A good bagel is a good bagel.
While everybody can enjoy a bagel — a slab of dough, boiled then baked, just firm enough on the outside, soft in the center, with the ideal chewy factor — the Jewish people are the only ones to openly proclaim their love for these “hole-y” delights.
“The common denominator of the Jewish people is the bagel,” said Rabbi Shmuel Silber of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim.
And while it may be less than two weeks until Passover and the Jewish people are starting to think more about cardboard slabs of matzah than circles of leavened heaven, there’s never a bad time to eat (uh, write about) bagels.
According to the website Schmooze, legend has it that the first bagel was produced in 1783 as a tribute to Jan Sobieski, king of Poland. The king, a renowned horseman, had just saved the people of Austria from an onslaught by Turkish invaders. In gratitude, a local baker shaped yeast dough into the shape of a stirrup to honor him and called it a “beugel,” the Austrian word for stirrup. The roll soon became a hit throughout Eastern Europe. Over time, its shape evolved into a circle with a hole in the center, and its name was converted to its modern form, bagel. In the 1880s, thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States. They brought with them a desire for bagels. Soon bagels became closely associated with New York and Chicago, both cities with large Jewish populations.
In Baltimore, bagels are associated with nine letters and an apostrophe — G-O-L-D-B-E-R-G-’-S.
Goldberg’s New York Kosher Bagels, celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, feeds the body and the soul. Whether you like your bagels schmeared with cream cheese, stacked high with Nova or double toasted with jelly, it’s likely you like them from Goldberg’s. And while the food at its Pikesville location, and also now in Timonium at Padonia and York roads, is ranked high by customers (even on yelp.com) what also sets Goldberg’s apart is the heimish atmosphere and the fact that it has become a gathering place for such a broad spectrum of people.
‘Raisin’ The Roof
If you had asked Goldberg’s owner Stanley Drebin in 1995 what he would be doing in 2013, it is unlikely he would have answered working in the food industry. A certified public accountant, Drebin worked in the financial sector during the earliest years of his career.
In 1997, Drebin visited his parents in Seattle. A ba’al teshuva, newly observant Jew, he dined out there at a kosher bagel shop.
“On the West Coast at the time the bagel shop had just exploded. There were bagel shops up and down the West Coast. One of them was Noah’s Bagels. It was kosher, and there was one in the town where my parents lived,” Drebin recalled. “I walked in and it was filled with ‘regular people.’ There was probably no one religious in there but me. It was so busy, it was crazy.”
When Drebin returned from his visit, he told his wife, Chava, that he wanted to open a bagel shop in Baltimore. It took him just over a year to get started. He reached out to the All American Food Corp. in New York, which had a kosher bagel among its product line and was opening franchises under the name “Goldberg’s.” All American worked with Drebin to set up shop on Slade Avenue. Six months later the franchise went out of business. But Drebin kept the name and was determined to build Goldberg’s on his own.
“When we opened up, [Stanley] was working in D.C., and he was traveling back and forth,” Chava Drebin said, noting that her husband planned to run Goldberg’s on the side. But within months it became apparent “the side” was not going to slice it.
“Goldberg’s took over our lives. It exploded. The bagel [at Goldberg’s] is so much better than it is everywhere else,” Chava Drebin said.
Drebin gave up his accountancy to commit to the bagel shop full time. In 1998, Goldberg’s had eight employees. Today, the business employs 30 people at its two locations.
Richard Alicea was recruited by Drebin 14 years ago. Alicea served as the store trainer for All American.
“I would travel to the site of a new store, meet the owner, help hire and train all of the employees from baking to making salads and sandwiches to catering. … I was opening up a lot of stores in a lot of locations, and then the franchisor went out of business,” Alicea said. “The suits and ties made a lot of bad decisions.”
Drebin heard about Alicea, who was living in New York with his wife and four children at the time, and offered him the store manager’s position.
“I wasn’t interested in moving to Maryland, but Stanley was very persuasive,” Alicea recalled.
Drebin rented Alicea an apartment so he could spend the weekdays in Baltimore for two months to test the waters. It took much less for Alicea to know Goldberg’s was the right fit.
“I liked it right away. I knew it was the right place for me,” he said.
Alicea has become a part of the wallpaper and synonymous with the Goldberg’s name.
Behind the scenes — and the oven — is another ingredient of Goldberg’s success, Robert Bagwandeen, the baker.
“Out of nowhere, Robert walked into my store. I didn’t expect him to be a baker, but he is the best baker in the world,” said Drebin. “He knows bagels. He understands bagels.”
Bagwandeen bakes six to seven hours per day, five days per week and 12 hours on Sunday. He’s modest about his abilities and smiles shyly when asked about his work.
“I guess you can say I have the magic touch,” he noted with a smile. He told this reporter that of all the flavors of bagels he bakes, his favorite is, and likely always will be, plain.
Another important person was Marcia Abraham, the cook. She worked with Drebin for his first eight years before becoming sick and ultimately passing away. She, said Drebin, brought the cream cheese, tuna salad and egg salad recipes to the store, the ones the community knows and loves.
Of course, Chava Drebin, Richard Alicea’s wife, Cathy, and some of the other employees have tossed recipes into the mix, too.
Knead together the atmosphere with the perfect bagel, tasty cream cheeses, and since its move to Old Court Road six years ago November, an expanded menu of yogurts, waffles, pancakes, wraps and more, and you have an explosive success. Drebin said that he sells upward of one million bagels per year — only 5 percent via catering. He has had a strong and growing business, despite the average ticket totaling $12 to $13. In the two days before Yom Kippur, for example, Drebin bakes and sells 25,000 unsweetened donuts.
