On Lower East Side, Bakery Plots Comeback for the Often-Ignored Bialy
Kossar’s, one of the last retail bialy shops in New York City, keeps a tradition alive.
At a time when historic New York sometimes seems to be under siege, perhaps no staple has been as imperiled as the bialy, the powdery, pungent pastry that is cousin to the bagel.
Once the bialy was so popular that its workers had their own union. But in recent decades, far fewer bakeries specialize in the bread that hails from Bialystok, Poland, and in the U.S. primarily is associated with New York City. Bialys have languished in the long shadow of bagels.
A veteran food writer said they doubt very much if it can be saved in its original form.
Now one of the last retail-oriented bialy stores left in New York City, is trying to defy the trend. This week, the bakery on the Lower East Side is closing for six weeks for a renovation, a first step in a plan to catapult bialys into the mainstream.
Most people are going to buy a business to earn a living. This bakery bought a business to almost restore a bit of history in New York City and then desire to expand that throughout the city, throughout the country and even throughout the world, stated a new owner, who bought the store with two partners in 2013, one of whom has since sold his share.
But first people need to know what a bialy is, let alone pronounce it (bee-AHL-ee).
Although sometimes described as “a bagel with the hole filled in,” traditional bialys use a different dough and require a distinct cooking process. Bialys are baked—not boiled and baked, as bagels are. They cook on a steel surface, whereas bagels do better on stone.
Bialys also have in their centers a polarizing schmear of onion or garlic, a classic Jewish cooking staple. The result: a smaller, lighter pastry with a crisp, flat center and soft, puffy rim, and spiked with the onions. Some refer to it as a “Jewish English muffin.”
Other bialy stores have closed rather than confront the challenge of the pastry’s declining popularity. The city’s oldest bialy store, Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, shut down this summer after years of struggles and several different operators.
In 2001, the Smithsonian invited one long-time owner to sell bialys on the National Mall for two weeks. Very few people knew what a bialy was. But when they returned to Brooklyn, orders started streaming in, and business tripled.
The terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed this owner and his business’s trajectory, he said. Mr. Ross and his family gradually cut back on the hours and went from three delivery trucks to dropping off orders in a station wagon.
The baby boomers moved out of New York, the demographics changed, a lot of the new New Yorkers, the immigrants, they’re coming from a country where, number one, they don’t know where a bialy is, and everybody wants big now. The big gulp, the big mac, everything is big big big.
One new, high-profile store in Soho that sells bagels and other Jewish foods, doesn’t offer bialys. Fresh Direct began selling frozen bialys in New York City in 2004 and sales have held steady, a spokeswoman said. But customers still prefer frozen bagels 10 to 1.
A restaurant in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, started making bialys for its takeout bakery in August of 2014. It stopped after four months when they didn’t sell well enough, said the head baker.
“A lot of people just didn’t know what they were,” she said.
“I love them,” she added. “They just really haven’t gotten a foothold. It’s sad.”
Most realize that the bagel business will always be a bigger business. But that doesn’t mean that the bialy business can’t grow exponentially as well.