Eighty-year-old bialy bakery Kossar's has reopened after extensive renovations. Closed since July, the once-shabby spot has a new storefront, new equipment and new slogans like "Chewish Guilt." Adding to the bialys it bakes upstairs and the bagels it churns out in the basement, Kossar's now offers an impressive lox bagel-sandwich program (try the Czar if you like beets and salmon roe) and a line of cream cheeses. In other words, it's been completely "New New Yorked" with the sort of transformation that can make old-timers grumble and cynical transplants wish they lived in Manhattan before it was all fancy.
But here's the thing: The new Kossar's is great and not stupid expensive. A standard bagel and lox costs $8.25. According to co-owners David Zablocki and Evan Giniger, who bought Kossar's in 2013, the changes were necessary for the bakery's survival. We caught up with Zablocki at a press preview Wednesday night and talked about his new menu, new equipment, old bagel recipe and what new bagel makers are doing wrong.
What's it like renovating an 80-year-old bakery?
"It's like buying a car from 1936. How many of those are still on the road today that haven't been totally rebuilt? That's what we did, a frame-off restoration. We tried to preserve it while turning it into a machine that allows us to enter the new millennium. We've refurbished some of the equipment. [He points to the bialy maker.] We have here a machine that hasn't been made since 1950. We totally refurbished it. It has all new gears, and the engine was taken apart and rebuilt, and it's beautiful."
How much did all the renovations cost?
"North of $500,000."
How's the new equipment going to affect the goods?
"In the past, people would say, 'I wish the bialys were a little more consistent.' And I'd say, 'Well, it's a handmade product.' We've removed a few of the elements that led to that inconsistency. Our walk-in would break; the mixer would break. I've removed nine out of the 10 elements that caused those inconsistencies. Now it's just the human hands, and our human hands are the best."
With all the new sandwiches and overall appearance, the Kossar's mission has shifted.
"Yes, this bakery was built to be a wholesale bakery. In the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, the wholesale bialy business was a viable business. It's not the same today in 2016."
When did Kossar's start making bagels?
"The bagels came in in the 90s, from the owners before us. But I don't think they ever had the know-how or attention necessary to really build out their bagel program. We've revamped the bagel program here. I come here with a lot of bagel knowledge.
The bagels now are different than what they were in the 90s. I use an old Warsaw recipe. And you say, 'What does that mean?' Back in the 1800s, in Warsaw, Poland, cane sugar was not an available commodity. Sugar would have been produced from either beets or malted barley—malted grains. So I use a very heavy malt recipe for my bagels. It's very traditional to what would have gone on in Warsaw, Poland.
Most bagels today in New York City are loaded with cane sugar. We don't use a lot. We use a little bit of cane sugar. Our bagels are very old world. A lot of the bagel places around here say, 'You're crazy. How do you afford to do that?' It's the right thing to do. It's not a matter of whether I can afford to. I say, 'How are you not ashamed to do what you do?'"
Where does Kossar's bagel recipe come from?
"I learned this bagel recipe from an old-timer who was in the bagel union. He'd be like, 'Give me a cup of this, a cup of that.' He wasn't talking about a measuring cup. He meant, go get a quart of Chinese wonton soup. That was his idea of a cup. I had to rebuild this old-timer's recipe. I felt like Julia Child."
Bagels have been getting more attention than usual lately. How do you feel about the state of the bagel in New York City right now?
"All these people are new players in the game. We're 80 years in the bialy business; we're 40 years in the bagel business. We have the opportunity to really set the benchmark, and I know we will.
The bagels we're going to produce here are going to be smaller, chewier, fresher, shinier. Your jaw should hurt a little bit after a fresh bagel. It's not supposed to be Wonder dough. I love it when people come in, and they complain and go, 'Ah, you know, my daughter said that they're hard.' Well, yeah, but they were fresh. They've been whitewashed, these poor people."
Do you think bialys will ever be cool again?
"Bialys are like silver in the gold market. Bagels are the gold; they're the standard. But the room for growth in bialys is much greater. All [the New York bialy makers] have all gone away. I attribute it to the fact that there's sugar in the bagel, and a little bit of sugar makes the medicine go down. But a bilay is a fresher bread, it's a great bread and I think it's coming back. Watch. Mark my words. Fifteen years from now people are going to be copying my recipes, trying to do what we're doing, and it's because I'm the only fish in the sea right now. . . . No one does it like I do."
Do you have more plans for expansion?
"We'd like an Upper West Side location sooner than later. And, you know, I think every airport in America could have a kiosk that has Kossar's Bagels & Bialys."
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