'Some of our customers have been coming into this store longer than we’ve been alive'

‘Bread of life’ for early Jewish immigrants is life-preserver for changing neighborhood

Kossar’s Bialys, the oldest bakery dedicated to the eponymous foodstuff, keeps its character even as it broadens its base

Reporter at The Times of Israel

David Zablocki and Evan Giniger, co-owners of Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)
David Zablocki and Evan Giniger, co-owners of Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Standing before the glass display case inside Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys, David Zablocki pauses for a moment. The daily offerings lie before him: original; garlic; sundried tomato.

“It’s like asking me which of my children I like best, but a hot garlic bialy with the butter melting? That touches my Polish and Italian sides,” Zablocki says.

Zablocki knows bialys, as well he should — together with Evan Giniger, Zablocki co-owns Kossar’s, the oldest remaining bialy bakery in the United States and the only dedicated bialy bakery in New York City. And while Kossar’s has changed ownership several times — and its location once — since first opening 80 years ago, it hasn’t strayed from its roots as a neighborhood bakery.

“Some of our customers have been coming into this store longer than we’ve been alive, and with all the gentrification and construction in the area some felt like they are losing their neighborhood,” Giniger says. “It’s important to know that we are here to honor all the traditions of bialys and bagels.”

In the time it takes to blink, bialy baker Dave Gardner pulls several disks of dough into shape and just as quickly slides them into a 500-degree oven. Twenty minutes later a tray of piping hot sundried tomato bialys sits cooling on the counter.

Although the flavor is a new addition to the bakery’s bialy offerings, Gardner’s technique is not. He turns out handmade bialys by the dozens using the same motions, mixing dough in the same (albeit refurbished) mixer, following the same recipes, as those who came before.

Dave Gardner shapes bialys before baking them in a 500-degree oven. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)
Dave Gardner shapes bialys before baking them in a 500-degree oven. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)

During the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of Jewish immigrants arrived in New York City, many settling in the Lower East Side. Among them were Jewish bakers from Bialystok Poland, which at the time was under Russian occupation. To earn a living in this new land they, like many immigrants, turned to what they knew best. In this case it was bialystocker kuchen, little bread rolls, served at most meals. Before long an industry was born. In fact, there were so many bakeries the owners formed a union, the Bialy Bakers Association.

Among the scores of bialy bakers were friends Isadore Mirsky and Morris Kossar. Together they opened a bakery in 1936 on Clinton Street, and in 1953 Kossar bought out his friend and changed the name from Mirsky and Kossar’s Bakery to just Kossar’s Bialys.

Five years later, the building exploded.

According to news reports police suspected foul play. Kossar had resigned from the neighborhood Bialy Bakers Association union and joined up with the local chapter of the national Bakery and Confectionary Workers Union. After the fire, Kossar relocated the bakery to its present location on Grand and Essex Streets, Giniger said.

Interior, Kossar's Bialys. A wide variety of bagels and bialys on display ready for purchase. (Courtesy)
Interior, Kossar’s Bialys. A wide variety of bagels and bialys on display ready for purchase. (Courtesy)

In time Kossar’s daughter and son-in-law, Daniel and Gloria Kossar Scheinin took over. They sold the enterprise to Juda and Debra Englemayer and Daniel and Malki Cohen, who in 2013 sold it to Giniger, whose father grew up on Rivington Street, and Zablocki, who grew up in Flushing, Queens.

“I’m a fourth generation New Yorker. I’d come here as a boy with my mother, who was a Rockette, and my father, who was a pharmacist, and I remember seeing all the bags of bialys out,” Zablocki says.

That’s not an exaggeration. Back in those days bialy bakeries such as Kossar’s were 24 hour a day, 7 day a week operations. They did such a brisk trade that bakers were known to sleep on the floor, resting their heads on flour bags. It was also a single product store; there were no bagels, no spreads, and there were definitely no cookies.

A bialy with lox, cream cheese, onions, and capers from Kossar's. (Courtesy Kossar's Bagels and Bialys)
A bialy with lox, cream cheese, onions, and capers from Kossar’s. (Courtesy Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys)

When the two took over the place in 2013 the little shop was on the brink of extinction.

