Has the San Francisco bagel arrived?

The sourdough bagel marks a disruptive moment for the 15th-century bread with a hole

On a low-lit Mission District night, after Tartine Bakery had closed, baker Nick Beitcher kept working. A line snaked down the sidewalk of Guerrero Street, just like a typical Saturday morning at Tartine. But the sun was down. San Franciscans were in the queue not for their morning buns. They were there for bagels.

Beitcher’s bagels are not the semi-stale bagels you find at chain stores across the country. They are not the yeasted bagels you find in a classic Jewish bakery in New York. They are California bagels. San Francisco bagels. Sourdough bagels.

Beitcher sold out his bagels that night. He’s been on a hot streak since opening Midnite Bagel in 2019, and is just one of several Bay Area bagel innovators looking to change the narrative on the 15th-century bread with a hole. Boichik Bagel in Berkeley has received attention. Daily Driver, with its wood-fired organic bagels, is also getting high marks.

But sourdough bagels are making a lane of their own — forcing bagel lovers to start thinking about what makes a bagel a bagel and whether San Francisco is on the cutting edge.

“Bagels have been a static thing for so long,” Beitcher said. “Younger people — who are used to creative restaurants and eating fresh, local produce — aren’t satisfied with the bagels their grandparents ate.”

That’s why Beitcher started his pop-up business Midnite Bagels and why he isn’t surprised it’s become a hit. After having ascended to head baker at Tartine, where he worked from 2014 to 2019, he uses the bakery kitchen for his evening enterprise. It feels fitting that Beitcher’s sourdough bagels are made at Tartine, which is widely recognized for changing artisanal baking game.

Alex Rogers, owner and founder of Chicken Dog Bagels in San Francisco, which also specializes in sourdough, recounts that he first made the tangy bread using Tartine’s 2010 cookbook, “Tartine Bread.”

“Some people say we’re not making bagels,” Rogers said of Chicken Dog. “People wrinkle their nose up at the concept.”

Midnite sells its sourdough bagels at the Ferry Building on Saturdays to enthusiastic crowds, and at small businesses including the cafe at Manny’s. The Everything Bagel, always sourdough, is a huge hit, yet customers also can buy a kimchi and cream cheese bagel sandwich if they want to try something more avant garde. At Chicken Dog Bagels, bagel sandwiches range from babaganoush to pimiento with jammy egg.

Until recently, San Francisco and California were in a kind of bagel purgatory. In the late 1980s, the industrial bagel steamer was invented and mass-produced bagels swept the nation. Steaming is fine, but there’s no chew on the crust. That’s a huge issue for people who love bagels.

For Beitcher, growing up in a Jewish family, bagels with cream cheese and lox was the “closest thing to an ethnic food” he had. He was raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., and lived in Los Angeles before heading north.

When he left Tartine in 2019, he didn’t think San Francisco needed another bread bakery. “I thought a better use of my experience was to try and give San Francisco a bagel that fit into that scene,” Beitcher said. “I feel like sourdough bagels aren’t too much of a stretch.”

“I admired Chad [Robertson] constantly evolving his bread,” Beitcher continued, referring to Tartine’s co-owner. “His approach opened up new possibilities.”

Glenda Doughtery, founder and owner of The Bagel Mill in Petaluma, remembers as a kid in Sebastapol the sadness of the cakey, not-boiled bagel — and the discovery of the satisfying bagel on her first visit to the Big Apple.

Doughtery knows that boiling the dough is what makes a bagel a bagel. She founded her business two years ago, and in that short time feels she is part of the changing Norcal bagel landscape, especially when it comes to sourdough.

“People used to get upset that we were doing sourdough,” Dougherty said. “More and more, they seek us out for that reason.”

Beitcher argues that bagels are like heirloom tomatoes. A generation ago, it was a novelty to care about a food’s quality, freshness or origins. Now, attention to these factors is mainstream. Beitcher thinks it’s a good thing for the Jewish community in particular to treat food culture with a progressive lens.

“Why shouldn’t we care about bagels or any food being viewed in a similar way?” Beichter asked.

For her part, Doughtery is clear that The Bagel Mill is not a traditional Jewish bakery. At the beginning, some folks raised eyebrows at her bagels, but over time such suspicions have died down.

“We feel we can play around with bagels,” Doughtery explained.

After mob thefts, Black Friday offers glimmers of hope for retailers

Shoppers hunted for deals amidst heightened security

By Sydney Johnson
SF unveils plan to encourage holiday shopping at small businesses

Effort includes trolley to take shoppers into neighborhoods

By Bay City News