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Benchwarmers Bagels bakes with fire and challenges the bagel establishment

Kaleb Ede, the front of house manager at Benchwarmers, works Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, with other employees to prepare for their official opening Feb. 7th at Transfer Co. Food Hall in downtown Raleigh.
Kaleb Ede, the front of house manager at Benchwarmers, works Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, with other employees to prepare for their official opening Feb. 7th at Transfer Co. Food Hall in downtown Raleigh. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Benchwarmers Bagels is pushing back against the bagel world’s geography bias.

For what seems like forever, a myth has been boiled and baked into a kind of accepted truth. If the bagel you’re eating didn’t come from the New York boroughs or Montreal, what’s even the point? It may look like a bagel, taste like a bagel, lodge poppyseeds between your teeth like a bagel, but if hailing from all the elsewheres in-between, it’s treated as something less than the real thing.

The style at Benchwarmers — the latest vendor to open in Transfer Co. Food Hall — is neither Montreal or New York, the owners said.

“Contextually, we’re not trying to do any type of bagel,” said Sam Kirkpatrick of Boulted Bread and co-owner of Benchwarmers. “Taste is so tied to memories...We’re asking people to try something new.”

Benchwarmers is the result of Boulted Bread, a stone mill bakery, and Jubala coffee, a craft coffee bar, joining forces.

During a soft opening last week, Benchwarmers sold out of all its bagels in just a couple hours for three days straight. The grand opening is Thursday, Feb. 7. Its initial schedule will be 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will be added soon, the owners said.

“Bagels made sense for a lot of different reasons,” Kirkpatrick said. “We’re so proud of what we do at Boulted Bread and believe in fresh milled grain and flour and enjoy the access it gives us to flavors and textures and aromas. ... We continue to push that idea and looked where else in the baking world we can add that. Bagels seemed to make sense.”

At Transfer Co., Benchwarmers joins Locals Oyster Bar, Che Empanadas and Burial Beer’s taproom, who have been operating on a limited basis.

Benchwarmers boils its bagels in a vat of honey-water before sliding them in the wood-burning oven on long wooden planks.

They mix the classics and a few bagel inventions, favorites like sesame, poppyseed and everything alongside za’atar and sea salt and a Southern-inspired grits bagel. With a menu created by chef John Knox, formerly of Vin Rouge in Durham, bagel sandwiches include fillings like duck rillette with sour cherries; house-cured lox with deviled eggs spread; and fried bologna with yellow mustard and an egg.

On the coffee side of things, there’s a full espresso bar. Jubala owner Andrew Cash had an older model La Marzocco espresso machine fully restored as if it were a vintage Corvette.

Back to basics

Boulted co-owner Joshua Bellamy is largely behind the Benchwarmers bagel recipe. He shares the sentiment of nostalgia-powered bagels, cherishing memories of visiting Ess-A Bagel in New York City with his grandfather as a kid and eating one of New York’s most storied bagels.

“As an adult, I always felt there was a piece of the story that was missing with bagels,” Bellamy said. “Using fermentation and fresh milled flours, I think there’s some inherent flavor that’s being left on the table.”

The first few batches, Bellamy said, were not successful.

“The first few batches, I relied too heavily on my experience baking,” Bellamy said. “I butchered them. They were really bad. Flat. Tough. Flavorless. I had to step back and admit I don’t know anything about anything.”

Bellamy said stepping back meant starting with a basic bagel recipe and pushing it from there. Benchwarmers uses a wood-burning oven, imparting a shock of intense heat and some visual theatrics, he said.

“It’s kind of a cool way to bake,” Bellamy said. “That initial blast of heat from the fire kind of traps moisture in the bagel itself and because they bake pretty quickly, you don’t get this dried-out thing.”

Benchwarmers isn’t the only one stepping up the region’s bagel game. If three makes a trend, North Carolina may be entering its artisanal bagel phase, with Benchwarmers following close behind Big Dom’s in Cary, from acclaimed pizza family Amber and Zach Faulisi of Pizzeria Faulisi, and James Beard-nominated chef Katie Button’s new Buttons Bagels in Asheville.

Bellamy respects the bagel traditions, he said, but that new takes are long overdue.

“I think bagels have been kind of pigeonholed by their own sense of history,” Bellamy said. “And because of that, there hasn’t been much progress made with them. People came up with a thing and stopped pushing them.”

Transfer Co. is at 500 E. Davie St., Raleigh. Follow Benchwarmers at instagram.com/benchwarmersbagels.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.


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