Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly’s bagel scene keeps getting better. Meet its newest bakers.

They're taking oven space where they can get it, and not making compromises.

Sarah Thompson, of Tall Poppy Bagels, pulls a pan of bagels out in anticipation of the crowd that will come down to the “pop down” at Liberty Kitchen on Sunday, January 26, 2020. She sent a notice out on Instagram that she would be selling bagels on Sunday morning and fans of her bagels showed up to buy them.
Sarah Thompson, of Tall Poppy Bagels, pulls a pan of bagels out in anticipation of the crowd that will come down to the “pop down” at Liberty Kitchen on Sunday, January 26, 2020. She sent a notice out on Instagram that she would be selling bagels on Sunday morning and fans of her bagels showed up to buy them.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

It used to be hard to find a decent bagel in Philly. But the 2010s brought us into a new age.

The Bon Appétit-approved Philly Style Bagels set up shop in Fishtown. Stalwart South Street Philly Bagels expanded to Center City, Graduate Hospital, and East Passyunk. Knead in Washington Square introduced nontraditional flavors, topping bagels with then-novel flavors like za’atar and togarashi.

Since then, Montreal-style Spread Bagelry has grown a flagship shop in Rittenhouse to four locations — two of which include taprooms — with two more on the way. And full-service bakeries like Kettle Black in Northern Liberties and Essen and Vanilya in South Philly are turning out their own excellent takes.

And yet another Philly bagel boom is bubbling, driven by bakers who started selling bagels from their home ovens, at few and far between pop-up brunches, and via Instagram. These scrappy bagel makers match the economic and culinary mood, often taking creative approaches to how they structure their businesses, raise capital, and reach customers. More than just breakfast, their products are highly personal labors of love.

Butcher, baker, and brewer Sarah Thompson has been popping up with chewy, crackle-crusted bagels at Fishtown deli Liberty Kitchen under the name Tall Poppy since last summer. New York-born and Maryland-raised, she grew up eating poppy seed bagels every day. (While attending high school in Bucks County — in a twist straight out of Seinfeld — she once tested positive for opiates thanks to her devotion to her favorite flavor.) She learned to make bagels herself at a post-culinary school gig baking for restaurants in Washington state.

“That was really my zen space,” Thompson said. “The process of rolling out [dough] was so centering, and I loved it.”

Now, she uses periodic pop-ups to keep her skills sharp while she focuses on charcuterie production for a Philly restaurant during the week. Her “sort of New York”-style bagels are served hot along with cream cheese blended with roasted garlic and sage or smoked bluefish, her father’s favorite.

The pop-up model allows Thompson to flex and explore — not only with bagels, but with lofty, cat-head buttermilk biscuits and maybe her own charcuterie someday — without having to commit to baking full-time.

“I love making bagels, [but] I don't want to make it like a chore,” she said. “I want to do that for the love of bagels, [not] for money.”

That passion and independence also drove Dodo Bagels founder Alex Malamy to grow his home-bagel habit into a business.

“I knew that I loved making bagels and getting them in people's hands. And I knew that I wanted to work for myself in some capacity,” Malamy said.

His sturdy, crisp-crusted bagel remixes New York, New Jersey, and Montreal styles. “It’s … a piece of my heritage,” the native New Yorker said. “I want to be making a bagel that feels traditional, but if I want to do something more creative with the bagel itself or the sandwich, it's still approachable and familiar.”

Dodo Bagels toppings are mostly traditional, aside from the floral, aromatic French Thing, sprinkled with lavender buds, fennel seeds, thyme, sesame, and salt. But his rotating selection of offbeat bagel sandwiches — like the Ramen Thing, with sliced-to-order boiled egg, pickled ginger, bamboo shoots, fresh scallions, fresh-ground toasted sesame seeds, crispy dried seaweed, and spicy mayo — has become one of Dodo’s biggest draws.

After piloting a successful subscription for friends and neighbors out of his home oven in early 2017, Malamy decided to leave his longtime gig as a buyer for West Philly’s Mariposa Co-op. He spent a month apprenticing with artisan bakery Lost Bread, then quit his day job to devote himself to building a business, doing preorder bakes out of his apartment for a small army of fans.

