NYLP: Welcome to the third episode of the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new startups, businesses, and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith, and stepping onto the Launch Pod is Bari Musacchio and Matthew Gray, the owner and general manager of one of my favorite places to eat, Baz Bagel, located in Nolita. Welcome to the podcast Bari and Matthew.
Bari: Hi, Hal, we’re so happy to be here.
Matthew: Thanks for having us.
NYLP: What is Baz Bagel in your own words?
Bari: Baz Bagel is a neighborhood restaurant and bagel shop. We do all of our bagels in house. We hand roll them and bake them in the traditional New York way. We also have a little diner. We’re trying to be a nice part of a historic neighborhood that has a lot of old residents and new residents and be part of the framework.
NYLP: You mentioned bagels are a big part of your business. It’s actually in the name. What is a New York style bagel for people who don’t know?
Matthew: There’s a huge history of New York style bagels. It’s about how you make the bagel which comes from a hand rolling. Every bagel we make in the store is hand rolled by one roller. The bagels are made with malt, which is a traditional ingredient for New York style bagels. After that, you kettle boil them, you bake them, then they’re served. It creates a nice traditional taste and flavor and crunch to the bagel.
NYLP: How did you come up with the recipe for the bagel?
Bari: Well, bagel making was a hobby that I had. I was always working in Italian restaurants and had a natural love of bagels. I staged, like a little internship that you would do in a bakery. I did one in a bagel bakery to see in the event that I ever opened a bagel store what it would be like. I also took a small bread baking class specializing in bagels at French Culinary Institute. Then, a space opened up and it showed the light for bagels, and we decided to go for it.
NYLP: How many bagels did you have to make before you came up with your recipe?
Bari: A million. (laughter) I don’t know. The number was quite large, because you’re deciding the size of the bagel, the density of the bagel, the flavors of the bagel, is it going to have salt, is it not, how much salt is it going to have, what’s the ratio that you’re going to want cream cheese and salmon on the bagel. It took a lot of trial and error, but finally we were able to come up with the exact bagel that we wanted to work with.
NYLP: How did you come up with the name?
Bari: Baz is just a nickname I had growing up as a child. I don’t really know how it came about, but it was something that kids used to call me and my dad used to call me. When I was opening the store I went through so many names, and this had some family history in it. It was a nickname I had growing up. It had some nostalgia. It had some mystery to it. I couldn’t think of a better name for the store.
NYLP: You mentioned briefly that the space just opened up. How did you come across the location?
Bari: Well, I live across the street from the store, so that was a part of it. We have some great neighbors down the street at a store called American Two Shot. They passed by the store that had just opened up, and they wrote us like why don’t you guys take a look at this space, I know you were looking in the neighborhood and it’s across from your house. I did take a look at it. At first, I wasn’t really 100% on that location. I had my eye on things in a few other areas. Once I opened the door, it came together for me. The way the kitchen and the layout. I all of a sudden saw a beautiful luncheonette in there.
NYLP: How long did you have the idea before you opened the restaurant?
Bari: Seriously, about five years. I had taken a look at some spaces before my last semi long term job before then and thought that’s when I was going to open the bagel store. I was ready to go. I was offered a job at Rubirosa Restaurant to be their general manager, which was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I did that for about four years and then did the bagel concept afterwards.
NYLP: What did you do to prepare for that five years?
Bari: I opened up a restaurant from scratch from a construction site. They had just signed the lease and they really needed everything done from choosing a designer, doing the construction, law, liquor license, everything. I thought it was a great opportunity to learn how to open a restaurant, also, on someone else’s dime, but working with a family that had a lot of history in the restaurant business and also trying to take their historic restaurant and bring it to a modern level. It was nice to have the values rooted in a family but also bring it to 2015 and how to open a business in that time period.
NYLP: How did you two meet, you and Matthew?
Matthew: We met at Rubirosa Restaurant. I began working there as a server within their first year of opening. Bari and I met. She was the general manager there. We became fast employee-manager friends at that point.
Bari: Yeah, we got each other early on. Matthew was such a great employee. He lit up the room and you could definitely tell there was something special there. When I was opening up Baz, I got a wonderfully written letter from Matthew saying he would love to be part of the process from the creative aspect to helping build the restaurant to eventually running the entire restaurant. I couldn’t think of a better fit for the store.
