What do you get when you cross a college history professor with a bagel?
The short answer is Spielman Bagels and Coffee. The professor is Rick Spielman, Multnomah resident since 1988. The bagel is baked and boiled from a sourdough starter and comes in two dozen flavors at four Portland locations, including the newest store, on the ground floor of the Multnomah Village Apartments at 7713 S.W. Capitol Highway.
The long answer, which would fill a 50-minute college classroom session, is "a totally improbable phenomenon," Spielman said. "Actually, when people talk to me, they're most fascinated by the fact that I came here to be a college professor and now I end up with — well, I hope this isn't the end — a little bagel empire."
His modest empire is putting out 10,000 to 12,000 bagels per day, which are sold at 50 coffee shops, making his the largest wholesale bagel business in Oregon. At the very beginning, more than a decade ago, Spielman was making a dozen bagels per day. Then when he opened his first Portland location on Southeast Division he was making 150 per day and often selling out by noon. That number eventually grew to 4,000 per week. But Kettleman's Bagels, king of the Portland bagel business in 2010, was making 17,000 to 18,000 bagels per week. Within a year, Kettleman's was sold to Einstein Bros. Bagels. Einstein Bros. closed a couple of Portland locations and Spielman moved in, happy to expand to Northeast Broadway and Northwest Lovejoy.
There but for Fortuna…
Spielman likes to use the words "serendipity" and "Fortuna" (the Roman goddess of luck) to describe the circumstances that brought him to open his fourth location, this time in Southwest Portland. "A lot of this is fate," he sighed.
He likes to quote the Yogi Berra maxim, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," but says he has to explain to some of his younger employees that Berra was a catcher for the New York Yankees who said things like that. Spielman is 73.
The series of serendipitous events goes something like this: Spielman is teaching and travelling with students as a professor at Willamette University and has six months off each year. He gets involved with the Java Man chain at its Tigard location. He opens his own shop in Hillsboro and calls it Java Mama. He's a connoisseur of coffee and doesn't even offer bagels at first. But a customer comes in with a recipe for bagels made with sourdough starter. After a couple of ups and downs that included 11 days at death's door with septic shock, he starts making bagels at a small store on Southeast Division.
Appropriately, the rest is history.
'Best Bagel' bragging rights
Best bagel polls are a staple of the newspaper business. Especially on line. So here's the result of the SW Connection's unscientific survey: Spielman Bagels and Coffee serves and sells the very best bagels in Multnomah Village. In ignoring the three other locations, we're honoring Spielman's request that Spielman Bagels and Coffee not be called a "chain."
"I was offended by an anecdote I heard from a friend," said Spielman during an after-closing-time interview in his Capitol Highway location. "She was walking by here with a friend of hers and asked her if she had tried Spielman Bagels. Well, she gives a loud huff and says, 'They're just a chain.'"
Those are fighting words to Spielman, who said one of his goals in talking to the SW Connection was to "defeat this notion that Spielman's is a chain."
"I'm a homie," the normally affable bagel maker insists. "I'm a longtime Multnomah resident. My wife and I and our sons have been here since 1988. The boys went to Maplewood and Robert Gray. My wife was on the design team that built Southwest Community Center at Gabriel Park. We're the opposite of a chain. We're a mom-and-pop pop-up."
His Multnomah Village outlet is special to Spielman. "It's within walking distance of my home. I like the energy of the kids who manage here and it's a pretty self-managing operation. They're full of enthusiasm. It's a good feeling when you walk into the store," he said.
Bagels baked and boiled
The most important ingredient in a Spielman bagel is sourdough.
"You start with making the sourdough starter. It's a very complicated process of mixing flour and water," he joked. "With the sourdough, the more you chew, the better it tastes. It's true. You get the firm crust and there's a tartness to the sourdough in the center that blends nicely with cream cheese."
It's not like he ever imagined becoming Portland's bagel baron back when a Java Mama customer shared a bagel recipe with him. "No, not at all, it was all about roasting coffee. When I tried the recipe at first the bagels were terribly misshapen. They were rectangles," he said.
After a lot of trial and error and the assistance of that customer in the 760 square-foot Southeast Division location, he knew he was onto something.
"That first Mother's Day we were sold out by 9:30 a.m."
As for the recipe, after sharing the history of the bagel from ancient Egypt through seventeenth century Poland to New York in 1920, Spielman described the series of steps involved.
First, you make the dough, kneading it twice. After it's risen, you shape the bagels and refrigerate them for 18 to 24 hours. When you take them out you let them rise for a while, then put them in boiling water with salt and malt. "Only boil them for 10 or 20 seconds," Spielman said, "It seals off the top and holds the moisture in when they're baking so you get that dense quality."
After they're boiled, the bagels are spread with egg wash and put into an oven for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.
"That's the recipe. The density of the bagel is important. They've got to be dense," Spielman insisted. "There's another way of making bagels, you don't boil them, you steam them. The largest bagel chain in the United States (Einstein Bros.) steams their bagels. That's OK."
( In an earlier conversation Spielman called steamed bagels "dinner rolls with holes in them.")
The bagel business
It's estimated that 60% of Americans consume bagels, a number that's been consistent for years. Those who do so regularly, according to Spielman, are serious about their favorite brands.
"The big surprise in this business is how important bagels are in some people's lives. I know from discussions with New Seasons that bagels are the most contentious food item in their business. To dislodge them is not something higher management wants to engage in. In other words," Spielman explains, "the bagels you can get at New Seasons now? They're not going to mess with replacing those because people will, will, will complain."
He thinks that devotion is due to the fact that kids start eating bagels at 5 or 6 and have strong memories of what a good bagel tastes like. "Kids come in here all the time. Little kids. They love bagels. I can't eat a whole bagel anymore and these kids knock them down."
Spielman Bagels and Coffee's neighbor in Multnomah Village is Blue Star Donuts. There was a time when food industry experts predicted that bagels would be the end of doughnuts. That hasn't turned out to be the case and the two businesses coexist.
"We're next to a Blue Star on Northwest Lovejoy as well and the staff there loves to trade bagels for doughnuts with the Blue Star staff," he said.
Spielman Coffee and Bagels in Multnomah Village is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday. More information at spielmanbagels.com
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