Henry and Maria Herzbrun debuted Bagel Express in Palmetto Bay on September 15, 1992. "Right after Hurricane Andrew," recalls Henry. "For the first two years we used to hand roll our own bagels."
He had a partner back then, and they were trained in the disappearing craft of hand-rolling bagels by "an old-timer from New York." A machine now performs the task of rolling at the Herzbrun bagel shop and deli, but everything else about the bagel is prepared the old-fashioned way. The flavors include salt, sesame, plain, pumpernickel, poppy, sesame, garlic, onion, egg, everything, cinnamon-raisin, and plain (if you're thinking more along the lines of blueberry or chocolate chip, you've got the wrong place). The small strip mall store also proffers hand-sliced Nova, cream cheese in various flavors, buttery rugelah, bagel sandwiches culled from Boar's Head cold cuts ("I used them before Publix"), and Dr. Brown sodas, natch.
I visited Bagel Express yesterday, shared a Nova platter with my wife, and took home some of the great bagels. Afterwards I spoke with Henry about the differences between his bagels and those at the chains, how the business has changed, and whether or not, after all of these years, he still eats bagels.
New Times: How much did you charge for a bagel when you first opened?
Henry Herzbrun: I think it was 49 cents.
They're $1.35. I made more margins at $4.99 a dozen than I'm making now at $11.95.
The cost of food, the cost of insurance, the cost of running a business, everything involved -- fees, permits, licensing, the different requirements...
Why did you make the decision to switch to machine-rolled bagels?
The old type of machinery, a Scale-O-Matic, had a piston drive that would push air out of the bagels. Then, about 18 or 20 years ago, they came up with machines that were belt-driven...so you could produce a fluffy bagel. The other way, the next day you would have bagels so hard they were like jawbreakers.
But unlike most bagel chains, you do everything else the way it used to be done.
With the newer places like Einstein's and Panera they stick an entire rack (of bagels) into the oven and it steams. And they make them ahead of time. We do a New York-style bagel. We let them rise, we boil them, we put them on bagel boards, seed them and everything else. It makes a big difference. The quality is much better.
The way we do it is labor intensive, and a lot more expensive to make. The materials are more expensive than before, but making a bagel is still labor cost more than anything. You can almost go with a one-man operation once you've prepared the bagels.
What's the main difference in finished product between the two types of bagels?
The new style, with the steam ovens, is more like a piece of bread. You want that chewiness to it, a little bit of crust to it. We actually bake our bagels a little lighter here than I like them, because that's what our clients want. I prefer a harder crust and softer inside. But if you give those to our clientele they think it's burned.
Who makes up your clientele?
Now it's probably over 50 percent Hispanic-American.There's a much smaller Jewish population than when we first opened; it became a more predominantly Hispanic neighborhood after the hurricane. We've basically reinvented along the way as the demographic changed. Originally, we did retail only but then we added wholesale. We've been providing bagels for local Dade County schools for about 12 years now. We also supply to some restaurants, like Roasters' n Toasters, Joanna's Marketplace, Norman Brothers Produce...
Do you still eat bagels?
Every day. Different kinds. In the morning I'll have half a bagel or a bagel. And they're very good -- 11 grams of protein, less than one gram of fat, and a lot of carbs, but it's the complex carbs.
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Do you like to get them straight out of the oven?
Of course. The worst bagel or bread in the world, when it first comes out of the oven tastes delicious.
Have any plans to hang it up and pass along the business?
I'll probably retire about twenty years after I die.