Places that Matter

Coney Island Bialys and Bagels

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The Ross family, photo by Martha Cooper
The Ross family, photo by Martha Cooper
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, exterior
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, production
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels, daily selection
The oldest bialy business in New York City
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By Cailtin Van Dusen

Taped to the front of the cash register in Steve Ross's shop is a tattered Soup to Nutz cartoon in which one character asks the other, "What's a bialy?" His friend, holding aloft one of the palm-sized, Frisbee-shaped breads, replies, "If a bagel and an English muffin got married, this would be their baby." Steve's is the oldest bialy business in New York City; the product of another marriage: the gastronomic instincts of Bialystock, Poland, with the mineral-rich water and hearty appetites of New York City.

Steve Ross is a third-generation bialy maker. His grandfather Morris Rosenzweig immigrated from Bialystock, the Polish city that gave the bialy its name but where, according to food historian Mimi Sheraton's book The Bialy Eaters, the tradition does not survive. Morris started the business in East New York in 1920, moving it to its current location in the 1950s. The business was strictly wholesale and strictly bialys, which were first delivered around Brooklyn by horse and buggy. In 1960, Steve's father, Donald Ross, took over; and Steve himself began to apprentice before he was ten, working his way up the ladder by grinding onions, packing bialys, and sweeping floors, stealing moments in between to clamber around the jungle gym of flour bags in the store's basement.

Coney Island Bialys added bagels to its name in the early 1970s when Steve's father saw bagels being made and sent his brother-in-law out to learn the trade. Looking to expand their wholesale business, the family even experimented with new bagel-cutting machines but, dissatisfied, gave up after a few years and returned to rolling bagels by hand. By the 1970s, bagels had entered the mainstream, but the business was not for just anyone. Steve recalls, "Everything looks a lot easier until you realize you've got to be up at three o'clock in the morning, and you don't get home until three or four in the afternoon, if you're lucky. My kids tuck me into bed at night."

But the effort is worth the prize. Just open the door to Coney Island Bagels and Bialys and smell the air, redolent of yeast, warm dough, and the sweet-and-sour tang of baking baking onion. A glass case displays wire bins of bagels and bialys in over forty varieties from the traditional to the avant-garde. A hand-printed card touts the new low-carb bagels, and a handy chart informs Weight Watchers: "Regular bialy: 3 points. With lite cream cheese: 5 points." A Snapple case, cardboard racks dispensing phone cards and Alka-Seltzer, and a few shelves of sundry goods complete the scene. At the back of the store, though, the deli facade gives way to a wooden counter dusted with flour and poppy seeds, an ancient iron bialy cutter caked with dried dough, an industrial-sized mixer, and the heart of the operation: a brick-lined oven with rotating racks, from which canvas-covered boards of golden bagels and bialys are pulled with giant wooden paddles to cool in fragrant heaps behind the counter.

Steve boils his bagels, whereas many of his competitors steam them instead, a shortcut that increases quantity but deprives the bagels of the moisture and chewiness that are the earmarks of a master bagel. In the trade, boiled bagels are known as "water bagels" and steamed bagels as "rack oven bagels." The boiling process, Steve explains, pulls the starch out, making the dough softer and ensuring a longer shelf life. "We've perfected our formula," Steve proclaims. "But walk any block and you'll find three or four stores selling bagels. So I've got to try and stay a step above everybody else."

A self-described bialy man, Steve makes no secret of his preference. "If you eat a good bialy with butter, you'll never eat another bagel." He grew up making only bialys, and claims that he only broke into the bagel market recently -- in the seventies. Suggesting changing trends in baked goods, he says "my kids, they're not into bialys. The new generation doesn't know what a bialy is." Perhaps because of his loyalty to his Bialystock roots, Steve continues to offer only two varieties of bialy: traditional, with onion or garlic in the center; and cinnamon raisin, as a weekend special.

Like all true craftsmen, Steve ardently guards trade secrets. He pontificates on the relative ash content of different brands of flour as readily as on the merits of liquid versus powder malt. And he won't reveal the source for the blueberries in what has become one if his signature bagels. "It took me about six months to find a decent blueberry," he confesses.

"New York is the only place you can get a true bialy," Steve avows. "A lot of bagel stores that do wholesale out in New Jersey make their own bialys, but they make them out of bagel dough." Bialys have more yeast than bagels and no sugar, and their baking methods differ too. Bagels are rolled, placed on a board, set aside while the dough rises (or "proofs"), then stored in the refrigerator, where they can rest for up to five days. Behind the massive doors of the walk-in refrigerator at Coney Island Bialys and Bagels is a "waiting room," where uncooked bagels rest in abeyance, some wan and bare, others studded with raisins, others topped with sesame or poppy seeds.

Bialys, on the other hand, are prepared and baked the same day. The dough is cut into thirty-six round balls at a time, collectively called a teighlach, using a bialy press. The dough balls are allowed to proof in a box, then stretched into their signature disk shape, and the depression in the middle is filled with onion or garlic before baking. Finding a qualified bialy stretcher is no easy task these days. "It can take as short as one week to learn bagels. To get the speed, that comes with time. Now with bialys, I saw someone learn within three weeks, but it usually takes a month and a half to two months to learn it."

Steve's bagels are baked on metal "boards" -- metal sheets covered in canvas -- in the five-hundred-degree brick-lined oven outfitted with shelves that rotate along a track, like the cars on a Ferris wheel. The oven, a family heirloom, is kept running twenty-four hours a day, as is the store. Even when the window grates are down, and Coney Island Avenue is so quiet you can hear the clicks of the streetlights changing, the oven continues to creak around on its ancient hinges. Inside, simple rounds of flour, yeast, salt, and water are transformed into golden loaves, steaming up the windows and filling the air inside with a veil of dust. 

Coney Island Bialys and Bagels is one of only three bialy businesses left in the city, along with Kossar's, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and Bell's, in Canarsie. In the bialy's heyday the Ross family was baking a thousand dozen bialys each day, and on Saturdays and Sundays lines of customers stretched out the door. Now the ovens churn out only a few hundred dozen bialys each day. Ask Steve why and his answers indicate that he's given it a lot of thought. For one thing, orders from local, civic organizations have declined. The cost of ingredients and utilities -- like the enormous amount of water he needs for the kettle -- are rising.

In 2001, Steve tried to transport his operation to Washington D.C., where he was featured at the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. "I ended up with a pot, a Chinese wok-scoop to pull the bagels out, and a pizza oven to bake everything in," he recalls with a chuckle. In the days leading up to the festival, he was interviewed on the radio and mentioned that the one thing he worried about was the lack of New York City water in D.C. "New York water has always been the best tasting. It's the consistency: just the right mix of rainwater and Hudson River water." The interview came to the attention of New York City's water commissioner, and she arranged to ceremoniously truck down gallons of New York City water to the Ross family tent at the festival.

Despite the shifts in local business, his wholesale business ships bialys to fans and nostalgic customers as far abroad as Nigeria and Great Britain. Yet Steve seems skeptical that his children will pick up the business in his wake. His daughter comes in during the holidays and some weekends, but at age sixteen her ambitions are elsewhere. Steve isn't concerned, though; he still has plenty of time to fulfill his mission of whetting the Big Apple's appetite for bialys, hot out of the oven, dusty with flour and spiked with crisp, caramelized onion, and served -- unsliced--with butter on the bottom.

[Written in 2006]