Providence Bagel: Best thing since sliced bread
The deceptively humble bagel is a culinary art form: bagel connoisseurs are notorious for their exacting demands for just the right hard crust, just the right soft interior, and of course just the right taste. An entire literary subgenre can be found complaining about how there is nowhere to get a good bagel outside of New York City. I’m fairly sure Philip Roth got a novel out of that.
It’s easy to find a bagel but not so easy to find a good bagel, and like sushi many people don’t realize how a bagel is supposed to taste. For reasons that still mystify me, I once bought a bagel from the Walmart bakery that was so bad it seemed as if someone in Iowa who had never seen or tasted an actual bagel tried to make one from photographs and descriptions, ending up with funny-shaped white bread.
I was therefore one of what turned out to be an eager throng awaiting the opening of Providence Bagel on Friday, Jan 27, and I happened to buy the two last bagels in the store at 1pm, four hours before the planned 5pm weekday closing time. Selling 400-500 more bagels per day than expected, the main challenge for owner Chris Wietecha has been trying to keep up. Customers have packed the place since its opening day, but “I don’t want to be known as the place that sells out of bagels every day … I want to be able, every time someone comes in, to take care of them. What we’re learning in the past week is my original idea of ‘Hey, we’re going to sell X amount of bagels per day’ is completely wrong.”
Offering 21 different flavors of bagel ranging from conventional selections such as plain and pumpernickel to creative and unusual concoctions such as chocolate chip and French toast, the “everything” bagel “blows every other bagel out of the water” in popularity, Wietecha said. “Our French toast bagel has been a hit. We made that recipe up. We figured out and tested vanilla flavoring, we put actual eggs in it … There’s a lot of syrup in it, so we made it literally taste like a piece of French toast on a bagel, then we put powdered sugar on it. That bagel goes fast, too. People love that.”
During the first full week of operation, Wietecha said, the store was selling out 700 bagels daily on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 800 bagels on Thursday, and 1,000 bagels on Friday. Capacity was successfully ramped up – on the day I interviewed him, Saturday, Feb. 4, he would sell 1,600 bagels, his busiest day yet, along with 100 pounds of home-made cream cheese. In other words, sales were between two and three times beyond initial expectations, “which is a good thing, a really good thing, and I hope that it continues, but I think it just proves that there was a missing piece of the puzzle in Providence as far as the food world goes,” he said. “I’m overwhelmed by it, it’s very exciting, I didn’t expect it, and for me we haven’t had time to catch up.” The casualty has been sleep, he said. “From Wednesday to Wednesday, I think I’ve worked and been here over 100 hours. We need to change that a little bit, but the most important thing, though, is I want to be here, I want to make sure things are going well.”
Although breakfast sandwiches are expected within the next week and lunch sandwiches a week after that, for now the effort is focused on making bagels fast enough, Wietecha said. “The staff, everyone, is doing an awesome job. My goal was to have a soft opening and I didn’t do much marketing to start, so I did social media and that’s it, no standard typical marketing and advertising, and I was hoping the staff could kind of get the hang of things, but it wasn’t like that,” he said. “I explained it like this to my mom: It’s kind of like a play where we’re all actors and actresses and we know our parts, we’ve practiced our parts, we know when to sing what songs, and then when the curtain went up we didn’t know are you going to laugh at this scene or are you not going to. That’s how it was opening day. We knew what to do, but we weren’t expecting that kind of response,” he said. “Every day we’ve gotten better and better.”
Providence Bagel uses state-of-the-art kitchen equipment made in Italy, according to Wietecha, in a two-day process. Dough is mixed, sent through a forming and dividing machine, and the individual dough bagels are proofed and refrigerated overnight to allow the yeast to rise. The next day, beginning at 3am, the dough bagels are reproofed to “wake the yeast back up.” Instead of traditional boiling in vats, the dough bagels are baked in a special machine that produces the distinctive hard crust and soft inside that defines the classic bagel. The old kettle boiling method is unsafe, Wietecha said, and his insurance company specifically told him they would have declined to underwrite his business if he used it. Despite the automation, the process is closely supervised by Wietecha – “some bake faster than others,” he explains – and requires constant hands-on attention.
“When I started this project two years ago, my first idea was, where am I going to get a recipe from, because it’s super important, and what equipment am I going to be using, because there are a lot of options out there. I met this guy from Long Island who has been in the business for fifty years … We ended up spending a couple of days going through stuff. He took us on a bagel tour: ‘This is the equipment these guys are using, this is the equipment those guys are using.’ New York City has changed in its years as well. In its early years everyone was doing the same exact thing and everyone was using a kettle boiler, an oven, and that’s it,” Wietecha said.
