.Raising Bagels

How Emily Winston is building Berkeley’s Boichik Bagels while staying true to her vision

For Emily Winston, bagels are family. 

An onion bagel covered in chive cream cheese. An everything bagel loaded with lox and garlic cream cheese. A garlic bagel stuffed with tomatoes, capers, onions and chile cream cheese. All of these bagels are covered with a schmear that’s so thick it oozes out the hole in the middle when the two halves are pressed together until it’s flush with the top of the bagel. 

Winston calls them “serious New York bagels.” They are malty and sweet, but still chewy with a blistered crust—much like a soft pretzel—and are so perfect after baking that they don’t require toasting, a food critic once wrote. 

“These bagels are her kids,” said Rob Soviero, chief operating officer of Berkeley-based Boichik Bagels, the company Winston founded back in 2017. “That’s a huge part of how we got to this point.”

A tiny, unknown Alameda pop-up just six years ago, Boichik today is a nationally famous bagel shop that while growing fast, is still dedicated to the simple, almost gentle vision of its founder.

“We’re never going to be a Noah’s,” said Soviero. “We’re not supported by huge investors, venture capital. Especially in the Bay Area, so many companies start off, look for VC money and then sell. But that’s not her vision. She just wants to get phenomenal bagels to as many people as we can.”

Winston, 45, is an engineer by trade. She studied mechanical engineering at Cornell and later transportation technology and policy at UC Davis. In interviews, she easily drops engineering phrases like “everything is a process” and references Toyota’s famous “continuous improvement” maxim. 

In 2011, she was living in northern California and working on a database for her aunt when she got the news that would change her life, and in turn, those of many, many others. The work she was doing paid well, but was boring, she recalled. It also allowed her to work remotely, and didn’t require anything near 40 hours a week to do.

Then that June, H&H Bagels closed its bagel shop on New York’s Upper West Side. Open since 1972, H&H was legendary with New Yorkers, and with Winston’s family, which lived across the Hudson River in New Jersey.

“We had our local bagel shop, and they were very good,” Winston said. “But H&H was our ‘special occasion bagel.’ Dad would take us—it was the ‘Holy Grail bagel.’”

Chewy and crusty and malty and sweet, the bagel was like a part of Winston’s family on big occasions. Now, it was no more. “At least it existed at home when I wanted it,” she said. “It hit me really hard when it was gone. Now, I can’t even go home and get it.”

Unwilling to accept the loss, Winston set about replicating the H&H bagel formula—or, at least, producing a suitable substitute. For five years, she worked quietly, studying food manufacturing, experimenting with recipes, watching YouTube videos. Her bagels got better; her friends began raving. She took more baking and food preparation classes.

Her first real exposure to the public came in September 2017, at the Eat Real Festival in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Janelle Bitker, then a reporter with the East Bay Express, attended the festival, where she saw Winston and her new Boichik Bagels. 

There weren’t many people standing around Winston, she said, but since she loved bagels—and especially New York-style bagels—Bitker quickly tried one. After taking a bite, Bitker—who today is senior editor for food & wine at the San Francisco Chronicle—closed her eyes.

“This is the real deal,” she thought happily. The next month, the Express published Bitker’s story, calling Winston’s bagels “a game-changer” and dubbing them the “best bagels in East Bay.” 

A few weeks later, Winston hosted a Boichik pop-up at her house in Alameda. Unlike during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it became common for chefs to hold pop-ups at their homes, the practice was still novel then. Bitker decided to attend, figuring she’d get to relax and enjoy the bagels. Though she arrived right at the scheduled start time, Bitker found more than 100 people already standing in line. 

“Is this possible?” Bitker thought. “But within a few minutes she sold out, and everyone had to go home. Word traveled fast,” she said.

From there, Winston got a cottage food license, and then a regular food license. By late 2019, Boichik Bagels was up and running in Berkeley. The shop was small, but more people began to notice. Just 16 months later, on March 8, 2021, to be exact, news from New York changed Winston’s life yet again.

“Emily Winston’s bagels are some of the finest New York-style bagels I’ve ever tasted,” New York Times food critic Tejal Rao wrote in a story titled, “The Best Bagels Are in California (Sorry, New York),” noting that “They just happen to be made in Berkeley.”

The compliment surprised Winston, she said. Though Rao had interviewed Winston prior to the article’s publication, she had only said her story was about West Coast bagels, Winston said. Nonetheless, Winston was ecstatic. “I can die a very happy and fulfilled person now,” she told The Jewish News of Northern California. “There’s no greater honor for a bagel shop, no further accolade past The New York Times declaring my bagels the best.”

In just a day, Boichik Bagels went from a small but beloved East Bay institution to a national sensation. Demand for Winston’s bagels exploded, and growth was now inevitable, though it would take time. She also needed a bigger staff, not just to make the bagels that so many people were now asking for, but also to oversee the company’s day-to-day operations.

“Managing people is not my strong suit,” Winston admitted.

