The “hole” story behind Bubbie’s Bagels is what makes this Traverse City bagel bistro truly special.
If you bake it, they will come. And since its grand opening in February, they’ve been coming out in droves to Bubbie’s Bagels on Front Street in Traverse City.
The bagel shop has been a success story, despite Michigan’s COVID-19 lockdown halting the store’s indoor traffic just weeks after opening. But these bagels have proven curb appeal, because curbside pick-up is how their loyal and growing number of customers continue to pick up an average of 700-800 bagels a day.
But it’s the “hole” story behind Bubbie’s Bagels that make this bagel bistro really truly special. The key ingredient is the store’s 29-year old founder, Sam Brickman, born and “bread” in West Bloomfield to parents Risa and Bruce Brickman. I live nearby and the couple graciously dropped off a mixed baker’s dozen of Bubbie’s Bagels and homemade scallion cream cheese on my doorstep.
Sam has had Jewish vacationers and local residents visit the store. The president of Traverse City’s Beth Shalom synagogue and a rabbi from Petoskey’s Temple B’nai Israel have been customers. As for shipping of Bubbie’s Bagels for downstate Metro Detroiters to enjoy, “for now that is limited to what my parents are willing to shove into the backseat of their car,” Sam said with a laugh.
It’s not unusual for orders of 200 bagels to be packed into the Brickman’s backseat for their friends and family upon a return trip from visiting their son.
I consumed, actually, inhaled 12 bagels over a four-day period. I have no shame when it comes to a schmear on a bagel. They were worth every one of the 4 lbs. I gained.
More than just a catchy name, there’s a real baking Bubbie behind Bubbie’s Bagels — Esther Kraft, Risa Brickman’s mother, of blessed memory, who passed away in 2012. While she didn’t actually bake bagels, Bubbie Esther’s renowned cooking prowess is the inspiration for and the face of her grandson’s business. Her strawberry and apricot ruggalah is featured in the store and her mandel and banana breads may not be far behind.
In 2012, just prior to Chanukah, the Detroit Free Press dedicated a two-page spread to Esther’s latke recipe. But she didn’t seek fame. Esther was only into cooking for the fun, the food and, most importantly, the family. That was the recipe for three generations worth of incredible memories in the Kraft’s Farmington Hills kitchen.
“She taught us baking was fun,” Risa said. “But it was serious, too. You had to level your flour exactly, line up your cookies and admire your results. To this day, all 12 grandchildren, boys and girls, are creative bakers and are comfortable in the kitchen.”
The family still has regular baking challenges, a babka competition being the most recent.
Sam is the lone grandchild to turn his experiences with his Bubbie in the kitchen into a culinary career. “Every Friday night we would go to her house for Shabbat and cook and bake. Always cookies for dessert,” Sam said. “Growing up listening to her stories, hearing her rules in the kitchen and the tips and tricks, was a great learning experience.”
He also credits his being “a child of the Food Network boom” for inspiring him to make cooking his life’s calling.
Upon graduating from the University of Michigan in 2012, Sam enrolled at the nationally renowned Escoffier Culinary School in Boulder, Colorado. After initial experiences in kitchens in Denver, Sam returned to Detroit where he was a sous-chef for two years at Gold Cash Gold in Corktown. Then in 2016 came the call of the north.
“I was tired of the city and really like to be surrounded by the quiet of nature,” Sam said. “It’s more of my personality, and Traverse City fit the bill.”
Over the next three years, Sam worked for Fustini’s Oils & Vinegars, where he also taught at their onsite cooking school. “But I knew eventually I wanted to do my own thing,” he said.
That’s when he had a brainstorm. Or, if you will, a bagelstorm. “Up here, there are absolutely no bagels at all,” Sam said. At least not the kind that met his high standards in the Jewish tradition of a really great bagel.
Perhaps this is a side effect of the tourist city having little in the way of a Jewish community at all — although it is home to Congregation Beth Shalom (formerly Beth El), housed in the oldest continually operating synagogue in Michigan. But the “Up North” locale’s appeal with Metro Detroit Jews this year seems to have grown, as Michigan’s COVID-19 travel guidelines encourage intrastate tourism only.
“Bread has always been something that’s interested me because there is so much science behind it. It involves the manipulation of time, temperature and humidity. I wanted to create my own bagel, not replicate a certain style,” Sam said, sounding like a scientist in his own bagel laboratory.
To that end he began experimenting, formulating his own recipes by tinkering with ingredients and using sourdough yeast instead of the typically used commercial brand.
His crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside bagels made their Traverse City debut at the Sara Hardy’s Farmer’s Market in June of 2019. He would set up at 6:30 a.m. and be sold out by 8 or 9 a.m. The bagel fressing (feeding) frenzy was on. He continued to sell out for weeks on end and realized there was enough “dough” in his bagel biz to support a storefront.
“The really cool thing about Traverse City,” Sam said, “is it actually reminds me of the Jewish community in Detroit. Everyone kind of knows everyone and there’s just a lot of love and support.”
That support that Sam is a beneficiary of in Traverse City extends to the close-knit food community as well. He has great friends in the local farming community, who play a major role in supplying him with the produce to create his wide variety of fresh, homemade cream cheeses.
Even before founding Bubbie’s Bagels, it wasn’t unusual for Sam’s grandmother’s influence and his love for his Jewish upbringing to show up in his work. I tongue-in-cheek inquired if that meant he catered his own bar mitzvah at Adat Shalom in 2004. Not exactly that far back, he confirmed. But it was at a catered event in Traverse City in 2018 that his pride in his Jewish heritage showed up.
It was just before Rosh Hashanah. Sam, in the role of corporate chef for Fustini’s, had been charged with presenting and describing each course in a prepared multi-course dinner for a gathering at Bowers Harbor Vineyards.
The only dessert featured that night was Bubbie Esther’s honey cake, which Sam purposely prepared in honor of the Jewish High Holiday.
To the mostly non-Jewish diners, Sam explained the significance of the ingredients of apple and honey in the cake. “With Rosh Hashanah approaching, I wanted everyone to know that the ingredients were symbolic of my wishes for a sweet year,” he said.
Sam’s parents were in attendance that night and proudly witnessed what they described was “an incredibly proud and heartwarming scene.”
He’s earned quite the reputation for bagels. “I’ve gotten a lot of messages on Instagram and Facebook from other bagel shops around the country talking about expansion and different ideas,” Sam said. He also gives tremendous credit to Ben Newman of Downtown’s Detroit Institute of Bagels, whom he describes as “an awesome resource, amazing.”
Today, Bubbie’s Bagels also features incredible bagel sandwiches, plus all the must-have accoutrements that accompany a legitimate bagel meal — Nova lox, tuna, whitefish and egg salad (sold by the pound) and add-ons like homemade pickled red onion and capers.
Sam’s journey has been a labor of love — for his Bubbie, his culinary career and his Traverse City community. It’s also been, well, a lot of labor — nine employees and five days of prep required for one batch of bagels, made to perfection using age-old fermenting, boiling and baking techniques, which are the hallmark of a truly great bagel.
While it does sound like Bubbie’s Bagels is destined for expansion, Sam said, “I’m just taking it day by day, focusing on the bagels, making sure everything is consistent. I want to keep the quality as high as possible because that’s absolutely the most important thing.”
It’s what his Bubbie Esther would want, too.
Details: Bubbie’s Bagels
1215 E. Front St.
Traverse City, MI 49686