It’s 4 a.m., and Ben Newman only has to remember two things: warm up the oven and the kettle. After years of working to open his small business, he’s happy with just those two. The oven and kettle warm up together as the sun rises. At dawn, customers hustle in out of the cold to eat one of the world’s favorite breakfast foods — the bagel.
It’s been two years since Newman bought the Michigan Avenue space on the Lodge Freeway service drive. In that time, he’s dealt with city permits and construction holdups, as well as trying to get every step of his production process just right.
Detroit Institute of Bagels (DIB) opened last Thanksgiving to an eager crowd. (It was Newman’s longest day so far — a 19-hour shift.) Initial demand has been high, in part because he’s offering people what few others in metro Detroit are — tradition.
The labor-intensive, 30-hour bagel-making process starts with “sponge” — a mixture of yeast, water, and flour kneaded together and left to rise before being formed. A bagel’s shape is not only iconic but it’s also the only way for it to bake properly.
Here’s where tradition deviates from convenience: The formed dough is left to rest in a cooler for 24 hours to get it thick and flavorful, then removed and placed in a warmer environment for a few hours, a process known as “proofing.” The bagels-to-be are then boiled in a 40-gallon kettle and baked in a massive, rotating-shelf oven.
Consumers of commercially produced bagels are often victims of corner-cutting practices like shorter proofing periods or steam-oven baking. Newman has a hard time calling those real bagels.
Instead, he flaunts his traditional process through large windows looking in on his production room from a pocket park created in the space between DIB and the Lager House.
He even had local artist Ben Bunk paint the process on the counter next to the bagel display (Bunk also drew the signage and menu board).
Newman is a purist; the difference shines through in his product’s crisp exterior contrasted with a dense, chewy interior. But it’s not all about bagels. They’re not the only thing getting him up early.
“We’re passionate about bagels … but to wake up day in day out, there has to be something more driving you than a love of bagels,” he says. “It was always my vision that we could take a food business and make it an asset to the neighborhood and a destination spot for visitors.”
Newman moved to Corktown in 2010 hoping to put his urban planning degree to work. He met up with the founders of FoodLab Detroit, an organization of local food entrepreneurs and supporters, in its early stages. That inspired him to establish DIB.
“I really wanted to go through the experience of opening a food business in order to be able to help others open a food business as well,” he says.
Newman started making bagels with his brother in their Corktown apartment to raise money for the Downtown Synagogue in early 2011. The first small batch spurred demand. Soon, they were selling their goods to a responsive crowd at Eastern Market.
“We were making as many bagels as we could each day,” Newman says. “Something like 240 bagels … but that wasn’t enough. It was either, at that point, stop doing it or scale up a bit.”
When Newman bought the future home of DIB, he knew his work was cut out for him. The boarded-up, gray-brick building’s only redeeming quality was a weathered “Welcome to Corktown” mural that had to be removed. The interior was gutted, the entire storefront redesigned, and an entirely new structure built for the bake room. The lengthy construction phase was when his future partner, Alex Howbert, joined the team.
The result is nearly unrecognizable. Wood floors and charming old brick paired with modern fixtures and seating set an earthy tone, and the wide archway leading to the bake room tempts diners with the smell of fresh bagels.
“It’s a much more interactive space,” Howbert says. “We have a lot of people congregating at the bar to watch the baking process.”
Theoretically, bagels are fairly easy to make once you’ve got the recipe straight. But DIB has something more — 4 a.m. starts, 19-hour shifts, and the thrill of being part of something bigger than bagels.
“[We’re] using food to build community,” Newman says. “You can get two adversaries to sit down at a table if you offer them food.”
The Detroit Institute of Bagels, 1236 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-444-9342.