Montreal and Toronto have an old-fashioned rivalry unlike anything we see in the US, more intense than Noo Yawk v. Beantown, more nuanced than Tinseltown v. Frisco. Stephen Brown grew up in Toronto but attended McGill in Montreal, which introduced him to Montreal’s surpassing gift to North American cuisine: the bagel. Hand-rolled, dense, chewy. An entrepreneur at heart, Brown does nothing by accident. By the time he graduated, he had decided that one day, when the time was right, he would open a bagel bakery and deli.
What most startups lack, Brown posits, isn’t customers but a mechanism for customer engagement. So he gave his bakery an offbeat name, Eltana. It sounds vaguely Hebrew (not a bad thing, given the product’s ethnic background), but it’s not a real Hebrew word. The point of the name, the only point, is that customers will ask what it means.
The question itself creates an opportunity for the staff to engage with the customers. (There’s no sign pointing to the restrooms, either.) Brown and his managers hire new employees based on their candor and generosity of spirit in addition to standard abilities to deal efficiently with a diversity of job duties. Answering the same question a dozen times a day? Shouldn’t be a problem. “If it were a real word, it would mean something like ‘God’s Bread Basket.’”
Lots of stores offer what Brown calls BSOs, bagel-shaped objects, but they’re not bagels. “A hole and a soul” is Eltana’s bagel. Seven varieties, from plain to salted to “everything.” In Montreal, you used to buy a bagel for 50 cents; in Seattle, it’ll set you back a buck and change.
Eltana first store was on Capitol Hill, and Brown has since opened several more stores (Seattle Center, Wallingford, two in Japan, even). The existing wood-fired oven at 12th & Pine cranks out 900 dozen bagels a day, with more coming from a commissary near Seattle Center. There’s technology in place to flash-freeze par-baked bagels with liquid nitrogen when they’re 75 percent baked, then finished onsite in convection ovens, a new batch every 15 minutes.
Ironically, customers want to buy hot, fresh bagels even though they really need to cool for an hour to set the crust. Waiting! Now, that’s a hard sell. But—more opportunity for engagement—you can do a crossword puzzle while you wait. A new one every week. “What many of us wish we could say we’d done more of this year”? “GOTSOMEEXERCISE.”
Bagels are one of those products that seem unnecessarily complicated. First you mix the dough, which you roll into thickish ribbons. Then you pinch a length of dough, form it into a circle, and boil it in water with a bit of honey. Only then do you roll the bagels in a generous amount of “toppings” (salt, garlic, sesame seeds, etc.) and send them into the low-ceiling wood-fired oven. And they’re not giant bagels, either, not truck tires. Vegetarians love the spreads: red pepper & walnut, eggplant & pomegranate, and a spicy garlic cream called za’atar. A terrific mashup of Mediterranean street food and Jewish comfort fare.