NYLP: How do you divide the responsibilities between you two?
Bari: I think that I usually handle more of the numbers and logistics and the general operations. I’ll filter what has to get done through Matthew, and he’ll figure out the best way to allocate our staff and manage our kitchen team in order to meet the guidelines that are set.
NYLP: What’s the primary food that you sell? Is it bagels?
Matthew: I think that we’ve found since our inception that bagels are the mainstay of what the customers want. I think that’s what we do the best. It’s what we’re known for at this point. It’s what everyone comes and really wants from the store. While we sell a number of other items, bagels are the hot seller.
NYLP: How many bagels do you sell in a day?
Bari: We sell about 500 in the store, and we do another 700 in wholesale, so about 1200 a day on average.
NYLP: How do the sales break down between in store versus catering?
Bari: Well, it’s funny. When we opened the restaurant, you think I’m opening a restaurant, everything’s going to happen inside. What we’ve learned is that about 60% of our sales take place in the actual doors of the restaurant. The other 40% is food that’s leaving the restaurant. That’s catering, wholesale, and general deliveries making up 40% that’s outside the doors. It’s been a very interesting dynamic and learning process to see so much food people are wanting to consume outside of our doors as well as inside.
NYLP: How far away can someone get a Baz bagel?
Bari: Anywhere. We ship all over the country. We also deliver to any of the five boroughs. We deliver to New Jersey, to Westchester. We do a fair delivery price, basically the cost that it would get to you and get the bagel back. We’re not trying to make money off delivery. We’re just trying to get you a fresh product if you’d like to have our bagel.
NYLP: What’s the furthest place away from New York City that you sell wholesale?
Bari: For wholesale right now I’ll let you know very soon, because we just got a big catalog deal. Our frozen bagels will be in a national gourmet food catalog. They’ll be all over the country. In terms of shipping, we’ve shipped to California, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida, so the bagels are definitely making their… Oh, actually, I know the furthest place, Dubai. The bagels have been to Dubai. They went with a pilot the other day that came in, put them in his bag, and brought a bunch to my sister’s first grade class in Dubai.
NYLP: You said that you’re a neighborhood place but you have accounts in California and Nevada. How did these people hear about you?
Bari: Well, at the beginning, we were fortunate enough to get some really nice press, including a big feature in the New York Times. Once that article came out, it hit nationwide, so we started getting all these bagel aficionados from all over the country that wanted our bagels and would pay top dollar to get a New York bagel sent to them. A lot of them were people that grew up in New York, moved to other areas, and were craving this home town nostalgia that we have in our bagel.
NYLP: After the initial press boost, how do you keep the restaurant sustaining?
Bari: We rely on the local neighbors. We have people that come to the restaurant five times a week. That’s our bread and butter. That’s our favorite customers. They come in, buy a bagel with butter, scrambled eggs and bagels. They’re the type of people that are making up the framework and the fabric of our restaurant. That’s how we keep it going.
NYLP: What percentage of your customers would you say are repeat customers?
Bari: Seventy percent are neighborhood regulars. We’re in Little Italy. Nolita, Soho, it’s a very big tourist area as well. I’d say about 30% of our early morning business is coming from one or two time customers or tourists that are staying in a hotel nearby. They’ll come five days a week as their New York breakfast in the morning. It’s fun for us to have a tourist clientele as well, because we’re becoming such a memory for them in their New York experience. They come to us every day in the morning, then they go and visit New York. At the end of the day, they see the Statue of Liberty once, they see Empire State Building once, but they go to Baz Bagel five times. That’s the kind of stuff that you remember on a trip, hanging out with our waitresses and us, and us remembering your order. They send their friends there, next time they come and visit. It’s a nice little weird regular dynamic, although everyone’s coming from all over the world.
NYLP: How do they hear about you?
Bari: I think a lot of it’s walking by, word of mouth. We don’t do a ton of advertising and press. We rely on people passing the word along.
NYLP: How many hours do each of you spend in the restaurant itself?
Matthew: As many as possible. (laughter) I don’t think either of us count our hours that we do in a week. We are there until the job is done. For us, we have a lot of fun doing the job. It’s the first year of a new business. We’re growing it. We’re seeing it prosper. We’re having a fun time doing it. We’re meeting new people. We’re expanding a business. I have no idea how many hours I put in.