“In the last thirty years, especially in New York City which is the bagel capital of the world, a lot of them have switched over to what we’re doing. If you are in New York City, 60 to 70 percent of the places are doing the exact same thing that we’re doing. We get miffed around everyone saying, ‘Oh, it’s not a New York-style bagel unless it’s a boiled bagel,’ which is not true. It’s just this mindset that people have, but this is a New York recipe we’re using. It’s from [our consultant’s] fifty or sixty year-old family recipe, he’s been in the business for a long time … This process is more efficient, everything is made from scratch still, we use the barley liquid malt. A lot of people – the Dunkin Donuts, the Paneras, even Bruegger’s now, and even a couple of the big, big, big chains – they’ve switched over to powder malt which is a lot cheaper, it’s a lot easier to use, it’s not messy, but we still use the barley liquid malt that gives you the taste and the flavor and that sort of crunch on the outside.”
Wietecha emphasized that he doesn’t even have a freezer and everything is made fresh. He said Providence Bagel is introducing Beanstock organic and fair-trade coffee to the area. “I’m excited to bring Beanstock here because it’s new, it’s very good, very well known down the Cape,” he said. “The owner of Beanstock, John, is an awesome guy. He’s super passionate about the coffee and so much goes into it that it’s not this mass-produced thing, they’re a very small roaster and there’s a lot of love that goes into their coffee.” In addition to hot coffee, “We don’t even have regular iced coffee, we just have cold-brew, it takes 24 hours to make. We make it in 2.5-gallon buckets… and it’s the most pure form of coffee you can actually drink.” Popular out West, he said, Providence Bagel introduces cold-brew coffee sales by 64 fluid-ounce growler, $7 for the empty growler and refills for $15, that can be kept refrigerated up to 30 days after opening.
Wietecha said he grew up in North Attleboro, MA, but his father owned an advertising agency in Providence for 30 years. “I always came down here as a kid and I always used to go to Barney’s,” the well known Jewish deli on the East Side now long defunct. “We always got off the exit and went to Barney’s anytime we went to his work, we’d always bring stuff home, so growing up I always had good bagels.” After college and moving out West, he moved back and was living in Boston. “My wife and I went to a wedding a few years ago in Providence, and the next morning we got up and went on Yelp – ‘Where is there a bagel place?’ – because we were going to get coffee and leave.” He was surprised to find a listing for only one “real bagel place” in Providence. “This market, this is a very ‘food’ city, there’s a lot of food places, it’s a city I like a lot, it’s small yet big with a big feel, and I started doing some research and here we are two years later.”
“Finding a location took a while because we were looking at Thayer Street, we looked in Wayland Square, we looked on Hope Street. We had a couple of really good leads, we had a couple of almost-leases signed,” Wietecha said. The site he eventually chose, the former Honeydew Donuts on North Main Street, was in “super disarray with graffiti everywhere” and required four months of reconstruction “totally down to studs.”
The location came with a drive-through window, Wietecha said. “The drive-through was never in my original idea. Throughout the country, there’s not many real bagel shops that have a drive-through. I don’t know any place, I’ve never heard of a place, where you can go through a drive-through, get a fresh-baked bagel, a really good coffee, and lox on your bagel, fresh-sliced lox. You can’t get that anywhere, that doesn’t even exist. Everything is fresh. When you order lox, we’re literally going in the back and cutting it.” From the seven days of data since opening, he said, about 30% of the business has been via the drive-through.
A lot of thought was invested in the architecture, Wietecha said, and his goal was to create an open and comfortable functional space with a lot of light, not a European-style cafe. There are 16 seats and a take-away counter, but the centerpiece of the room is a floor-to-ceiling glass display case for – what else? – the bagels. Two vertical side-by-side racks hold trays neatly labeled with the many different flavors and varieties of bagels, fresh out of the oven. To me, it’s almost the anti-Dunkin Donuts. “When there’s a line, people can see, almost touch, what they’re about to get,” Wietecha said. “I wanted it to be the bagels on display, this is what we are. It describes and defines what we are: we are a bagel shop.”
A similarly functional ethos guided the choice of the company name and logo, a single-line abstract version of the urban skyline. “It’s such a simple name, ‘Providence Bagel,’ very simple. I didn’t want to do some extravagant name that people were like ‘What is it?’ where you have to think about what it is. This is, ‘Oh, it’s a bagel shop, in Providence.’”
Although Wietecha issues aprons to the staff, he consciously decided not to have uniforms. “All of the staff are wearing something that defines them and who they are, and I never wanted to go in this place where everyone’s wearing a ‘Providence Bagel’ T-shirt or everyone’s wearing the same exact thing,” he said.
He’s trying to set up relationships with charitable organizations, he said. “At the end of the night we will have some bagels left over, we unfortunately haven’t yet but I’m sure there’s going to be a point where we have bagels left over. I’ll never sell a day-old bagel, so my goal is to donate those at the end of the night somewhere.”
I told Wietecha that every time I’ve come in during his first week, I’ve run into either family or friends, and he said a number of people said the same thing. “That’s why I like this city, because there’s a real community feel to it, and my goal is to be really community-driven. I want to be able to give back to the community. I want to be a partner in the community.”