Last year, he hooked up with the owners of Pitruco Pizza at Franklin’s Table, University of Pennsylvania’s food hall, to use their space to mix ingredients, shape, boil, and bake his bagels once a week. He got a stand at the Clark Park farmers market on Saturdays, where he’d often sell out of sandwiches before noon. When logistics at the pizzeria pushed his production night to Saturday, he began popping up on select Sunday mornings at Lil Pop Shop in University City, where lines typically snake out the door.

Despite clear demand, Malamy is still looking for a shop to call his own somewhere in Spruce Hill or Cedar Park. Finding the right fit has been a challenge: Start-up costs, high rents in a gentrified neighborhood, and a low stock of vacant restaurant spaces in the area have kept him from moving to the next step.

Across the river in South Philly, Phil Korshak found himself in a similar situation: a baker in search of a home.

Korshak baked his first bagels to sate wife Kendra’s craving for the real thing after the couple moved from New York to Texas. For him, baking is a form of self-expression.

“You’re making this small-batch stuff by passion, because you have to,” he says. “Everything that you make starts, and a couple days later, it will be the bagel that it’s supposed to be. You’re making this food that you love because you love it. Not because you know that if you sell a thousand more of them, you’ll get to go to [the] Caymans.”

After moving to Philly two years ago, the poetry Ph.D. and former manager of Austin’s Home Slice Pizza, started selling his substantial yet ethereally fluffy bagels — he likens their shiny, leathery crusts to go-go boots — to eager Instagram followers.

During a yearlong stint in 2019 making dough for Angelo’s Pizzeria in the Italian Market, Korshak was able to share oven space and hold a few pop-up sales. In recent months, he has paused sales to devote himself to finding his own place to open a bakery full-time.

As with his sourdough-fed recipe, which takes two and a half days from start to finish, Korshak envisions an operation in which employees are paid at least double the current minimum wage and provided with health care, where he and his staff can work at a sane pace — a shop that develops a positive and long-standing relationship with its community.

“I want to run this tiny, tiny shop that … exists for the livelihood of the neighborhood around it and vice versa,” he says.

Recently, his search paid off: He’s signing a lease for a former deli space at 10th and Morris. Even better, the property has a baking legacy: It was owned by the Varallo family, who have kept the neighborhood in breads, cakes, and cannoli for nearly 40 years. “I’m so ridiculously lucky,” Korshak said.

If all goes well, he’ll open in early summer. As for funding, he’s encouraged by the way Philly Style Bagels purchased its oven in 2015 — with help from a crowdfunding campaign that raised $24,000 in donations.

In Mantua, just west of the Drexel University campus, the shiny, just-opened Bart’s Bagels represents another path to a brick-and-mortar. Founder and co-owner Brett Frankel started baking at home four years ago in an attempt to recreate the chewy, crusty Brooklyn-style bagels he and his brother/business partner, Kyle, ate on trips to New York as kids.

After debuting two years ago with a brunch pop-up at now-closed Jewish deli the Rooster in collaboration with Zahav and Abe Fisher, the Bala Cynwyd-raised Frankel brothers focused on securing a production space that could one day become a shop.

They partnered with nonprofit community organization Peoples’ Emergency Center to lease their bakery at 40th and Lancaster, which also secured government grants that would pay for much of the build-out and large-scale equipment like a rotating bagel oven, dough mixer, and bagel shaper. From a window that opens into the bakery, customers can see their breakfast going from kettle to oven.

The retail shop also sells a wide array of hard-to-find smoked fish to go with their bagels, scratch-made schmears, and breakfast sandwiches — part of the New York bagel-shop vibe the Frankels set out to create.

“Food has always been a passion of mine,” Brett Frankel said. “The whole experience — seeing bagels baked in morning, seeing people in the back prepping — you’re a part of it, and you belong there.”

Bart’s Bagels is open Wednesday through Sunday at 3945 Lancaster Ave. Catch Dodo Bagels at Lil Pop Shop on the Sunday mornings of Feb. 9, 16, and 23. Follow Tall Poppy on Instagram (@tallpoppy_projects) to find out about her next pop-up, and stay up-to-date on Phil Korshak’s bagel dreams on @korshak.bagels.poetry.