In a city of bad mayo bagels, Laurel Kratochvila gets it right
Like so many great things, the best bagels in Berlin were inspired by heartbreak. Laurel Kratochvila and her husband were running Shakespeare & Sons, an English-language bookstore. Laurel’s best friend got dumped by his girlfriend. Disconsolate, the friend sought some comfort food and went to one of Berlin's notoriously spotty bagel shops. They didn’t even know what cream cheese was and were selling pre-made bagels stuffed with mayo, ham, and wilted lettuce. Laurel wasn’t with him at the time, but she said, “I’ve lived in Germany long enough to know what a place like that tries to pass off as a bagel.” The man snapped. “He started shouting at the guy behind the counter about how what they’re doing to the bagels is a latent form of anti-semitism,” Laurel said. Still upset, he went to Laurel’s bookshop. “I told him to come back the next morning and I’d fix the situation. I looked on the internet and figured out how to make bagels. By the next morning we had bagels. Good bagels. Real bagels. He was cheered up, and I had a new profession.”
I should say that, unlike a lot of New Yorkers, I am not performatively pedantic about bagels. I like fancy Montreal ones but am totally fine with bagels from a bodega. I don’t really care if they’re toasted. I thought a bagel was, pretty much, a bagel, and that all bagels were pretty good. I recently spent a few months in Berlin, though, and I can vouch for the man’s anger at the city’s lackluster offerings. They’re dry and dense, like those packaged German health food breads, but with a hole in the center. (If you Google Image Search “German bagel,” you get pictures of pretzels.)
Though she hadn’t made bagels before that fateful day, Laurel, who is originally from Boston and moved to Europe after college, told me she grew up eating them. “Like anything you grow up on, things gets very sentimental real fast. That’s how I like my food. I’ve always been a baker and tend to fixate on family recipes and Jewish food history, so baking my own bagels were a natural step.” As the bagels took off, Shakespeare & Sons added a tiny cafe, which blossomed into Fine Bagels, the only bakery in Berlin that gets bagels right. (Fine is the last name of Laurel’s grandmother Helen, listed on the store’s website as “bagel matriarch.”) When the bagels started getting in the way of the books, they moved everything to a much larger shop, in a building that formerly housed an East German state-run bookstore.
In the age of online shopping and rising rents—borne out in bookstores closing worldwide—adding a cafe can be a good way to keep people coming out to shop. “I don’t have a choice but to be realistic about paying the bills.” Laurel declined to specify how much of their income comes from the cafe and how much comes from books, but she said, “For us, having two angles helps keep a precarious and changing business feasible, especially if they compliment each other the way cafes and bookstores do.”
I asked Laurel if having the two businesses under one roof (and one cash register) ever creates logistical issues. She said that, “It’s a great dual business to have, but it isn’t without its problems… Sometimes the boundaries between a bookstore and a library get blurred when you stick a cafe in the middle and invite people to stay a while.” Another problem is that cream cheese and coffee aren’t always the cleanest things. “Did you ever go to a dressing room, try something on, and then wind up snapping a button and getting your lipstick all over it, but who cares because you don’t own it? Same thing happens with our books.”
When I asked her why her bagels are so much better than typical German bagels, she said that a good bagel is just five ingredients: Flour, salt, yeast, water, and barley malt. “Bagels here are rarely fresh or boiled and tend to include really superfluous ingredients like milk or tropical muesli or some crap like that. And don’t even get me started on toppings.”
Berlin is filled with tourists and expats who have had real bagels before, but a surprising number of natives are less familiar with them. This can lead to interesting interactions. “When Germans are confused, they give unsolicited advice like, ‘You should really offer a bagel sandwich!’ and ‘why is it chewy?’ They’re so used to seeing stale bagels pre-filled with ham and mayo that they have to get their heads around a different way of doing things.” But once they can be convinced to try some lox and cream cheese, they’re hooked. “The Germans who have had a real bagel can’t get enough. These are my most valued customers. This is a land of bread. They fear no carbs. They fear no gluten.”