Every time a relative came from New York to visit us in Portland while I was growing up, he or she would come bearing bagels. Occasionally, there would be a chocolate babka or rugelach from Zabar’s, but the bagels were the one standing request. My mom’s favorites were (and still are) the bagels my uncle, Second Breakfast, buys at The Garden in Greenpoint. The reason was simple: there were no decent bagels to be found in Portland. Instead, we had what I have dubbed “faygels”—puffy white bread formed into a bagel shape. When I moved to New York three years ago, I also took on the responsibility of bagel delivery. I would freeze a dozen bagels from Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, or once I moved to Brooklyn, from Bagel Hole or Terrace Bagels in Park Slope, and bring them to work with me, convincing the guys downstairs in the cafeteria to keep them in the freezer for me. Then I would stuff them into my already overloaded carry-on bag and stash them underneath the seat in front of me. Thanks to my short legs, I made a fairly adept bagel mule.
But about three years ago, the bagel-delivery responsibilities of the New York contingent began to diminish. That’s because Kettleman Bagel Company, which was founded in 2006, began to expand throughout the city. Jeffrey Wang, the owner, (and a non-Jewish Chinese dude) studied under bagel masters in New York for 17 years before opening up in the midst of the Portland bagel wasteland. It’s not that Kettleman’s dense, chewy boiled bagels, were the only game in town. Tastebud, a fantastic pizza place, in Southeast Portland started making the slightly sweeter Montreal-style bagels in its wood-fired oven. But those could only be purchased at the restaurant and in limited quantities at a farmer’s market or two. (They are now available at select locations of New Seasons Market.) Finally, a good bagel had become widely available. The Jews and gourmets of Portland rejoiced! First, a Kettleman location opened up near my sister Flava Flav’s apartment, so she was put in charge of picking them up and bringing them over to my parents’ house for brunch. Finally, Kettleman opened up a shop near my parents’ house earlier this year. It was what we had all been waiting for.
I came home to Portland for a quick visit on Thursday night. On Friday morning, Daddy Salmon went out to pick up some bagels from Kettleman. It was while I was digging into my tasty, though not-quite-as-good-as-New-York, everything bagel that I learned the bad news: Einstein Noah Restaurant Group, which owns its namesake brands as well as Manhattan Bagel, announced plans to buy Kettleman for an undisclosed sum at the end of November. Portland foodies erupted into outraged blog posts and Facebook tirades. Willamette Week, Portland’s alternative weekly, dubbed the controversy “BagelGate.” Confirming everyone’s worst suspicions, Einstein Noah stated in its press release that it “expects to rebrand all five locations into one of its other brands in the future.” In a rush to assuage distraught customers, Kettleman put out the word the following day that its recipe would remain the same, but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall. It is only a matter of time before Kettleman becomes Noah’s and starts serving what the Portland Mercury (another alt paper) called “squishy bread.”
The Mercury also named Kettleman the worst sellout in Portland history. While I respect the desire of Jeffrey Wang to take his profits and retire, I might have to agree. When Kettleman becomes yet another purveyor of faygels, Portland will be taking a major step back in its culinary trajectory. A decade’s worth of bagel progress will be lost to time. And, at least until another enterprising bagel maker opens up shop, my New York relatives and I will have to resume our cross-country bagel transport.
Kettleman Bagel Company
2235 SE 11th Ave.
Portland, OR 97201
(and four other Portland locations)
3220 SE Milwaukie
Portland, OR 97202