I grew up one hour north of New York City, so bagels (and the BEST bagels in the world) have always been one of my favorite things to indulge in. As part of my project on exploring bagel culture in NYC, I wanted to get inside a popular bagel shop and see how the magic happens. Chris Pugliese, owner and operator of Tompkins Square Bagels in Manhattan’s East Village, took time out of his busy Saturday morning bagel rush to talk with me and lead me and my friend Adrienne Cooper (professional foodie and founder of Fun Foodie Tours) on a tour of his shop.
Laura: How long have you owned Tompkins Square Bagels?
Chris: We’ve been open for 6 years. We have another location on 2nd Ave.
Laura: Did you grow up in New York City?
Chris: I did, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY. When I was a kid in high school, I made bagels as a side job. I grew up in Gravesend, and we have a bagel shop out there called Bake City Bagels, it was one of my first jobs in high school.
Laura: What do you love about bagels? Eating bagels, making bagels, owning a bagel shop…
Chris: I was really trying to replicate that shop when I was a young kid. The bagel shop was the place that everybody came and got together and hung out, so I was just trying to make a little happy place for everybody. Taxi drivers, school teachers, kids, policemen, the lady who lives upstairs, and it’s a neighborhood thing. I always tell my staff the theme of this place is that we’re in the happiness business.
So we know that people are coming here to start their day, maybe before they go off to a job that isn’t necessarily their dream job, they cram into a train like a sardine, so we just want to give them a little bit of happiness, start their day off right. Maybe it’s a tourist– We want to be that little place that people remember forever. So the whole philosophy of the store is we’re in the happiness business, and we’re going to do everything we can to make people smile. If you look around the shop, we purposefully have things around the shop that are just to make you happy. New York is hard, we want to make it a little easier.
Laura: Can you describe your perfect bagel?
Chris: Sure, we hand roll and kettle boil our bagels here, so everything is done the super old-fashioned way. The perfect bagel to me, and this is kind of like an “Old New York” vs “New New York” argument, but the perfect bagel to me is a hard, crispy crust on the outside, and a doughy, chewy center. That is the perfect bagel to me. I found that when we go too far with the hard crust, we get a little kick-back from the youth who maybe didn’t grow up in New York and aren’t used to that. So we’ve sort of found a middle ground- where we have that brown, little bit of a crispy exterior, but not too hard, and still try to keep the doughy on the inside.
Laura: When you eat bagels, how do you eat them?
Chris: For me, my all-time classic favorite thing is just a sesame bagel with butter. Classic, simple, you can really taste the bagel. I think if you’re really going to judge the bagel, you should just have it plain and maybe just a little bit of butter. Our recipe goes back to the ’50s. The fellow who taught me how to make bagels in the ’80s, somebody taught him who had a shop in the ’50s, and we kept that recipe. We use things that a lot of people don’t use anymore. For example, we’ll sweeten our bagels with barley malt, which is a really thick syrup, it’s a byproduct of molasses, and it’s a lot more expensive than using just white table sugar.So little tricks like that, we’re doing that, so I think the best thing is to just taste it plain.
Laura: And not toast it….?
Chris: I mean the thing about the toasting is that hot out of the oven, when we’re literally baking them right in front of you and they’re 600 degrees, we would really prefer if you didn’t toast them. It actually burns it once you toast it. I mean, I understand. We have a lot of people here who aren’t from New York, so it’s like an automatic thing for them because they aren’t getting fresh bagels, to order it toasted.
Laura: Is there anything else about the store that you wanted to talk about? I noticed on your website that you care a lot about local artists which I thought was really cool.
Chris: Oh yeah, well this whole place is kind of my love letter the East Village, I have a long history with the East Village. I grew up in Brooklyn, but I’d always hop on the train and sneak into the East Village. And then run around looking for all the local artists that were working. At that time we had Keith Haring and Jim Powers, the mosaic man, all this great art out on the street.
When I got to open up my shop, all that love I had inside me for the East Village just came pouring out. We used all local workers to build the whole place. We built this whole place. So everything you see here from the woodwork to the glasswork to tile work is all local East Village residents.
All the art here is all local East Village artists and we let them display it here and we sell it and they keep 100%, we’re just happy to have it here.
Laura: Was it important for you to open up a shop here in the East Village?
Chris: Yeah. I love it here, I feel like this is one of the last stronghold neighborhoods of New York City that hasn’t been completely mall-ified. It’s still kind of holding on, there are a lot of people that are salt-of-the-earth New Yorkers and artists that are still here. So I wanted to be here. Where I go to work I like to like it.
Laura: What was your background before Tompkins Square Bagels?
Chris: I’ve done a lot of years in restaurants, I worked for Nobu and Sushi Samba, and I thought this was gonna be, not retirement, but I’ll have a nice little job—and people responded well to it.
Laura: New Yorkers love their bagels.
Chris: They do, I was surprised. I was actually nervous when we opened because there hadn’t been a bagel shop in the East Village, there really had been no new opening for like 20 years. So from Houston St, to about 14th st, no new bagel shops in about 20 years. And before we opened I was so nervous, I told my wife: “Maybe there’s a reason, maybe everyone’s gluten-free in the east village, we’re gonna fail!” And the day we opened the doors, people just poured in. I was really surprised.
Laura: You can never go wrong with a bagel shop, no matter where, I think you’ll always get business.
Chris: It’s like the hot restaurant of breakfast, like a club.
Adrienne: And you’re really paying tribute to the old school New York style bagels, the city needs that.
Chris then led us on a tour of the shop, showing us how the bagel dough is made, how to roll the dough, where they store them until they’re ready to be cooked, where they’re boiled, and finally the oven where they become the treat we all know and love! Phew!
And, of course, Adrienne and I had to have some bagels:
Tompkins Square Bagels is located at 165 Avenue A in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. Check them out! They make delicious NYC bagels the old fashioned way.
Check out our YouTube Channel and stay tuned for our full episode all about NYC bagels!