By Jason Keil
Charles Blonkenfeld doesn't like to use the word "pivot" to describe the direction his career took in 2020.
The term became a buzzword of sorts this year, used excessively to illustrate how many folks working in the hospitality industry, which is dependent on people gathering in large crowds, had to shift their lives to make ends meet. To Blonkenfeld, the word is the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. It dresses up the anxiety he felt when he realized that his catering business couldn't expand during the pandemic.
"It’s not a pivot," he says. "It's more like, ‘I’m done panicking. Now what do I do?’”
The 48-year-old, who was born in Brooklyn, found the answer to his question over the summer. He realized something was missing from the Valley culinary landscape: a good bagel. And his pivot — sorry, a shift in focus — allowed him to succeed in baking something great. Bagelfeld’s, the name of his venture, has been delighting the fickle taste buds of Valley East Coast transplants and bagel connoisseurs at the following locations: Stoop Kid at The Churchill (901 North First Street), Nelson’s Meat + Fish (2415 East Indian School Road), Coffee Zona (5202 North Seventh Street), and the Uptown and Downtown Farmer’s Markets.
But according to Blonkenfeld, it took decades of working in food service to find his true calling. In 2010, he started a takeout place in downtown Phoenix that only lasted a few months, so he served at banquets and worked private parties to make ends meet. He rented a kitchen in 2018 and launched his catering business, but then the pandemic hit, and his calendar cleared fast.
He says he let the opportunity to do meal delivery pass him by. When the costs for renting his kitchen were starting to add up, he got into a funk as he and his wife saw the case numbers rise in Arizona. So he canceled his expansion plans and started looking for jobs out-of-state.
"I’m looking at jobs, and I see one for a sous chef for a bagel joint in Connecticut," he recalls. "Then the light goes off, and I say, ‘I want to make bagels!’”
Now for the most surprising twist of this story: Blonkenfeld had never made a bagel in his life until the summer of 2020.
"I’ve catered forever and always dreaded the conversation about where to get the bagels," he says. "We always knew we were buying shitty bagels, and no one enjoyed it. I think everyone in the city got used to a mediocre bagel.”
Blonkenfeld found a baking textbook and followed a bagel recipe inside. People liked what they were tasting, so he reached out to the local farmer's markets, and they started to catch on among shoppers. When Nelson's Meat + Fish needed someone to provide them a good bagel, it reached out to Blonkenfeld. Soon other vendors followed suit.
Blonkenfeld says there isn't a trick to preparing his bagel dough. He simply puts in the time and care to get things just right.
“I’ve gotten lucky on some of the pieces [of the process], and they’ve added up to a good bagel," he says.
Early in the morning, Blonkenfeld hand rolls his dough. You can see that when you pick up a Bagelfeld's bagel. They look a little off-balance, but they have that crisp golden skin that crunches when you sink your teeth in. The inside is so soft and flavorful you might want to try your first bite without cream cheese.
And natives and transplants alike are taking Blonkenfeld aside to compliment him personally on the taste and texture of his bagels, which come in several varieties, including plain, sea salt, everything, sesame seed, poppy seed, and fennel seed and golden raisin. Customers tell him how grateful they are to finally have a place to get a good bagel. He recalls getting a little emotional when someone dropped him a line on his website.
"It almost made me cry," he says. "I didn’t think a bagel could touch someone. Someone felt that they had to find my website, fill out the contact form, and send me a note saying how much they appreciate the bagel. I’ve never done that for anyone’s food or product.”
To find out where you can pick up a Bagelfeld's bagel, visit bagelfelds.com.