Bagel’s roundabout route to China [UPDATE, Chinese Translation]
Read this article in Chinese here.
Once upon a time, whenever Debbie Nagy-Huang and her husband returned home to Beijing from their native New York, they stuffed their suitcases full of H&H bagels. They froze and rationed them so they would last for months.
“They’re just that one taste of home that you couldn’t ever get over here,” she said, sighing. Then one day last year, she saw a small story in a local magazine. Jordan Maseng, an honest-to-God, living-and-breathing New Yorker, was baking and delivering bagels, right here in the Chinese capital.
“I couldn’t believe it. I had to call and order,” she said. “It’s crunchy on the outside. It’s chewy, springy and doughy on the inside. This was definitely a New York bagel. I had to call everybody!”
Maseng, a lanky 22-year-old whose father is a cantor at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles, started Hegel’s Bagels 10 months ago. He runs the bakery and delivery service out of his tiny Chinese kitchen on the north side of the city, baking them himself by the half dozen in a “souped-up toaster oven.” From morning until night, he delivers each order himself, by bus, standing next to curious Chinese commuters, to the farthest reaches of the city.
Bagels and Beijing may not be the most intuitive combination, but to Maseng, it was an opportunity. For his belly.
“I just got so hungry for them” since moving to Beijing a year and a half ago, Maseng said.
Maseng is nothing if not enterprising. He had spent a year studying abroad in Beijing while an undergraduate at Oberlin College, and when he graduated in 2009 with a degree in East Asian studies, he decided to return. In November 2009, he arrived in the country with nothing more than a one-time gig booked for his two-man band at a local music venue. “I told them that we were huge at the Oberlin café.”
For about six months, Maseng worked a series of odd jobs: an unpaid internship in coffee sales, tennis coach to Japanese children, English tutor to his landlord’s wife in exchange for a decent bed.
During his free time, Maseng and some friends created a series of inventive dinners based on TV cooking competition shows: “We called it Tron Chef — ‘Top Chef’ meets ‘Iron Chef,’ ” he said. Then, one fateful week, he received a challenge for bagels.
Bagel options in the Chinese capital were few and far between — and usually unimpressive. Most local brands only approximated the mass-produced, Midwestern supermarket bagel, an unacceptable choice for Maseng, who grew up down the street from H&H on New York’s Upper West Side, and whose reply to anything suspiciously green for the better part of his life was, “I’ll just have a bagel and butter, thanks.”
Having only recently started cooking, and with no baking experience, Maseng did what the clueless masses do: He Googled a recipe.
“It’s a snap! A cinch! I thought,” Maseng recalled.
The first batch was an unmitigated disaster. The dough rose for too long. He didn’t knead it enough. The oven temperature was too low. He mistook baking soda for yeast. “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” Maseng said.
Determined, Maseng made a half dozen bagels a day for an entire month, his back and arms sore from the unaccustomed workout of endlessly kneading dough. “I really didn’t want to lose that Tron Chef battle,” he said.
Finally, a good batch came forth from his oven — hot, chewy and delicious. Maseng felt he had hit upon something, so he e-mailed and offered to sell bagels to China’s entire Fulbright Fellowship listserv and quit all his odd jobs. “I immediately wanted to be a millionaire,” he joked.
Now, with the bagels going for about $7 U.S. per half dozen, business is booming. Maseng recently moved his cooking part time into a shared industrial kitchen, where he has plans to quadruple his orders in the coming months. He is in talks with a delivery company so he won’t have to work 12 hours a day, most of which is spent on a bus. He has a “couple of hundred” occasional clients and makes about $1,000 per month, which, though it doesn’t quite qualify him as a millionaire, is enough to cover his rent and live comfortably.
The name, Hegel’s Bagels, is just for alliteration. He offers four flavors: plain, sesame, garlic-rosemary and cinnamon-raisin. To the local Chinese, he explains that the bagels are “native bread rings from New York” (even though he works from a Montreal-style recipe — “a horrible sin!” he joked).
Recently, the Chinese shopkeepers of the flour store from which Maseng buys his ingredients were getting increasingly curious.
So one day, Maseng brought one in, split it into a few pieces, and passed it around.
“One of the women had a look of pure disgust on her face, like it was something she picked up out of a garbage can,” Maseng recalled. “I ran out of there fast.”
But university student Zhou Lu gave it a different assessment: “Very delicious! I like how you’re full after just one, not like bread, which you have to eat and eat before getting full.” Zhou now orders about a dozen every two weeks.
For now, though, his clientele remains mostly ex-pats longing for a taste of home.
“I think they’re the best bagels I’ve ever had in China,” said David Emery, a business consultant.
Maseng once even delivered bagels for the U.S. ambassador.
“I don’t think they were a very good batch,” Maseng said, “because he never ordered them again,” though embassy employees remain enthusiastic clients. “I’m so excited when Obama comes,” Maseng deadpanned. “He’ll have my bagels, and we’ll play basketball together.”
过去，来自纽约的Debbie Nagy-Huang和她的丈夫每次回去探亲时，都要带回北京满满一箱子纽约有名的H&H百吉饼。 他们把这一大堆饼珍惜地存放在冷冻箱里，一点点地，慢慢地吃着，一吃就可以吃好几个月。“在北京实在是找不到这种具有家乡味道的饼，”Debbie 说。
去年，她从一家当地的杂志上读到了一条消息：Jordan Maseng，一个地地道道的纽约小伙子在北京开了一家小小的百吉饼外卖店。这小伙子自己烤饼，自己送饼。Debbie简直不敢相信自己的眼睛。她马上就给店主Jordan打了个电话，定了一份饼。她说：“那饼外脆里嫩，真有嚼头儿。这可是真正的纽约白吉饼啊。” 吃完了饼，Debbie立刻就给她所有在北京的美国朋友打了电话！告诉了大家这个好消息。
Jordan Maseng今年22岁，高高的个子。他的父亲是洛杉矶Temple Israel of Hollywood唱诗班的领唱人。Maseng是个很有事业心的好小伙子。他一直觉得自己和中国很有缘分。在Oberlin读大学时，就到北京学习过一年。2009年，他以东亚为专业毕业之后，决定返回中国。2009年11月，他和自己的双人乐队从美国在北京的D22定了一场演唱会，告诉组织者他们这个乐队“在Oberlin大学的咖啡厅可红了！”之后，Maseng在北京打了六个月的零工：当过咖啡推销员，日本小学生的网球老师。有一次。为了有个舒服的地方住宿，还免费教过房东英文。
如今，Hegel’s Bagels半打百吉饼卖7美元，每日生意兴隆。最近，Maseng 和他人合租了一间职业厨房，计划在几个月里把产量扩大四倍。他还和一个外卖公司商量，承担外送工作。这样，他就不用一天工作12个小时了。 他每个月都有几百个顾客，能挣上1000美元。虽然不算大钱，但是足以付房租和过上舒服的日子了。