“This store had suffered a drop in business in 2001, as many businesses did here in lower Manhattan. That and a change in demographics hurt the business,” Giniger says.

Yet Zablocki, a chef by training, and Giniger, with experience in marketing and branding, saw potential.

After an extensive renovation, completed last February, the bakery reopened. It broadened its offerings, keeping the old feel, all the time being careful not to turn it into a Disney version of the Lower East Side.

“The Lower East Side was a life raft for all of those people who came here, and their bread, the bialy, was their life bread. We wanted to give it a second life as a bialy and bagel bakery, but a life that extends far beyond these four walls,” Giniger says.

The original terrazzo floor still covers the 1,100-square-foot space and customers can still watch bialy making through the open kitchen.

To be sure, the original onion bialy remains the bakery’s bestseller, Giniger says. However, under their ownership Kossar’s expanded its offerings to include sundried tomato, garlic, and even olive.

Giniger pulls apart a steaming hot roll to reveal the anatomy of a Kossar’s bialy.

Sun-dried tomato bialys rise on wooden bins. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)
Sun-dried tomato bialys rise on wooden bins. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)

“It’s got to have the nooks and crannies. It’s lighter than a bagel. Almost like an English muffin,” he says.

The bakery also sells bagels: plain, sesame, poppy seed, egg, pumpernickel and everything. And, because Zablocki noticed customers have a penchant for the “everything” bagel, every flavor — egg, pumpernickel, and more — comes in an “everything” version, too.

The bagel making happens down a steep flight of stairs. Here in the basement bakers mix the dough and then leave them to rise inside a walk in refrigerator. Later the bagels will be boiled and then baked on wet, wooden planks. That creates a bit of steam to ensure a glossy crust.

This is only part of what makes a Kossar’s bagel a “New York bagel,” Zablocki says.

Hot bialys cool on the counter at Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)
Hot bialys cool on the counter at Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys. (Cathryn J. Prince/ Times of Israel)

“I can’t tell you everything that goes into it, if I did you could never leave here,” says Zablocki to this reporter. “But, part of it is the unadulterated New York tap water. It’s pure and it’s got minerals and it has a chemical effect on the dough. The slight sweet taste in the fluffy dough comes from malt, instead of cane sugar.”

To figure out the right combinations of high protein flours, sugars, and baking times, Zablocki did his food history homework.

“I also found a guy who used to be part of the bagel union. I learned all the ways from someone in the late winter of his life,” Zablocki says, adding that the baker showed him how it was done back in Warsaw, before the war.

Aside from bagels and bialys, Kossar’s also sells bulkas, pletzels, and sesame sticks. Its other baked goods including babka, rugelach, and mini black and white cookies are prepared off site.

A bagel with smoked whitefish salad from Kossar's Bagels and Bialys in New York City's Lower East Side. (Courtesy Kossar's Bagels and Bialys)
A bagel with smoked whitefish salad from Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys in New York City’s Lower East Side. (Courtesy Kossar’s Bagels and Bialys)

There are a variety of spreads including butter, cream cheese, peanut and almond butter, and hummus. For those customers craving something sweet there is the “s’mores bagel sandwich.” The summer special is a whole-wheat bagel filled with marshmallow fluff, Nutella, and graham cracker sprinkles.

To top things off, Kossar’s also serves and sells its trademarked “shmears,” or cream cheese spreads. There is plain, blueberry, onion, vegetable, borscht and everything — the latter was borne of necessity.

“Imagine, you are driving to a wedding or a special event and you want something to eat on the way. How do you eat an everything bagel without getting everything on you?” Zablocki says.

So he came up with the everything shmear. Spread on a plain bagel it delivers all of the taste, none of the mess.

Today the bakery, sandwiched between a pizza joint and a pet store, ranks alongside Katz’s, Russ & Daughters for iconic eateries. In her book “The Bialy Eaters, The Story of a Bread and a Lost World,” the former New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton described it as “the source of the very best bialys in the city, and as it turned out, the entire country.”

On a hot summer day, about a half-mile from the Bialystoker Synagogue and the Bialystoker Nursing Home, the breeze carries the scent of of fresh oven-baked bialys and old world tradition.

“I feel like we are stewards of a brand,” Zablocki says. “We are keeping something alive that is bigger than us.”

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