You've come a long way, bagel!

According to most mavens (experts), bagels arrived in the U.S. in the 1880s, along with the wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Germany who settled in New York City. While bagels were swallowed up by most New Yorkers, they remained mostly a local phenomenon until the late 1920s. That's when Harry Lender, a Polish baker, set up his bagel factory in New Haven, Conn., putting bagels in supermarkets and introducing frozen bagels.

Another major stage in the evolution of the American bagel came in 1983, when Nord Brue and Mike Dressell founded Bruegger's in Troy, N.Y. At that point, a century after the bagel's arrival, fewer than one-third of Americans had ever tasted one, according to the company. Bruegger's took the neighborhood take-out bagel store and broadened it to the quick-serve destination with a broader menu we know today.

In the following decades, boiled then baked, bagels began their conquest of America, often taking on new variations as they went. But many newcomers were taken in by their soft, doughy roundness. As the bagel's popularity spread in the 1980s and 1990s (abetted by the rapidly expanding number of franchised bagel stores) emergency rooms nationwide reported a spike in hand wounds as mainstream America learned the finer points of bagel slicing. Since then, familiarity (along with a flowering of bagel-slicing devices) has reduced the injury rate among the rising number of bagel lovers worldwide.

By 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau reported more than 3,200 bagel shops nationwide, with annual sales of $1.3 billion and more than 30,000 employees. In 2005, Bruegger's alone had about 250 locations, with about 100 franchisee-owned, producing about 70 million bagels a year with revenues exceeding $150 million.

But the top dog in bagelry today is New World Restaurant Group (NWRG), a public company with 2005 sales of $363 million. Founded in 1992, its brands include Einstein Bros Bagels, Noah's Bagels, Manhattan Bagel, and Chesapeake Bagel Bakery. Of its 604 locations in mid-2006, only 99 were franchised (primarily Manhattan Bagel), 86 were licensed, and 419 were company-owned. In late 2005, NWRG filed a UFOC for its Einstein brand and planned to begin offering area developer agreements in the second half of 2006.

Bruegger's, however, lays claim to the World's Largest Bagel (and yes, the Guinness World Record folks agree), weighing in with an 868 pound edifice created on August 27, 2004 at the New York State Fair. Slices were served to stunned visitors, who were encouraged to make a donation to local food banks.

In the '80s and '90s, everyone got on the bagel bandwagon, including McDonald's, which offered on-the-go Americans its breakfast bagel sandwich. And as they spread to new regions, bagels evolved from their plain, sesame, poppy, and onion roots to varieties that have old bagel-makers rolling in their graves and purists fuming.

New ingredients added to bagels in the past decades range from blueberry and cranberry to Dutch apple, mango, and sun-dried tomatoes. Modern bagels not only come round, but square; not only with butter or cream cheese (flavored or plain), but as sandwiches (hot or cold, plain or fancy). They even come in green for St. Patrick's Day, and in black and orange for Halloween.

In 2006, bagels fill the shelves not only at supermarkets and the better-known bagel franchises, but sit cooling in racks at franchise brands better known for other fare, such as Dunkin' Donuts and Panera Bread. In fact, Dunkin' Donuts, which began selling bagels in 1996, claims the title of the world's largest bagel retailer, selling more than 285 million a year.

Bagels, ever adaptive to their changing environment, have survived the low-carb hit that flattened the bottom line of other baked-goods segments. Calorie-conscious bagel-lovers in New York (still the bagel capital of the world) for years have been slicing their bagels in half and scooping out the doughy insides to stay slim. Ever innovative, local bakers there now offer a pre-scooped bagel, known as the flat bagel.

While NWRG's four brands and Bruegger's rule the franchise-specific roost, there's still plenty of opportunity, either for signing on with them or with other, smaller brands. Other entrants into the world of bagels, quick-serve or quick-casual, include Big Apple Bagels, Heidi's Brooklyn Deli, Sunrise Bagels, Mr. Bagel's, New York Bagel, and Mister Bagel.

In Canada, opportunity abounds with Kettleman's Bagel and The Great Canadian Bagel. And across the pond, the U.K. has Bagel Nash (, and Ireland The Bagel Bar.

No matter how you slice them (carefully, please), what you spread on them, put in them, or even what shape or size they come in, bagels are a growing part of the American palate, both here and overseas. Whether for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or snack (nosh) there's a bagel for all seasons.

Published: November 29th, 2006

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