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Bagel Bros Bring Jewish Staple Back to the City

By Jackie Headaphol July 2011

Brothers find success with Detroit Institute of Bagels.

There are a few food items that are as identifiably “made in Detroit” as the horseless carriage, seven-layer cake, Coney Island hotdogs and a certain extra-fizzy ginger ale among them. Then there are bagels.

While certainly not indigenous to the Motor City, bagels that are produced locally have telltale specifications that are unlike their New York or national chain brethren: a bit smaller, slightly crunchy outside and a less “doughy” inside. And now, local bagels have made their triumphant return to the city center, courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Bagels.

It’s a business that Ben Newman, 27, and his younger brother Dan, 23, are in the process of launching from their home in the city’s Corktown district. They plan to open a brick-and-mortar store in the first quarter of 2012.

Ben, an urban planner, said he was inspired to start a food business in the city through coursework on Detroit’s vacant properties, part of the master’s program he completed at the University of Michigan.

“New businesses in the food industry can help fill those vacant spaces, attract more people to Detroit and provide jobs,” Ben said.

Kevin Bush studied urban planning at U-M with Ben. “What the Newman brothers are trying to do,” he said, “is exactly the thing post-industrial cities like Detroit need as they try to attract and retain residents and companies.”

Why bagels? For one thing, Detroit is a “bagel desert,” said the brothers. (The lone oasis: Einstein Bros. Bagels in Midtown, near Wayne State University.)
“Besides, bagels are the quintessential Jewish food,” Ben added, “and we want to be a part of a growing Jewish community in the city.”

The Newman brothers, who grew up in Bloomfield Township, described how they initially baked several variations of bagels, tweaking each successive batch, until they settled on the right recipe. The focus group they tapped came by way of their participation last March in a three-week fundraiser for the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue.
“It was a good way to test support and help the synagogue,” Dan Newman said.

After the fundraiser concluded, the brothers kept going. New customers came from word of mouth or the Detroit Institute of Bagels’ website (detroitinstituteofbagels.com); their Facebook page now includes more than 500 fans.

Ben and Dan churn out between 10 and 15 dozen bagels a week, often rising as early as 2:30 a.m. to start baking. “The kitchen gets hot,” said Dan, who studied business and political science at the University of Michigan. “But it’s a lot more fun to knead bagels than to punch numbers in a spreadsheet.”

Their downstairs neighbor Dean Simmer, a high school teacher at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, is excited about the brothers’ venture.

“I’ve never been able to find a good bagel in the city,” said Simmer. “And living downstairs has given me ample opportunity to sample DIB bagels. I can’t wait [until they open up a shop].”

The Newmans, anticipating their storefront operation, are building their network of customers, finalizing their business plan and seeking startup capital. Navigating the city’s 800 pages of business code requirements to obtain the proper licensure has, said the brothers, also taken some time.

“One impediment to doing business in the city is its murky legislation,” Dan said. “But the City Council and Mayor Dave Bing are working on clearing it up.”

Most days, Ben and Dan go on “bagel goodwill tours” around Detroit. They bring their wares to various food vendors around the city, hoping to seed long-term relationships and pick up a few pointers along the way.

“We’re reaching out to other food businesses in the city and finding mentors,” Dan said. “We also meet once a month with other food business entrepreneurs to help one another out.”

Already, the Detroit Institute of Bagels has orders from major conference centers, hotels and businesses, as well as average city dwellers. They also sell their bagels at Eastern Market each Tuesday.

The proof, to borrow a phrase, is in the bagels: The brothers’ more esoteric offerings include olive oil, rosemary and sea salt bagels; cherry chocolate chunk; and blueberry ricotta, to name a few.

The Newmans estimate they’ll need $100,000 to set up their bagel shop; they hope to combine their own startup capital with neighborhood grants they applied for from organizations such as Tech Town and Midtown Inc. They also are “crowd-funding” on their website; crowd-funding taps into a business’ social network to raise funds and offers something in return for those who donate.

“For example, if someone gives $20 to Detroit Institute of Bagels, they will get a certificate worth a dozen bagels in return,” Dan explains.

Ben will use what he learns from launching the business and help other people establish food businesses in Detroit, he said. “I want to help revitalize the city and attract more young people. To attract those creative people, you need plenty of places to eat, drink and congregate — that’s what we envision for Detroit Institute of Bagels.” RT

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