Niagara foodies seduced by kosher bagels

Jessica Bretzlaff, right, and Chris Mankarios make bagels at Congregation B’nai Israel.

Before last spring, Jessica Bretzlaff had never baked a challah in her life. 

Now, the 37-year-old mother of two operates her own bagel and challah business, called The Bagel Oven, in the Niagara region, and is rapidly filling a niche among the region’s bread-starved foodies Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Originally from Toronto, Bretzlaff and her husband Steven, who hails from northern Ontario, spent nine years living in Las Vegas, where they’d moved for his work. 

When they decided to move their family back to Canada in 2011, they opted for the idyllic Niagara region, in Niagara Falls, where they’d spent their honeymoon and had promised themselves they’d one day live. The plan was for Bretzlaff, who has a background in business and non-profit consulting, to temporarily stay at home with their children, Lily-May, 6, and Charlie, 5, and simultaneously seek out opportunities to establish a small, family-run business.

While observing the area’s intense foodie culture, Bretzlaff noticed a gap in the market for good quality, locally made bread.

Inspired by her nostalgia for the doughy, Montreal-style bagels she had grown up with – her parents are Montrealers – Bretzlaff spent several years experimenting with bagel recipes, researching ingredients and baking processes. (She also recently honed her own challah recipe.) 

“When we lived in the States and friends or relatives would come visit us, we would request that they fill up suitcases of Montreal bagels, so we could stock them in our deep freezer and enjoy them all year,” she laughed. 

Upon mentioning her bagel-making endeavours to a Jewish friend, the latter remarked that a local synagogue in St. Catharines often served kosher bagels at kiddush or brunches whose quality was, to put it mildly, sub-par. Why not try to work out some kind of partnership with them, the friend suggested.

Bretzlaff jumped on the opportunity and quickly set up a bartering arrangement with Congregation B’nai Israel: she uses their kitchen to bake The Bagel Oven’s products – assuming, of course, that all her ingredients are strictly kosher – and, in exchange, each month she provides them with between four to eight dozen bagels and four challahs to serve at the shul’s various events. 

A friend of hers, Chris Mankarios, helps Bretzlaff bake each week, and her husband, who splits his time between Niagara Falls and north of Thunder Bay, where he works as a mining electrician, helps out whenever possible.

Since officially launching as a business last May, The Bagel Oven, which Bretzlaff has mostly publicized through word of mouth, has drawn about 20 regular customers who have standing weekly or bi-weekly orders. 

She either delivers orders personally or leaves them for customers to pick up at the synagogue.

“I have spent a good deal of time networking in the Niagara-on-the-Lake community,” Bretzlaff said of The Bagel Oven’s growing popularity.

“I often donate my mini-bagels to charitable events, and in this way, have begun to spread the word among, predominantly, the baby boomer community who have retired in this region. They’re used to good bread, and are pleased to have access to it again.”

She stressed that the products – challahs included – are popular among Jews and non-Jews. She even recently delivered special raisin challah, in honour of Rosh Hashanah, to a local, non-Jewish woman.

“Non-Jews seem unfazed by the kosher thing. They enjoy the bread and are happy to have access to it, kosher or not.”

The arrangement with the shul has allowed Bretzlaff to keep her start-up costs low, and she has, so far, broken even. 

If all goes well, her plan is to open up a physical store for The Bagel Oven next fall, though the question of kashrut remains up in the air.

“We are still weighing the pros and cons of keeping it kosher,” Bretzlaff said.