Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.
It’s almost impossible to find a bad bagel in New York City. But the perfect New York bagel is on another level: With a crisp golden crust and the perfect chew, it’s near-mythical, the kind of bite that makes you forget the rat you saw on the street last night.
The folks at Utopia Bagels have a fair claim to the perfect New York bagel. For the last 41 years, the Utopia team has been slinging hand-rolled New York bagels out of its Queens storefront. In recent years, Utopia has collaborated with Action Bronson, been featured on Buzzfeed’s Worth It series, and shipped to more than 30,000 households nationwide via Goldbelly.
We took a trip to Queens to sit down with co-owner Scott Spellman and his son, Jesse, to untangle a few of the myths about New York bagels. Every one of the 70,000 bagels that the Utopia team bakes in a week has been made the same way—hand-rolled, long-proofed, boiled, and baked—since the company opened in 1981. Even the company’s oven, a six-shelf Middleby Marshall from 1947, is a blast from the past: According to Jesse, it’s the last oven of that model in use in the United States.
You and your Dad have both famously been quoted as saying, ‘It ain’t the water’ (that makes Utopia bagels great). So, what makes your bagels so good?
The water is a bit of a myth. You know, if it was the water, people in Florida, people in California, people in Texas would get pH balancers and water filtration systems to replicate New York tap water. I know people have actually tried to do that, and their bagels still aren't the same. It's the expertise of the staff that we have; that’s number one. One of our rollers has been with us for 27 years, in the same spot, rolling bagels. So once you have that long of a resume, you're bound to find perfection at some point. And that's what we've done.
The way that we proof our bagels is also a huge part of our process. Most companies don't have the refrigeration space that we have, so they'll proof for 10-12 hours. Some might not even proof for four hours: They just roll them, get them cold, and bake them right away. We have three massive refrigerators to hold our bagels. So all the bagels that we bake, we're cold-proofing anywhere from 24 to 40 hours before we're putting them in the kettle to boil. And that takes great practice to learn, since we don't put any timers on anything, whether it's baking, rolling, or proofing. A lot of people ask me, ‘How long does it take to bake the bagels?’ Well, in the summer, it's gonna be different than the winter. You know, it's a little hotter. We do it all by eye and by expertise, and that's what makes us so unique.
Jesse, you’re the second generation of bagel makers in this family. How did you learn to make bagels?
I learned from a man that we call Pancho. He's been with us for 22 years! And when I was learning to bake, I would assist him: If you think of a bartender and a barback kind of scenario, it’s similar, but we call it a baker and a kettleman. So the baker is doing the whole timing of the oven and controlling how to flip the boards, take them out, when to put them in. And then the kettleman is controlling the bagels being put in the water. Pancho would watch me put them in the water, tell me when to take them out. And then eventually, I learned the timing and the feel of everything. It took a lot longer than I would have expected, to learn the right way to do things, the specifics of the dough and the bagels. But it's worth it. You know, I'm not just baking supermarket bagels on the timer—I'm doing something that no one else is doing.
Besides all of the classics, you guys have plenty of innovative menu items—from the famous Action Bronson sandwich to birria bagel tortas. Can you talk about your menu innovation process?
When we expanded, we thought of maybe 25 [new] sandwiches for lunch. And then when we expanded in 2020, again, we thought of maybe eight to 10 [new] sandwiches for breakfast. We brought in a vegan plant-based menu, which we were one of the first to do. So it's always about staying in front of the trends and creating the trends for us. Now when I'm thinking of new sandwiches, I always think, ‘Who can we work with? Who can I collaborate with?’ I mean, we did it with the Action Bronson sandwich before McDonald's even did it with Travis Scott. Before Charli D'Amelio had her coffee at Dunkin’. We try to work with a lot of different people and brands to bring each person’s flavor and our flavor together. I think it's a great way to connect other people's fans and their following to our following.
In your opinion, what makes New York bagel shops in particular so successful? And what does it take to run a New York bagel shop successfully?
When you've been doing it for the longest amount of time, again, you're gonna run into perfection. It's just the amount of experience. So that's what New York has been doing. [We’ve] been making bagels for longer than other people have. Maybe in the future, other people might be able to play catch up, but it definitely takes that New York personality to run a bagel store.
It's not easy. It won’t work if you're not crazy, and you're not ready to wake up at three in the morning and go to sleep at seven o'clock at night. And change your hours the next day of waking up, at maybe eight o'clock and going to sleep at 11pm. It's not a set schedule—it will never be, owning a bagel store. You just always need to be available. It's definitely a lot of work, and it's definitely fast paced, high intensity. Lines out the door, dealing with different personalities, different types of people, different everything all at once. So if you're going down to Florida, you might not have that same melting pot of a community that you have here, in Queens or New York City, where everybody's asking for different things. Certain people like certain things, certain people can't eat certain things… so you always have to have options. You know, you have to have that turkey bacon, vegan sausage. There's a million different combinations you could make on a bagel.
It sounds like a crazy lifestyle. What keeps you and your family doing it, after 41 years
I don't know, I think we just have a passion to see—when someone bites into our sandwich—their smile. All the time, a grandfather, a son, and a grandson come in together. And they're just all waiting in line, happy, talking, and you know you're making their family's day. If you look at our customer base, there are four different generations of families that have been eating at our store. And that's extremely special to see. A kid could come in—and his great-grandparent ate at Utopia Bagels—and they're eating the same exact bagel, with the same exact ingredients, made by the same exact people. They’re almost able to connect to their ancestors through a bagel. That's definitely what keeps me motivated—my father as well.
- Favorite schmear: Butter
- Mets or Dodgers: Mets
- Best coffee in Queens: Am I allowed to say us? [laughing] If not, definitely Oasis Cafe.
- Three foods you’d bring to a desert island: Bagels, cheeseburgers, iced coffee
- Everything bagel or sesame?: Sesame (with butter!)
- Favorite snack food: Hal’s Chips—blue bag, salt and vinegar