Bari: No idea.
NYLP: What’s the toughest part of being in the restaurant business?
Bari: I think relying on other people. Matthew and I are fortunate to be able to depend on each other so much. You’re dealing with staff. You’re dealing with vendors. You’re dealing with contractors, other accounts, wholesale accounts. Having to be able to… Even if you’re prepared 100% at the beginning of the day, it doesn’t mean all the pieces of the puzzle are prepared. A lot of it’s troubleshooting from a late delivery or somebody changed their order at the last minute or an employee’s late and being able to maintain the energy and the flow in this cool, calm, and collected way but also provide excellent service, get the customer what they need. Even though you came prepared, sometimes recognizing that the whole ecosystem of the restaurant or the restaurant world that gets you the food that you need sometimes doesn’t exactly run as seamlessly as you do.
NYLP: How do you keep your staff motivated?
Matthew: We have a good time. At the end of the day, we’re making bagels and eggs and a party. We’re having a good time every day. I think that keeping everyone motivated has never been a hard part for Bari or I. We have a good time while we’re in the restaurant.
Bari: We have flamingo straws in our milkshakes. I don’t know. We let everyone have fun and express their personality. There’re definitely the steps of service that we follow, but we let people do it in their own way and express their own personality. Like the uniform, we wear old school white shirts on the top, but everyone can wear whatever they want underneath it. I think that’s fun for the girls and the guys to be able to show a little bit of their personality through there. Everyone can be themselves at Baz.
NYLP: That’s one of the things I wanted to talk about. The design inside of Baz Bagel is fantastic. How did you come up with that?
Bari: It’s all of my favorite things in one store. That’s where it came from. A lot of it over time you start seeing, picking up on different design elements that you like and different restaurants and themes and colors. In my mind, they started sticking in this weird registry. For the store, I wanted something that definitely hit a nostalgic point but in the same way existed in a modern way. If you walk into the store, you can’t really pinpoint is it from 1940? Is it from 1960? Is it from 2015? It’s very original. We put a lot of items in there that are found, that we built ourselves. I didn’t want to make it into any sort of exact theme but a little bit of everything to make people feel comfortable and welcome no matter what age group or demographic you’re coming from.
NYLP: Aside from testing out a million bagels, how did you come up with the recipes?
Bari: Taking a bagel that we like the most and then tweaking it. We found one bagel at Goldberg’s Bagel in New Jersey that was a very similar bagel to what we wanted to do. Then, we kept tweaking and tweaking and tweaking it until we got to the right place. Luckily, we also have a lot of old timer bagel guys that work in the store, too, so we have a lot of experience. When we said we wanted something that was a little bit more chewier and slightly more crunchier, they were able to have the skill set to make those adjustments pretty quickly in order for us to be able to have the exact bagel we wanted.
NYLP: Start to finish, how long does it take to make a bagel?
Bari: Well, the process starts the day before. We roll bagels the day before. Then, they rest in a dough retarder which is basically like a walk-in refrigerator that is at a specific temperature in order to let the dough ferment over time. Then, once we’re ready to bake it, we boil the bagels for about a minute or so, depending on where they’re proof to. Then, in the oven anywhere between 18 and 30 minutes is a typical bake.
NYLP: How do you predict how many bagels to make for the next day?
Bari: For most of our catering orders and big orders, they come the day before, so we have a plan of what we’re going to do. For the store and wholesale, it’s pretty much on a regular basis. We always keep extra bagels. A bagel can sit for a day or two afterwards with the fermentation process, so there are always extra in there in case we have a ton of extra bagels we need to make.
NYLP: Aside from bagels, one of the things is that you were named best blintz in New York Magazine. Tell me about that.
Matthew: Our blintzes have been named in New York Magazine which is great for us. We are really happy to have a lot of local ingredients included in our blintzes. We use Alleva’s ricotta cheese which is across the street from us in Little Italy.
NYLP: Did you always know that you were going to use the ricotta cheese across the street?
Bari: Typically, you use farmer’s cheese. We were looking into that. Ricotta cheese is a very similar type of cheese. When we were doing recipe testing, we went across the street. It’s a hundred year old adorable historic bakery and dairy. We went over there, got the cheese, brought it over, and we tried it with the recipe. It ended up working out so well that we figured why not, let’s just keep it.
