Midnite Bagel and Ethel’s Bagels Bake in West Coast Flavor
Jennifer Breckner, CUESA Volunteer
April 8, 2021
California bagel making has been experiencing a renaissance lately, driven by the increasing availability of regionally and sustainably grown grains that have been revived by farmers and millers working hand-in-hand with enterprising bakers.
Two new bagel businesses who epitomize the trend recently joined the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market—Ethel’s Bagels and Midnite Bagel—both launched during the pandemic. They have joined other farmers market favorites like Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen and Marla Bakery in putting Bay Area bagels on the map.
Ethel’s Bagels: Comfort and Community
Nicolas and Clare Abrams started Ethel’s Bagels out of their home kitchen in early 2020, selling bagels to families they knew through their children’s school in Petaluma. Little did they know, it would become their family business.
With a 30-year career in fine dining, Nicolas had worked for esteemed restaurants around the world, including Buckeye Roadhouse and Rustic Bakery. Yet, for the last few years he’d kicked around the idea of making bagels. He was inspired by childhood visits to his maternal grandparents’ house in Los Angeles, where his grandmother, Ethel Ritter, helmed large, vibrant family gatherings with Jewish food at their center, a memory that Abrams says is “really dear to me.”
The Abrams’ early bagel customers encouraged them to grow the business, yet they wondered how they would do that given their full-time professional and parental responsibilities. But when the pandemic hit and Nicolas and Clare were both laid off, they saw an opportunity to jump-start their dream. They brought their children into the fold, making it a true family affair. Seventeen-year-old Oliver built their website and manages the technical aspects of the business, and eleven-year-old Freya helps out at markets and wherever she can.
“Our house is not huge, and having every one confined together has not been easy,” says Clare, about starting a business during the pandemic. “It has [however] felt like such a luxury to be home again with everyone. The benefits have been greater than the negative aspects.”
Ethel’s Bagels became a seller at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market at the end of January, offering bagels made with organic premium flour from Central Milling and a sourdough base, which makes them easier to digest. They are hand-rolled and boiled in local beer, which gives them a malty flavor and crispy crust. They also offer homemade schmears in flavors such as pickled shallot and herb, black garlic and sherry, chive, and classic plain.
For their made-to-order bagel sandwiches like the Reuben, they source local ingredients such as wild lox from Anna’s Seafood and sauerkraut from Golden State Pickle Works. “Participating in a market that has a deeper involvement in the community and an emphasis on ethical sourcing is important to us,” says Clare.
Midnite Bagel: Innovation Meets Tradition
Nick Beitcher began cooking in fine dining restaurants when he was 20. Moving from New York to the Bay Area, he joined Chez Panisse, and later spent eight years working at San Francisco’s Tartine bakery, known for its creative and stellar bread program, steeped in long fermentation processes and complex flavors.
Influenced by his desire to have “whatever you’re making feel like it belongs in the place that you are making it,” Nick began brainstorming his next project while thinking about how to further make a mark on the world of bread in San Francisco. A friend suggested that he apply his experience to bagels. It was an idea with legs. “I’m Jewish and grew up in a Jewish family,” says Nick. “Bagels are the closest thing we had to a daily ethnic food.”
Midnite Bagel launched in 2019 as a pop-up at Tartine featuring bagels made with sustainably grown flour from Cairnspring Mills and a wild yeast sourdough culture as a base—but the pandemic turned the pop-up into a full-time gig.
“When the pandemic hit, I left Tartine and thought I would come back in a month or two when it ended,” Nick recalls. “As the pandemic showed no signs of disappearing, it became clear that I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon, so I decided it was a great opportunity to launch the business while I essentially had a captive audience.”
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market was the first place that he wanted to sell his bagels, because of fond memories of family visits there when he was young. Midnite debuted at the market last fall to great enthusiasm. “The regular farmers market customers have been incredible,” Nick offers.
On March 8, Tejal Rao, California restaurant critic for the New York Times, caused a social media storm when she proclaimed West Coast bagels the best in the land—better than the iconic New York version, with its long and cherished history. Midnite Bagel was featured alongside other California bakers, and the reception has been “overwhelming,” according to Nick. He’s hired three people to meet demand for pre-orders, which skyrocketed and are now booked through June.
Luckily for Ferry Plaza Farmers Market customers, Midnite’s bagels—in flavors such as sesame, poppyseed, cinnamon raisin, and the unique buckwheat-black sesame—are still available at the market on Saturdays, though one should arrive early to get the best selection, and be prepared to wait in line.
In regards to the article, neither Nick nor Nicolas are interested in a regional turf war. Nick says, “Bagels have dogmas attached to them—there is a New York bagel, and that’s it. A bagel is just another type of bread, so why should it be boxed in in that way? I want to provide my customers with something new, different, more nuanced, and healthier.”
Nicolas agrees, “I didn’t [start out wanting] to make a New York or Montreal or West Coast bagel. I wanted to make a great bagel.”
The article has helped to shine a light on other noteworthy Bay Area bagel makers. Nick sees the newfound bagelmania as an opportunity to elevate and educate the public about regional grains: “There’s been this incredible movement by younger bakers becoming really engaged with their local grain communities and realizing that there are no limitations for any of these products.”
In the future, both businesses hope to take the recent interest in their products and roll that into bricks-and-mortar spaces, where they can expand their offerings. For now, you can experience West Coast bagels for yourself at the farmers market.
Find Ethel’s Bagels at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays, and Midnite Bagel, Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen, and Marla Bakery on Saturdays.
Nicolas Abrams portrait by Michael Wolsey and Deborah Wilson. Nick Beitcher portrait by Peter Lee.