How did a family business become world-famous? What are the origins of the humble beigel, and what does the future hold for Beigel Bake? Damian Santamaria speaks to Nathan Cohen, Managing Director of the internationally-acclaimed East London bakery, to find out.
With recipes dating as far back as 1610, the humble beigel has had a huge impact on food culture worldwide. Beigel Bake has been sharing the love with the people of Brick Lane and the world for over 50 years, with Nathan Cohen nurturing the tradition.
Sublime: Where did the idea of opening a beigel shop come from?
Nathan Cohen: The east end of London – including Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and of course Brick Lane – are the areas where the majority of Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled. With them they brought their food and culture, opening an array of businesses. When my father, Asher Cohen, and his two partners Shalom Minzly and Ammon Cohen, came to England, they continued the tradition.
S: Can you tell us about the history of the beigel and its significance to you and your family?
NC: ‘Beigel’ or ‘bagel’ derives from the Yiddish word beygal (roughly translates to ‘ring’), and is a bread product originating from the Jewish community in Poland. It is traditionally shaped by hand, boiled, and then baked, resulting in a dense, chewy centre and a shiny, crusty outer. My family has been producing these tasty rolls since the 70s and I can’t think of anything better to accompany chopped herring or smoked salmon and cream cheese for breakfast.
Unlike the average bagel you will find in your local supermarket, our beigels are handcrafted in-house, with as little machine assistance as possible. I remember coming into the shop during school breaks to help my father, uncle, and their team of bakers. It was then that my love for the trade grew and over the years I mastered the skill of creating the perfect beigel. It’s a craft that we plan on passing on through the generations.
S: Beigel Bake has earned worldwide recognition since its doors opened in 1974. Off the top of your head, who have been some of your most well-known customers?
NC: After the first lockdown, we were privileged to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate Middleton. We were super excited. And over the years, we’ve had a number of famous customers, from singers like Mariah Carey and Sophie Ellis-Bextor to sportspeople like Dillian Whyte and Rio Ferdinand, as well many of the Eastenders cast and The Only Way Is Essex crew.
S: What’s your favourite beigel filling?
NC: It’s very hard to choose just one. Our best sellers are definitely the famous Salt Beef with mustard and pickle, the smoked salmon and cream cheese a close runner up. But while I’m working, I tend to reach for tuna, mayo, and sweetcorn.
S: What are your top beigel recommendations for our veggie and vegan readers?
NC: Currently, our only vegan fillings are peanut butter or salad, but we have recently begun to experiment with avocado and hummus, which will be added onto the menu in the near future.
S: How has the pandemic affected business?
NC: It’s no secret that the Coronavirus outbreak has been an extremely tough time for everyone. We put the safety of our staff and customers first, but tried to be available to our loyal customers to promote morale and save a bit of normality. We are a family business with people that have been working with us for over 30 years – we understand the importance of family values and the hardest part was letting down our workforce. Luckily, the Government acted quickly and we were able to keep everyone on and well. Thankfully, things seem to be getting better and we are looking forward to welcoming everyone back.
S: Do you have any initiatives in place for managing food waste?
NC: Food waste is a massive global issue. We keep a very close eye on what we are selling and adjust production to meet demand. This, in turn, ensures that our products are baked fresh every day.
S: Do you have any plans to expand the bakery across London, nationally, or even globally? What does the future of Beigel Bake look like?
NC: At Beigel Bake, we would launch ourselves at the opportunity to be more accessible to our customers, but choosing the right location is tricky. Perhaps your readers and our customers can let us know where they would like to see us next! In the meantime, we launched a home delivery service within London M25 area – you can download our app from the iOS App Store.