House of Bagels makes dough the old-fashioned way

by Noma Faingold

San Francisco's original House of Bagels may offer a wide array of Jewish-leaning baked goods these days (from macaroons to Mandelbrot), but the business has survived and thrived for 50 years because the original New-York-style bagel shop does one thing really well: bagels.

Generations of San Franciscans, East Coast transplants and tourists have been touched in some way by the House of Bagels, located on Geary Boulevard near 14th Avenue. Or, at least they've enjoyed an authentic (aka artisan) bagel – or many. Often, locals recall that dad ritualistically waited in line to pick up fresh bagels, lox and cream cheese every Sunday morning. There are those who ordered the family's weekly braided challah for Shabbat dinner. Others just walked by after getting a whiff of the homey scent of just-out-of-the-oven baked bagels seeping through the bakery's screen door and found themselves impulsively at the counter ordering an onion bagel with the works.

According to Michael Puente, who has co-owned the House of Bagels with his wife Jenny for seven years (buying the business from his parents, Miguel and Mary Puente), when the shop first opened there were no authentic New York-style (boiled) bagels to be had in Northern California.

"When it opened in San Francisco, the bagel was only known as an ethnic food," said Puente, whose father, Miguel started working at the House of Bagels more than 40 years ago and still helps out now and then. "Now, everyone eats bagels."

In 1962, the original House of Bagels owners, the late Sidney and Bea Chassey, made it their mission to bring New-York-style bagels to the Bay Area. That meant using high-protein flour, malt, brown sugar, water, salt and yeast while leaving out oils, fats and preservatives. The time-consuming process includes resting the kneaded and formed dough overnight on cornmeal. When ready, the bagels are quickly boiled and then baked directly on stone.

Puente is a bagel purist and refuses to take the shortcuts that many other manufacturers and bagel shops practice, such as steaming instead of boiling or baking the dough on pans or cookie sheets.

"That would be cheating," Puente said. "We wouldn't be where we are today if we did that. People who know bagels consider us the standard bearer. We even get orders from New York."

The retail business continues to grow, Puente said, especially since they expanded the bakery choices to include breakfast pastries like bear claws and croissants. Yet, the most profitable part of the business is the wholesale market, which includes high-end hotels and upscale grocery stores in the Bay Area.

There was a bagel boom in the '80s, when a number of chains, like Noah's, surfaced and Lender's (owned by Kraft) and other brands sold frozen products in grocery stores. Even Dunkin' Donuts started selling bagels. The explosion was somewhat fueled by the low-fat trend. More diverse flavors, like cinnamon raisin and pesto, began to emerge.

The House of Bagels currently offers 27 bagel choices, from classic flavors like sesame and poppy to the more contemporary chocolate and jalapeno.

At the height of the bagel craze, a number of "House of Bagels" shops opened around the country. A search for "House of Bagels" on Google today includes stores in the Peninsula, South Bay and as far away as Florida and New Jersey. None are associated with the San Francisco outfit, which could only secure the rights to the name in San Francisco.

While bagels may not be a daily ritual, like a cup of hot coffee, Puente sees a bagel resurgence of late.

"More people have had a bagel than have eaten sushi," Puente said. "It's a pretty versatile food. I've seen bagel shops all over the Midwest and even in rural Montana. When you think about it, everyone can afford a bagel."

The House of Bagels, located at 5030 Geary Blvd., is open 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. daily. Bagels are 99¢ each or 13 for $9.75. For more information, call (415) 752-6000.