The Serbian Bagel Shop That Could
It’s easy to walk past Bagel Bejgl in Belgrade without even realizing it. Sandwiched between a schoolyard and aging apartment buildings covered in haphazard graffiti, the unimposing bagel shop hopes to catch the eyes of local passersby with a single pop art decal. Inside, however, the intoxicatingly sweet-yeasty smell of fresh goods can make even the staunchest New Yorker’s mouth water.
Behind the counter of one of the Serbian capital’s only bagel stores, workers prepare an assortment of toppings. Familiar international flavors include cream cheese and lox, while kajmak, a Balkan buttery spread similar to cream cheese, and a teacup piglet’s worth of prosciutto represent the traditional fare. The shop’s director Marijana “Maja” Savić cuts open a steaming everything bagel to make one of the shop’s more “Serbian-style” sandwiches: kajmak and prosciutto, along with ruby-red tomatoes and rocket greens.
“There is no perfect recipe for everyone,” Savić said with a hearty laugh. “And there are different bagels throughout the world. It is like white bread!”
The average backpacker probably wouldn’t expect to find a bagel shop in the heart of Belgrade, much less one serving up artisan-quality sandwiches akin to those in Williamsburg or the Mission in San Francisco. Despite the bagel’s status as an international icon, the soft, chewy carbohydrate is a strange sight in Serbia; the đevrek, the bagel’s twice-removed cousin, is the local culinary scene’s staple circular treat. A piecemeal research effort, however, has led to Bagel Bejgl’s founding as one of the first bagel shops in Belgrade. The entirety of the store’s profits are used to fund its founder, the non-governmental organization Atina, in the fight against human trafficking.
“I have two reasons to be here,” Vladimir Radojčić, a customer waiting in line for a salty bagel, said proudly. “It’s really delicious, and it’s a social enterprise that helps our women.”
In 2003, Bagel Bejgl’s director Savić founded Atina in response to the human trafficking crisis in post-Yugoslav Serbia. Funding from international donors and the Serbian government supported Atina in aiding victims, predominantly women and children from Serbia as well as other Balkan countries, who were trafficked for sexual slavery and forced labor. It provided them shelter in safe houses, internship-like employment opportunities in Belgrade’s hospitality industry, and development of “life skills” that would further assist their reintegration into society. During the past five years, however, the funding from stakeholders and donors has dwindled.
“We realized at some point we’re not gonna have as much support as we’ll need,” Jelena Hrnjak, the program manager of Atina, said. “So then we started to think about how we can support ourselves, or how we can have some kind of stable source of income and funds and not to depend on anybody else—not international donors, not the state.”
Hrnjak explained that the idea of using a bagel shop as a means to generate funds for their organization came about through a trip to Tirana, the capital of Albania. There, New York-Tirana Bagels, a New York-style deli shop established by the NGO Different & Equal aided local victims of trafficking through employment opportunities as well as funding assistance with reintegration. If an NGO could use a bagel shop in Tirana to aid their beneficiaries, the staff at Atina reasoned, it might just work in Belgrade, too.
Three years ago, Savić and Hrnjak sought out help from Philip Ciric, the chef of the acclaimed Belgrade restaurant Homa. For almost 40 days, Ciric came in every morning to teach Atina’s executive staff, one with almost zero hospitality experience, how to market their products and effectively run a restaurant.
“Serbians are very open-minded about new stuff in food, but they had to promote the bagel,” Ciric said over the phone. The chef explained that they had to overcome locals’ familiarity with the culinary qualities associated with đevrek, a round and hard bread typically dipped in yogurt, and teach people why it would be a worthy substitution. “It must be more included in all parts of market,” he continued. “Networking is also very important for Bagel Bejgl—to represent what that means and explain the taste.”
Beyond just learning how to run the bagel store, creating the recipes and sourcing ingredients for Bagel Bejgl’s menu was a challenge for Atina. Savić and her fellow members at Atina pieced together a variety of materials for inspiration, including cookbooks downloaded from the Internet, YouTube videos on making bagels, and employees sampling whatever bagels were available during their travels. Employees tried over 35 bagel recipes, resulting in a final roster that includes your classic savory-styles like everything and salted bagels, as well as sweeter twists like orange vanilla. Their final task involved a blind tasting from employees at the US embassy.
“We said, ‘Okay, we have to find the population that knows what a bagel is.’” Savić said, explaining that a chef they knew at the embassy organized a tasting event with evaluation sheets. She added that they “score[d] different aspects of bagels: is it too hard or soft, the sweetness, the chewiness on a 1 to 5 evaluation sheet after the tasting event, and that space was our space to improve.”
Although they kept most of the details under wraps, the final base recipe features a strong New York-style influence through the use of malt syrup instead of sugar, and calls for boiling the bagels before baking them (sorry, Montrealers). The bagels have garnered a widespread fanbase beyond the neighborhood community, including international corporations in Belgrade like Coca-Cola and the information and technology company Humanity, as well as Serbia’s Erste Bank, requesting their catering services for company breakfasts and lunches. Within the first year, Bagel Bejgl experienced a bittersweet sign of success: they generated enough profit to have to pay the government a value-added tax.
“By our law, we earned enough that we have to pay taxes to our state, which we are happy about on the one hand,” Hrnjak said. “But on the other hand, it's too much maybe for us at this point. But it's okay.”
As such, Hrnjak and Savić of Atina are constantly looking ahead with Bagel Bejgl. At the moment, the mission is to have the shop’s profits generate 30 percent of Atina’s funding by 2017. This will require replacing their secondhand ovens and stoves in order to expand bagel production for in-house and catering requests. On the creative side, they're further blending bagels with Serbian cuisine, including ajvar, a garlicky, red pepper relish sometimes referred to as “Serbian vegetable caviar,” and partnering with local farmers in the community to strengthen their story of supporting the community. For them, however, bagels will always be a means of protecting their beneficiaries.
“This is a bagel shop, but I'd rather call it a bagel company,” Savić said with a beaming smile. “Because we have an idea. If we want to secure this funding for Atina, we have to go bigger. To expand.”
Sarah Bellingham contributed reporting.