Through a mutual acquaintance, Winston began courting Rob Soviero, the former general manager of Oakland’s Tribune Tavern, to help out Boichik. Soviero, though being a “Jersey Italian”—as Winston put it—said he “didn’t do bagels.” 

At the time, Boichik was adding a lot of products, but the line of customers to get bagels was considerable. The goal, Soviero recalled, was to get customers their bagels in just four to six minutes. Winston continued to press Soviero, and in the summer of 2021, he agreed to join Boichik as chief operating officer.

“Her passion sold me on it,” he said. “I take her vision and try to make it a reality. And Emily is open to making sure we are a team, in every aspect. She has skills she doesn’t realize are management skills.”

In the coming months, Boichik grew from one store to four. Then in March of this year, two years after The New York Times article, Boichik opened an 18,000-square-foot factory in West Berkeley. The exterior is covered with a bright blue mural of mixing bowls, rollers and boiling pots from artist Nigel Sussman. Meant to convey the bagel-making wonders within, the mural is industrial but still whimsical.

Inside, customers can watch the largely automated factory churn out bagels—a lot of bagels. In fact, the BakTek dual-lane dough-forming machine Boichik uses can churn out 12,000 bagels every hour, according to a June article on Engineering.com.

At top speed, the machinery can produce one board of formed bagels every seven and a half seconds, according to Apex Motion Control, which manufactured the Baker-Bot robot arm that hoists Boichik’s bagel boards from the rollers to the racks. Like something out of an auto-making plant, the Baker-Bot’s giant three-fingered hand can deftly spin as it picks up racks off the BakTek line, turn and pivot to slide them into racks, then rotate up and wave to customers watching the process.

“That’s not going to be a fun job, to be picking those up off the end of the line and putting them on these racks,” Winston said in a promotional video for Apex. “My employees have more important things to do than lifting 15 pounds and lifting and pushing all day long. This would be a full-time job, just picking up the boards and putting them on the racks.”

As for using automation to make bagels instead of forming them by hand, Winston is unapologetic. “If the product is where I want it to be at the end, let’s bring equipment in,” she said in the Apex video. “Why not?”

For anyone concerned that the new automated factory will lower the quality of Winston’s bagels, Bitker said she tried them in the summer, after the Berkeley operation was up and running. “They’re still really good,” she said. “The factory has not decreased the quality at all.”

When asked if she’s happy with the factory so far, Winston was effusive. “I wish we could have a larger parking lot at the factory, but it’s amazing,” she said. “I’m afraid to change anything. I call construction the ‘8th circle of Hell,’ and I get to live there permanently now. It’s the price I pay. But I wouldn’t change anything so far.”

Though Boichik’s bagels are clearly her children, as Soviero observed, Winston’s vision for the company transcends being a bakery. In June 2022, The Daily Californian reported that Winston “makes it known that Boichik Bagels is ‘unapologetically’ Jewish, gay-owned and women-owned.” 

At a time when right-wing idealogues increasingly make anti-Jewish, anti-gay and anti-woman attacks, Winston has openly embraced all three elements of her identity. “It’s important to maintain that visibility,” Winston told me. “But there really has not been pushback—this is Berkeley. As we expand, we might run into trouble. But so far we have not.”

That Winston is openly left-wing shouldn’t be surprising, given the history of bagels. Though the earliest bagels in 14th century Europe were royal delicacies, they evolved in Poland in later centuries as poor people’s street food, according to Ari Weinzweig’s 2009 Atlantic article, “The Secret History of Bagels.”

“Bagels also lean left because bakeries back in 19th-century Poland seem to have served much the same role cafés did in other countries—they were where young people in the Jewish community would gather to discuss new, radical political ideas,” Weinzweig wrote.

First and foremost, though, the shop is Winston’s family, which has consistently been in her thoughts while building Boichik. Winston said she thought a lot about her grandparents. Her grandfather, an electrical engineer who died when she was a teen, was definitely on her mind when she was immersed in the construction of the bagel factory. And the name “Boichik” itself, which is a Yiddish term for a teenage boy, actually came from her grandmother. When Winston had her hair cut short and officially began identifying as a lesbian, she said her grandmother called her a “boichik.”

“My grandmother was making fun of me, but in an endearing way, a sweet way,” Winston said. “It’s what every grandmother calls her grandson, like a cheek pinch. In a lot of ways, I did look like [a 13-year-old boy]. Unfortunately, she passed away before I got any of this open.”

As for her parents, who first introduced her to H&H Bagels decades ago, giving her a lifelong passion for true New York-style bagels, Winston said they’re very happy for her. “My parents are very proud of my bagel business,” she said. “They like my bagels better than any they get in New Jersey. There are still plenty of good bagels left, but I think they’re becoming more scarce, which is sad.”

Anthony Pignataro
Anthony Pignataro is a journalist and author who really loves his girlfriend, Angie, and his cat, Gromit.

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