His other items do well, too. Drebin accredits his menu’s success to its home-style flavor.
“There are no weird flavors. It is very good, down-to-earth food,” he said.
Drebin did note that this year’s growth has been minimal, something he connects to the aftermath of the economic downturn.
Good food, of course, can transcend many things. But the best food cannot alone keep a business thriving. There has to be an entrepreneur behind it all.
At Goldberg’s that is Stanley Drebin.
“Of course you want to build a business so you can make a living. But I love my business. I love the people who come in,” Drebin said.
And the people who come in all know and appreciate Drebin, too.
For the children, Drebin is “The Bagel Man.” He tells the little ones that like (or unlike) Superman and Batman, his role is to fly over Jewish Baltimore and save people from bad bagels. He regularly stops by the tables of young dating couples and tries to convince them to get married. He says he can help them find a diamond ring.
“There are people who have gotten married and have come in to tell me,” Drebin said.
In Timonium, where there is a largely non-Jewish population, Drebin has developed a shpiel, too. When a group of Catholics came in a few weeks ago, he covered his face and asked them if they wanted to make a confession. They all laughed. He served a priest from the Lutherville area on Christmas day. The priest had officiated at five services in 24 hours, and Drebin made him a high-priority customer, arranging a meal even quicker than usual.
Drebin can talk to anybody. Sometimes he ruffles feathers.
“He is an interesting guy who always speaks his mind,” said Louis “Buddy” Sapolsky, who as the former executive director of the Jewish Community Center would eat at Goldberg’s at least once per week. “He tells it like it is, and you always know where he stands.”
But he doesn’t only talk, he listens. And he helps.
Drebin has been quietly involved in supporting many of Baltimore’s day schools and synagogues over the past decade. He doesn’t ask to put his name on chesed; he does it because he can, and it is the right thing to do.
“Having a good name is very important to me,” said Drebin.
Rabbi Yerachmiel “Rocky” Caine has been running NCSY’s Senator Ben Cardin Scholars Program at Goldberg’s every Monday night for the last several years. He told the JT that the location is ideal because it’s “neutral.”
“Everyone goes to Goldberg’s. No one feels uncomfortable,” he said.
In addition, Drebin goes the extra mile to make it work. Caine said Drebin discounts the food — “a lot.” Additionally, the store closes each day at 3 p.m. (4 p.m. on Sundays). The meeting takes place at 7 p.m.
“Mr. Drebin himself comes and opens the store and puts out the food, and he either stays or comes back and closes the store when we’re done,” said Caine.
Rabbi Silber has been running a Monday morning Torah class at Goldberg’s for more than five years. Drebin provides space for the class during the morning hustle and donates the breakfast. The constituents, instead of buying bagels and cream cheese, each make a donation to the Hebron Fund.
“He gives us space, food, and he often attends when he is there,” said Rabbi Silber. “It’s beautiful because we get so many different types of people, such a cross-section of Jewish people. … What began as a disconnected group has formed into a beautifully cohesive group.”
Silber said most of the people who participate in the 20-minute session are businessmen. They are learning business law.
Goldberg’s employees feel good about being there, too.
Aaron Polek has been working at Goldberg’s for one year. He said he has really grown as a person from his experience there.
“It’s all about growing up, learning to work with different kinds of people,” said Polek. “I like the stability. … No one else could make this business run like [Drebin] does.”
“He comes out, talks to people, hugs people, he asks after you,” said Jeff Cohn, whose family has been in Baltimore for three generations. “He is not hiding behind the wall some place. He is out there with that smile and that belly laugh, and he wants what is best for his customers.”
“People say, ‘I can’t imagine Baltimore without Goldberg’s,’” said Chava Drebin. “It has become this gathering place for such a broad spectrum of people. … It is a place of shalom, where people can have the opportunity to interact with one another and where you can cross social borders.”
Said Drebin: “I succeeded at what I wanted to do in having an Orthodox store that a frum yid can walk into and feel comfortable, just as well as everyone else does.”
Customer & Staff Picks
“Poppy seed with nothing on it.”
— Jeff Cohn
“My husband likes eggs over easy with hash browns and a bagel. I like a bagel with butter or cream cheese.”
— Esther Maiella
“Garlic bagel, double toasted, with cayenne pepper and chumus.”
— Aaron Polek
“A bialy with Nova spread.”
— Carl Zarch
“I have scrambled eggs with cheese for breakfast and a grilled cheese for lunch.”
— Kenny Sprafkin (who eats at Goldberg’s twice a day, six days a week)
Did You Know?
Bagels are boiled.
It feels counter-intuitive to throw bread in boiling water, but it’s the boiling that sets the crust of a bagel before it goes into the oven. According to a handful of Jewish cookbooks and several Internet sites, the water doesn’t actually penetrate very far into the bread because the starch on the exterior quickly gels and forms a barrier. Bagels are typically boiled for 30 to 60 seconds on each side; the longer the boil, the thicker and chewier crust.
What Did You Order?
Aaron Polek has been a sandwich-maker at Goldberg’s only for one year. But over that time, he said he’s made some pretty interesting orders.
“Oh man, there are some strange orders,” he told the JT last month.
Strawberry jelly with Nova. Nova with peanut butter on the side.
“I have a guy who asks for tuna salad, egg salad and pizza sauce,” said Polek. “Some people do crazy things.”
Top-Selling Bagel: Plain
Most “Photogenic” Bagel: Black Russian
Find A Goldberg’s New York Kosher Bagels Near You
1500 Reisterstown Rd, #211
Baltimore, MD 21208
31 E. Padonia Road
Lutherville-Timonium, MD 21093
Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — firstname.lastname@example.org