NYLP: What about the other items on the menu? How did you come up with those?
Matthew: A lot of the items are very traditional. A lot of them come from various grandmothers’ recipes. Joyce, who has a lot of great recipes, her latkes are on the menu. We have a lot of other traditional items like classic diner items, pancakes, grilled cheese with challah, things like this that you’ll find in traditional diners, comfort food, traditional recipes. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with anything. A lot of this is very home spun, easy menu items that taste great and are very well done.
NYLP: What are the hours of the restaurant?
Matthew: We are open from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, then 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
NYLP: Is it a challenge being open only until 4 p.m. or 6 p.m.?
Matthew: No. For us, we’ve found that our traditional customer base is wanting our product during those hours. The morning hours are especially busy. Obviously, between the hours of 7 until 10 o’clock, we have a lot of people come in pre-work to get their bagel, their coffee, grab their eggs. We have a huge lunch crowd that comes in for lunch every day. After the hours of 4…
Bari: After the hours of 4 o’clock, we decided that time is best used because we have our wholesale starting at midnight, so we start rolling bagels for the next day. The volume is so high, and we are a tiny neighborhood restaurant. We pay rent 24 hours a day. So, 4 p.m., we start preparing for the next day and getting things ready.
NYLP: Is rent your biggest expense?
Bari: Rent is our biggest expense, then labor is also a huge expense for us. In the bagel world, you have very specialized positions. You can’t just say the dishwasher will roll the bagels when he’s not washing dishes and the baker will just cook eggs when he’s not baking bagels. It doesn’t work like that. We’re working with a very, very old traditional way of doing these things, so there’s a limited amount of talent that can actually hand roll a bagel, that can bake a bagel in our way. We have to keep people in specialized roles which makes labor and rent our biggest challenge.
NYLP: Tell me about Baz Bingo.
Matthew: Baz Bingo is a special event that we throw every other Wednesday at the restaurant. It is a fun, all out event for people who come to it from the neighborhood or from anywhere in the city or otherwise. It’s not only bingo, but it’s a fun event full of music and mayhem for everyone. We also serve a lot of our diner classics that evening, a lot of our most specialty items from the menu.
NYLP: Do you guys have any plans to expand?
Bari: I think expansion is a very tricky thing, especially when it comes to new restaurants in New York right now. People are opening the doors, and six months later they have three locations, and this, and that, a food court. For us, we’re really harboring a neighborhood business. We want to be part of a neighborhood. We want to be a restaurant that’s of the area, of the location. That’s why we opened the store. We didn’t open the store with the framework to have 12 of them or become like the Chipotle of bagels. We opened it so we can have a relationship with the people in the neighborhood. Definitely, expansion is something that we can do. For us, the way that we want to do it is behind the scenes. We’re a bagel bakery. There are so many cafes and grocery stores and offices that require bagels or require catering. We want to preserve our little pink storefront that exists in a historic street in Little Italy and use all the tools that we have behind the scenes in order to get our bagels out in the rest of the city.
NYLP: Bagels really are quintessential New York City food. What’s interesting is that all at once a lot of places opened focusing on bagels – you, and I don’t know if we need to mention them, but you know who they are. Why do you think that really happened all at once?
Bari: Well, I think in this specific neighborhood we don’t have any bagels. I know myself, the owners of Black Seed, the owners of a new bagel store opening up on West Broadway, there’re really no bagels in the neighborhood. We have a lot of pizza places. We’ve got croissant places on every corner. We just don’t have bagels. I think it was inevitable that people were going to decide to open bagel stores. I think it was a happy coincidence that so many opened at the same time that we were able to feed off each other’s press and also allowed the customer to try so many different styles of bagels at the same time.
NYLP: You sell yourself as a neighborhood place, but to me you’re really a destination. How do people get to you, and how do people learn more about Baz Bagel?
Matthew: You can find us at 181 Grand Street between Mulberry and Baxter. You can take the 6 train to Canal, the D train to Grand, or the N and R to Canal Street. Or, check us out at www.bazbagel.com.
NYLP: Bari Musacchio, Matthew Gray, thank you for sharing your time with us. If you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can follow us on social media @NYLaunchPod or visit us at nylaunchpod.com.