Sandwiches are square; bagels are Melbourne’s new bread trend

James McMurray, owner of Blanc Bakery in Berwick, who sells out of bagels like jalapeno and cheddar every day.
James McMurray, owner of Blanc Bakery in Berwick, who sells out of bagels like jalapeno and cheddar every day. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Move over avocado toast: Millennials have found a new brunch item to spend their savings on in Melbourne. The humble bagel is experiencing a surge in popularity, with half a dozen specialty shops opening in the last two years, including in prominent locations like Swanston Street.

Bagel bakery Savion has seen wholesale orders increase 50 to 70 per cent since Melbourne experienced its first lockdown in March 2020.

Owners Ina and Sergiy Sambor report the biggest increases are coming from suburbs in a 10-kilometre radius from the CBD, such as Pascoe Vale, Moonee Ponds and the middle-ring suburbs of the east.

"In areas where there are young professionals, it's a booming area for bagels," says Ina.

The ring-shaped bread, commonplace in cities with large Jewish populations such as New York, is traditionally made by briefly boiling the rings in water then baking them. It's the boiling that gives bagels their characteristic chewiness and soft exterior.

The balance between softness and a satisfying chew is the hallmark of a good bagel, according to James McMurray of Blanc Bakery. He's never visited America but challenged himself to make a perfect bagel when he opened his Berwick bakery last December.

James McMurray has never visited North America but set himself a challenge of creating an ideal bagel, using a ...
James McMurray has never visited North America but set himself a challenge of creating an ideal bagel, using a Montreal-style recipe. Photo: Paul Jeffers

"For me, it was the mystery of trying to get it right; [it was an] infatuation."

Berwick locals are enjoying the pay-off, snapping up 100 of Blanc Bakery's bagels each day, whether it's simple poppy seed or the signature jalapeno and aged cheddar.

"That [one] has blown people's minds," McMurray says. "People get so angry when they come in and they're sold out."

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Jewish bakeries in Melbourne have served bagels for many years, although many of them are clustered in the city's inner-south. But recently the bread, first made in Poland, has attracted a new generation of faithful from all corners of the city.

Many of the newer players, including Bissel B. in Richmond and Ben Vaughan of Mile End Bagels were inspired by the ubiquity of bagels in New York.

"It's a ritual," says Bissel B.'s marketing manager Bianca Fischer. "You have a bagel in the morning before work. [We] noticed there wasn't much of that in Melbourne."

A smoked salmon bagel from Mile End, which makes its bagels using a Montreal-style recipe featuring egg in the dough and ...
A smoked salmon bagel from Mile End, which makes its bagels using a Montreal-style recipe featuring egg in the dough and a wood-fired oven. Photo: Supplied

Bissel B. opened on Bridge Road in May 2020 and was soon slicing and schmearing 3,000 bagels a week. Its popularity was helped along by Melbourne's lockdown, which left sandwiches as one of the few options for dining out.

But the bagelry's more-is-more approach to fillings also attracted attention. Its Little Italy layers house-made meatballs with buffalo mozzarella and napoli sauce, while a special called Grand Central features penne, a vodka-tomato sauce, a meat patty and dill pickles.

"It fills them up, it satisfies. But if you're on a budget, it caters to you as well," says Fischer.

Blanc Bakery's jalapeno and cheddar (back) has become a signature that customers seek out.
Blanc Bakery's jalapeno and cheddar (back) has become a signature that customers seek out. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Chef Daniel Esposito, who opened Dan's Deli in Toorak last August agrees this is part of the sandwich's popularity.

"Even if people are very wealthy, they still come here and it's the same bagel no matter what."

Savion, which supplies Bissel B. and Dan's Deli, has increased production by about 600 per cent since the Sambors purchased the business in 2014.

The ubiquity of bagels in cities like New York inspired many of the new players in Melbourne.
The ubiquity of bagels in cities like New York inspired many of the new players in Melbourne. Photo: alle12/iStock

Now they're working on automation of some of their baking, using a federal grant under the Manufacturing Modernisation Fund.

Automation is the only way they'll be able to keep up with the huge demand they're seeing in Melbourne across their 100 or so wholesale clients, which include select Coles and Woolworths stores.

The couple say the secret to good bagels lies in boiling them, not steaming the rings as some manufacturers do. They would know.

Dan's Deli in Toorak is among a raft of new bagel shops in Melbourne, and takes the time to make its own fillings, like ...
Dan's Deli in Toorak is among a raft of new bagel shops in Melbourne, and takes the time to make its own fillings, like pastrami. Photo: Supplied

Ina has a chemistry background and she tweaked the original Savion recipe when she and Sergiy bought the business after being regular customers for more than a decade.

McMurrary of Blanc Bakery says his secret is the malt syrup he adds to both the dough and the boiling water. Honey is more common in Montreal-style recipes but he finds it too sweet.

Mile End Bagels, which opened in 2016, uses the Montreal method of adding egg to the dough and baking in a wood-fired oven, which was assembled by two stonemasons flown out from Canada.

Bagels go through many stages of preparing including mixing, resting, rolling, shaping, boiling and baking.
Bagels go through many stages of preparing including mixing, resting, rolling, shaping, boiling and baking. Photo: Paul Jeffers

Co-founder Ben Vaughan says this gives Mile End's bread more crunch, as opposed to the softer style of a New York bagel, and a more complex flavour. "You get a deep flavour in your bread, the seeds get really toasted and their flavour comes out."

While toppings are getting less traditional, most bagel purveyors are happy for people to enjoy their bagels however they like. McMurray, however, says overfilling is a problem. "It's going to be very messy. It's got to be nice and compact and easy to eat."

More bagel shops are on the way. Bissel B. is also opening another location in the bagel heartland of Elsternwick. Vaughan and his business partner Michael Fee plan to grow Mile End from two stores to five in the next 12 months, with a Richmond location opening in July. The goal is to become as commonplace as bagel shops are in New York and Montreal, rather than a cult destination.

Does Melbourne have the appetite for that many bagel shops, though?

"I think the customer wins," Vaughan says. "It keeps everyone on their toes. We just want to be at the top of that list [of bagel shops], however long that list is."