The sweet smell of honey and a rich aroma of baking dough waft from the warm kitchen, easily visible from an open, sunny dining area at the front of the shop. A wood-fueled fire burns steadily in the large metal oven at the back, cooking a row of bagels to a just-so shade of light brown.
Amy Remsen and Blake Joffe—she experienced in the restaurant business and he as a chef—opened Beauty’s Bagels in Oakland last August. For the past few months, the small Temescal shop on Telegraph Avenue has seen a steady flow of customers, with lines occasionally winding out the front door and spilling onto the sidewalk.
“There’s just something about a bagel,” said Joffe, laughing easily as he showed a young employee how to make bagels, making him only the second person in the shop to know the entire process. “It is such an easy food to eat, and it’s delicious.”
The couple moved from Philadelphia to Oakland in 2009, and fell in love with the Bay Area and its eclectic mix of food. The only thing lacking, Remsen said, was a good bagel. “A bagel was something we both missed,” Remsen said.
Over the last four years she discovered that a lot of people, other transplants from the East Coast, also missed their bagels. So the pair, who had dreamed of owning something together, decided to open a local shop and “create a good bagel,” she said.
They don’t serve just any kind of bagel at Beauty’s—these are Montreal-style bagels, distinct from the more common New York-style. The two types are very different, Remsen said, a style divide much like the one between Chicago and New York pizzas. Compared to their bigger, more uniform American cousin, Montreal-style bagels are denser and slightly sweet, Joffe said, softly textured with a hint of smoke and a crunchy crust.
The dough for Montreal-style bagels contains malt powder and egg, two ingredients not found in New York-style bagels. The cooking process is also distinct: After the dough is cut and rolled by hand into a donut-shape, Montreal-style bagels are boiled for a few minutes in honey-sweetened water. New York bagels, on the other hand, are usually machine-made these days, Remsen said.
This afternoon, Joffe and his trainee are coating the boiled dough with sesame seeds. They then slide the bagels into a wood-fired oven (another signature of the Montreal style), where they will bake and brown, three dozen at a time, for four or five minutes per side. Time spent in a wood-fired oven gives the bagels a slightly charred, charmingly irregular appearance.
Beauty’s Bagels are baked in small batches throughout the day. Whether a customer comes in for a breakfast bite or a sandwich at lunchtime, the bagel will be fresh. There are patrons who try a Montreal-style bagel for the first time and become big fans, but there are also those customers who do not like the change from the chewier, less dense New York style—many bagel lovers have strong memories and preferences attached to bagels, Remsen said. “There’s just something special about bagels,” she said. “Something nostalgic.”
Nostalgia played a big part in the couple’s choice of Montreal-style bagels as a business venture. As a child, Joffe’s father used to take him on family vacations to Montreal. Every morning they would go to the same bagel shop, Joffe said, one that had been in business for 80 or so years. When Joffe decided to open his own bagel establishment, he apprenticed at a Montreal bagel shop where he learned the techniques he uses today in his own kitchen.
Another important part of a Montreal-style shop is an open layout to facilitate interaction between customers and the kitchen. At Beauty’s Bagels, diners can catch a glimpse of the bagels as they are cut, rolled, seeded and then slid on wooden paddles into the oven.
“It’s more of an old-school, artisan style,” Remsen said. “Our goal was to bring something to the area that no one else had.” With their combined expertise in the food business and a mutual love of bagels, the round, chewy treats were a natural choice. “We thought it would be easier than owning a restaurant,” she said.
The days sound anything but easy: Remsen said the pair usually wakes up between 3:00 and 4:00 am—sometimes even earlier on the weekend—to prepare bagels for the morning rush. Remsen mixes dough while Joffe lights the fire in the oven and starts heating the water to boil the bagels. They make as much as possible in-house, Remsen said, using organic ingredients, free-range eggs and sustainable fish for the lox, pickled herring and other toppings.
On this weekday afternoon, the bagel shop is bustling as customers come in to grab lunch. Beauty’s Bagels offers breakfast options like an egg and cheese bagel, lox and cream cheese (four types, including one made from tofu), or butter and jam toppings. They also have heartier options like a veggie bagel with cucumbers, tomato cream cheese, red onion and arugula; or a smoked trout option and even a fried chicken skin sandwich.
The Temescal shop is an ideal location, Remsen said, close to BART but still in an up-and-coming neighborhood. “I wanted a block that wasn’t living up to its potential yet,” she said. The couple wants to make Beauty’s Bagels into a spot that locals will frequent for years to come, and then bring their children in for breakfast, as Joffe’s father did for him in Montreal.
“We’ve been trying to forge relationships with this neighborhood,” Remsen said. “I’m happy with how many regulars we already have.”
Beauty’s Bagels is open Tuesday to Friday from 7 am-3 pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 8 am-3 pm. The shop is located at 3838 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland. More information is online at BeautysBagelShop.com.