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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Hol van a Bagel? - Educating the Bagel-less Magyar public of what they were missing, 1990s style

"We learned that Hungarian bakers were frequently alcoholics and showed up drunk to start work at 3 am. One was a martial artist who brought disturbing edged weapons with him to work," - Robert Brooker. Part 2 of the New York Bagel story in Budapest.

Photo: Smile please! NY Bagel does billboard battle with Burger King at Budapest's Bazilika - I wonder where the wedding party went?

​​One of the main challenges facing the NY Bagel team at the beginning was very simple: almost nobody knew what a bagel was among the native population. For the average Magyar, it could be anything from a car part to a human illness. Local hire Tamás Csutak was charged with solving this 'minor' impediment to doing a roaring trade. Well, some sort of trade, at least. Asked for his memory of the job, he replied:

What I can tell you now what the first slogan was Hol van a Bagel? (Where is the Bagel). It was written on a big billboard, featuring two New Yorkers, one male, one female, with the iconic Big Apple skyline behind them – including, of course, the twin towers - with a bagel in the hand of one of them.”

The photo was black and white and for anyone in early 90’s Budapest, it looked really cool!”

The marketing budget was limited, so I think there were like 10-12 copies printed and put up in different places in Budapest. Robert and Adam deeply believed that people travelling on the local metró could well become customers, so some of those billboards went underground, on the walls of some Budapest metró stations.”

I don't know how many new clients these posters generated for New York Bagel, but I know for sure that it was the coolest decoration for any underground station at that time.”

Among the team's key supporters was Razan, Robert's Palestinian wife. The couple met while waiting tables at Algiers Coffee House in Harvard Square, when both were undergraduates. According to Robert: Razan was there with me at the founding. She introduced chocolate chip cookies to Hungary. At first she thought to set up her own separate business, but finally she relented and agreed to contribute chocolate chip cookies as a product at New York Bagel. That was nice of her and lucky for me, since on many days the cookies outsold the bagels. It took her lots of experimentation to get the product to work, since ingredients in Hungary behaved differently from those in the US. For example, flour was of varying composition from batch to batch, but she managed to temper the variation with the addition of oat flour. Also, there was no brown sugar in Hungary at the time, so she had to figure out ways around that. I could go on and on about the supply chain in Hungary at the time, and all the problems and the workarounds.” Robert and Razan remained in Budapest until 1995, when the couple returned to the US. The partners sold the business in 1999, only to learn later that the new owners had done the transaction to get hold of the premises, rather than the bagel business. One outlet bearing the name New York Bagel is still trading in Budapest, but Robert has no idea whether it has any links with the original company.

I asked Robert to put names to the folks in the original photo with which I kicked off this mini-series back on July 22nd.

Photo: The NYB gang outside their first shop, on Ferenc Krt 20, Budapest IX District, back in 1993 - and in glorious Technicolour.

​The people in the photo, from left to right. 1. Stan Goldfarb, the bagel master baker of Clark Bagels in Clark, New Jersey, USA. Although I moonlighted at bagel shops in the US for a few months, Stan really knew how to bake bagels and taught the Hungarian bakers. We learned that Hungarian bakers were frequently alcoholics and showed up drunk to start work at 3am. One was a martial artist who brought disturbing edged weapons with him to work.

In those days many Hungarians had no phones*, so we had to send telegrams to reach them. If bakers did not show up to work, I often had to take my moped to their apartments to wake them up. One Sunday morning when my efforts failed to rouse the bakers, I had no choice but to invite the customers waiting in line to join me in the kitchen. We all ended up having a great time making our own bagels.

Map: The location of New York Bagel stores in Budapest, presumably at the chain's zenith, before the sale of the company. Perhaps you have memories of dining in one? (Please put in the comments, if so!)

And that, folks, is a summary of a little chapter of little-known US - Hungarian social-commercial history. Thank you Robert Brooker - I hope it's stirred some good memories for readers!

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