A family recipe continues to sustain a bagel empire.
Marc Goldberg is a tall man with a large frame. His large eyes are a color somewhere between his acid-washed blue jeans, spiky gray hair and cornflower-blue polo shirt. He seems to be in his late 50s and is a man of few words. When he glances at his royal-blue watch I realized two things: his favorite color is blue and he does not have time for chitchat.
I catch up with Mr. Goldberg, the John Wayne of bagels, at Goldberg’s Famous Deli, Bagels and Flagels, on Pantigo Lane in East Hampton. There are a dozen or so white Formica tables in the small eatery, which has the feel of a high school cafeteria.
“This is the closest thing to being a Jewish delicatessen in the Hamptons,” he says as we sit at the back table, close to the bagelmaking oven, the hearth of the operation. But that quaint description is deceiving.
Goldberg’s bagels didn’t become famous overnight. Their saga began in Poland (where beygls were first documented in 1620 when they were given as gifts to women in childbirth) in 1920. Legend has it that Marc’s grandfather, Izzy Goldberg, came to America with only the clothes on his back and his father’s secret bagel recipe in a little black book.
In 1928 he met his wife, Helen. They raised four sons in Brooklyn: Artie, Al, Jerry and Marty.
“Back then, they didn’t have retail shops,” Marc says. “They baked the bagels in brick ovens in basements and delivered wholesale by truck.”
Izzy opened his first bagel store in 1949 on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. After a few years, Marc’s father, Arthur, opened a store in Brooklyn.
“That’s when it all began,” says Marc’s wife, Denise, the more outspoken of the two, evident by her nickname, “Sarge.”
Since Marc was 12 years old, he worked for his father in their store in Westwood, New Jersey, where his mother, Barbara, still works every day, after 40 years. Marc would work before or after school and on weekends. He began rolling bagels when he was 17.
“I was self-taught. I watched and picked things up,” he says, “I learned everything from A to Z.”
Denise was the 20-year-old best friend of Marc’s sister Terry when the couple met.
“We would go out as a group and then started dating,” says Denise. “I used to work in one of his stores in Closter, New Jersey, on the weekends. I would deliver wholesale accounts and also work behind the counter. I still work the counter in the Southampton store. I check over the day-to-day things, like ordering. I make up specials for the week and cook the soups in the fall and winter.”
“I think we work well together,” she says.
The couple is usually split between the Southampton and East Hampton shops. If Marc is the John Wayne of bagels, then Denise Goldberg is the Maureen O’Hara.
The Goldbergs were first approached in New Jersey to open a store in Southampton 10 years ago. At first, Marc’s cousin Robert ran the store but he did not like being so far away from his extended family.
“Marc and I have been coming to East Hampton since my daughter was about two years old. We had a summer place here and I used to come to Montauk as a kid,” Denise says. “We thought it would be a good time to come live in East Hampton. Our daughter would start the high school, and so it began. “At first it was difficult being away from family, but Marc and I both love it here and we were busy with the store in Southampton.”
The second shop opened five years ago in East Hampton in partnership with Marc’s youngest uncle, Marty. Uncle Marty, as he is known in the East Hampton shop, works there in the summers and has two additional stores in Milburn, run by his son Paul, and Maplewood, New Jersey.
At one point, Marc was involved with 10 stores. Many were sold to partners, some of whom kept the name. The couple is now affiliated with three bagel stores in Westwood, Wycoff and Ramsey, New Jersey, in addition to the two on the East End. A black and white photo of his late father, Artie, in the driver’s seat of an old delivery truck with the words “Toast ’em, Eat ’em” written on the side, along with his brothers, decorates the walls in all the “original” Goldberg’s Famous bagel shops.
There are some copycats out there.
“Sometimes in other states there is nothing you can do,” Denise says, if they take the Goldberg name. “But you can taste the difference and sometimes even see it. Their bagels usually look like rolls and taste like white bread.”
When in doubt, look for the old-time family photographs on the walls. That is what really tells which Goldbergs are the real ones.
A real Goldberg bagel is pretty much the same recipe Izzy took from Poland, made with four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and malt. The bagels are formed either by hand or machine, and placed on wooden boards that are dusted with cornmeal. They are then put onto racks and left covered to proof.
Once the bagels are proofed, the racks are placed in a large refrigerator. When needed, a board is put into a large vat of boiling water called a kettle, to allow the yeast to activate. They are taken out of the kettle and placed onto wooden boards (lined with burlap) to bake. The oven is a rotating oven with about four to six shelves. Once they are dried on top (which is the bottom of the bagel), they are flipped (now top-side up) to finish cooking. It takes about 10 minutes to fully cook a bagel.
In the beginning there were only plain and salt bagels. The plain is still the best seller along with the “everything” bagel, peppered with poppy and sesame seeds, onion, garlic and salt.
“The flagels, which are flat bagels, were started by Marc himself,” says Denise, “They have almost become more popular than a bagel. You can get them in most of the flavors and also in whole wheat.”
“We’re really known for our flagels. They’re our claim to fame.” says Marc, “Flagels have less dough than a bagel, crunchy with lots of seeds.”
“I honestly couldn’t say,” says Marc when asked if flagels had fewer calories than a bagel, which may be part of their appeal.
Besides bagels and flagels, Goldberg’s Famous offers a full deli, including cream cheeses, Nova Scotia salmon and “all the usual smoked fishes.” Egg sandwiches are very popular. Soups and salads change daily and everything is made on the premises.
“I do think that the other most popular thing you can get at our stores is a pastrami or corned beef sandwich on rye bread. Definitely a Jewish staple!” both Marc and Denise agree separately.
Marc graciously handed me a bag of mixed bagels and flagels with cream cheese and lox to take home, and now I’m addicted to everything flagels, lower calories or not, with all of the above. I also love their chicken noodle soup and freshly squeezed orange juice, which always makes me feel better. Isn’t that what food is all about?
“The bagel business is recession proof,” Marc says. “We have a strong local community.”
But the Goldbergs give back. At least every Wednesday the Springs Food Pantry picks up bags of bagels to give to the less fortunate.
“Our daughter Amanda, 22, has just gone into the bagel business. She opened in Ramsey, this past August,” says Denise. “When she told us she wanted to go into the business, our initial reaction was No.’ The work is extremely difficult, the hours can be killer. But she wanted to do it. Actually we are really proud of her. She did a great job in building the store (with Dad’s help of course) and is there every day at 6:00 a.m. So she is fourth-generation Goldberg’s Bagels!”
Goldberg’s Famous Bagels, Flagels and Delis are open from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day, 365 days of the year.
Kelly Ann Smith runs locally owned holdout, A Little of What You Fancy, in East Hampton, and writes from her home in Springs.