What was it that punched a hole in the once-crowded bagel market in Anchorage? Adkins? Keto? The rise of gluten-free?
Let us pause now — moment of silence — for the long-lived Alaska Bagel restaurant, which closed during the pandemic, last of its kind. After that, some called Anchorage a “bagel desert.” Residents had no choice but to lay their lox upon mass-produced Outside bagels, spongy Costco bread rounds or the ageless waxy-skinned dough loops of the bread aisle.
But Alaskans, motivated by the hunger for Something You Can’t Get Here, are experts at fixing these sorts of food problems. This summer, more than a half-dozen small-batch bagel baking operations have sprung up. Artisanal carb deals, brokered over the internet, are going down in parking lots, farmers markets and fitness studios. Just like that, Anchorage’s bagel selection has grown more diverse and authentic than it’s ever been. You just have to know where to find them and get there before they sell out.
Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop recently hired Josie Allen, a longtime bagel baker from Haines. In February, the bakery dropped its first small organic sourdough batch with a selection of schmears. Now you only have to look at the morning lines on bagel days — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — to see the city’s bagel lust.
“We have these lines starting even before we open,” said Fire Island owner Rachel Pennington. “We have been trying to keep them in stock. We are so stoked on them, we eat them. They hardly last until the afternoon.”
And then there’s the drive-thru at Birch & Alder, a small restaurant in Indian on the Seward Highway, where Reuben Gerber makes a bagel sandwich so legendary people go back through the line to thank him for it.
Bagels are a Jewish soul food that likely originated in Poland in the 1600s. They arrived in the United States with Polish Immigrants in the late 19th century. Street vendors in New York’s Lower East Side would carry them on strings like beads.
A traditional New York bagel is boiled and then baked. It has a rich, caramel-colored exterior, a chewy interior and a crispy crust that cracks when you bite it. Ideally, it’s served fresh and warm. A Montreal-style bagel is smaller, softer and sweeter, with a larger hole, baked in a wood-fired oven. Some people also make bagels with sourdough.
On the face of it, bagels seem simple. The ingredients are just water, flour, yeast, salt and malt syrup — but for people who have grown up with them, creating one that perfectly scratches a nostalgic itch is a supreme challenge. Humidity, the type of flour, even the brand of salt matters. And, bagel bakers often swear water is the key ingredient.
Gerber is Jewish, born in New York, raised in California. He’s also an experienced chef — he once led the kitchen at the Crow’s Nest — but it was tasting the minerals in the water in Indian that brought him to tears, remembering the bagels of his youth.
“Chlorine is the enemy of yeast,” he said. “To me this water in the Indian Valley is some of the best water I have ever tasted.”
Right now he sells 70 to 100 individual bagel sandwiches through the drive-thru daily. When the tourists leave, he plans to sell more. Living in a town with no local bagels means lots of people don’t know what an authentic one tastes like.
“I wanted to bring everyone back to the center of what a really good bagel is,” he said.
Outside of restaurants, the list of cottage bagel bakers keeps growing, each going after a particular niche. Katie Wright runs Concoction Breads and Provisions, and has been taking online orders and delivering home-baked goods for the last four years. She added gluten-free and regular bagels in January. She credits Gerber for inspiring a bagel boom.
“There’s definitely been a bagel renaissance here in Anchorage,” she said.
Losing Alaska Bagel left a hole in the city’s heart, she said, and restaurant workers left their jobs to pursue passion projects, fueling a rise in cottage bakeries. She plans to open a brick and mortar business in Spenard this year.
Jaimeson Hatch, an Anchorage surgical nurse with a culinary background, started experimenting with bagel recipes last summer during a long stretch of rain. She settled on a recipe that produced a distinct shape — a chubby bagel with almost no hole, perfect for a sandwich. She started selling them at work, calling her operation 202 Bagels (her business is 202 Epicurious). She’d bake and deliver, meeting customers in parking lots to make the exchange. Every month she’d bake more and sell them all. She rearranged her kitchen and bought a bigger fridge.
“The people that buy, at least 75%, are repeat customers,” she said. “A lot of them are transplants from the East Coast and have lived significant time somewhere near bagels — it’s a memory thing for them.”
Andrea Feniger and Jake Armstrong run Horseradish & Honey, doing bagel pop-ups. Feniger, who is Jewish and grew up in South Florida, moved to Anchorage in 2020 to be the director of the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club. She soon started craving bagels, but the only ones she could find that tasted like home — from The Bagel Shop in Homer or Lulu’s Bread and Bagels in Fairbanks — were so far away, she decided to try making her own. Armstrong was also into bagel making, so they teamed up. Their last pop-up was at Blue Market. The demand overwhelmed.
“It was super exciting and very hectic,” she said.
Teri Reed, a contract biller for an Alaska Native corporation, started baking with sourdough as a way to process after her mom died of ovarian cancer in 2020, supplying her circle of friends with regular gifts of baked goods. They encouraged her to start a business, so she launched Find the Joy, advertising on social media. A pop-up at yoga and Pilates studio Pure Barre brought her a list of regular orders. Small, sourdough bagels are her fastest growing product.
“People miss bagels,” she said. “I hear that a lot. I miss bagels, I can’t buy a good bagel anywhere in this town.”
Arran Forbes and her husband, Matthew Faust, started selling their bagels — under the name Blowhole Bagels — this season at farmers markets in Anchorage and Seward. Usually they have their two little girls, Ailsa and Carra, at the stand as well. Forbes, an emergency room nurse, got into bagels to cope with job stress. “Bread dough,” she wrote in an email, “is soft and kind” compared to the chaos in an ER.
Their friends and family ate hundreds of bagels as they were testing their recipe — loosely based on one written for the New York Times by baker Claire Saffitz. They proof the bagels, boil them and par-bake them. They finish them off in a pizza oven at the markets, selling them individually with schmears or as sandwiches with hummus or lox. People can also buy par-baked bagels to take home. She didn’t realize the loss people experienced when the last bagel place closed.
“It was a creature comfort that disappeared at a time when many small, meaningful traditions were also lost,” she wrote. “Holding a warm bagel in your hand is a cherished feeling.”