As a (former) New Yorker, I’m well aware that a bagel is not your average bread. In Manhattan, there are several thousand bagel places to choose from, and each one makes their specialty a little differently. Everyone has an opinion on where to buy the best bagels — growing up, I spent countless hours in line on weekend mornings for a warm, freshly baked bagel, just around the corner from my apartment.
And while bagel snobbery seems to wane the further you get from New York City, sometimes you find warm, freshly baked bagels in the most unexpected places.
“We call it ‘a New York bagel with a country flair,’” said Jim Rubright as he bustled around the kitchen at the Middlebury Bagel and Deli in Middlebury early one Monday morning.
When he and his wife Cathy bought the place in 1979, it was the Middlebury Bakery, offering a full range of cakes, cookies and breads. But they found the bakery scene in town becoming increasingly competitive, both because of other small businesses and because of bulk bakery operations at supermarkets like Shaw’s, just across the street.
During that time, the bakery was operating outlets in Brandon and Vergennes, and for three years in the 1980s had a bakery in Burlington as well.
For a small, family-run operation, this was a lot of work. Rubright said he was at the bakery from 1 a.m. until 9 p.m., with only three days off each year. All this while he and his wife were raising five children.
So after a few years of this and less profit than the family had anticipated, they were more than happy to pare down operations and focus on finding new products.
“We started to make changes,” said Rubright. “Doing different things to keep the interest of the public coming in.”
Of course, it’s hard to break into a new niche in a town the size of Middlebury, he said. The regulars are regular right down to their arrival times — as the first customer of the morning walked in, Rubright turned to me.
“He gets oatmeal,” he said.
In anticipation, Cindy, who was st the front counter, served up a bowl from the small pot of oatmeal that had just finished cooking on the stove.
He greeted the next customer as well.
“Phil comes in every morning. Bob will be right behind him,” he said. “When they walk in, Cindy won’t even say ‘Same thing?’ She just puts it in the toaster.”
This regularity can be a blessing and a curse. Rubright and his staff usually make around 45 or 50 dozen bagels on weekdays, and about 25 dozen each day during the week. And save for unusual circumstances like parent’s weekend at the college, they can generally count on that amount being what they sell — Rubright pointed at a couple dozen bagels in a bag on the shelf, which were all that was left over from the weekend.
Predictability allows the operation to run with very little waste. But convincing regulars to try something new?
“You put a new muffin in front of a customer and they go, ‘Oh, they look great!’” said Rubright. “But they don’t buy them.”
When the Rubrights introduced bagels fifteen years ago, they could just as well have gone the same way as the other confections that the bakery had tried. But instead, they caught on.
Now the bakery has a steady routine. That Monday morning, the staff was cutting the bagel dough for Tuesday. It would spend the night in the coolers, which would develop the dough, and early Tuesday morning it would be shaped and boiled, then baked like any other bread.
“The boiling prevents them from blossoming like a Kaiser roll,” said Rubright. “It gives them a little sheen, a little extra crunch.”
The bagels allowed Rubright to distinguish his business from other establishments — instead of vying for cake and pastry sales, the Middlebury Bagel offered something that nobody else in town had: fresh, warm bagels.
But even with an established bagel business, Rubright can’t just sit back and relax. Sure, he gets more time to ski in the winter, and he’s not working hours each day. But recently he’s been having someone paint clouds on the ceiling in the dining room. This keeps it interesting for him, his staff and, of course the customers.
And for all the years he’s been in the business, it doesn’t ever get old.
“The day goes quickly,” he said. “It’s still fun, it’s still challenging.”