product.

"If you're in a bagel bakery as they're coming out of the oven, you just can't argue with that," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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