Ben Newman’s face lights up when he begins to describe what defines a “true” bagel. The perfect carb-loaded delight is created with the finest, key ingredient: high-gluten flour. From there, “true,” full-flavor bagels are boiled and baked — never steamed — creating breakfast bread that embodies the harmonious balance between crusty and chewy. Bagel lovers should also hear a tearing sound as they munch through the crunchy exterior and indulge in the doughy center of their bagels.
To Newman, bagels are more than just food; they’re an art form, a way to bring the community together and a way to bring business to Detroit.
Ben Newman, 28, and his brother Dan, 24, founded the Detroit Institute of Bagels, a business that the two brothers started out of their Corktown apartment that will soon be expanding to a building at 1236 Michigan Ave.
Newman graduated with a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He also has previous experience working in the food industry and on vacant property issues in Detroit. Food businesses create active, community spaces, Newman said.
There weren’t any bagel shops in Detroit; the city was a “bagel desert,” he said. However, it wasn’t until two years ago that he actually had any experience making bagels. In fact, he said, it was three or four months after he and his brother began making bagels out of their apartment — while he was still interviewing for traditional urban planning positions — that he realized he actually wanted to pursue creating a bagel business in Detroit.
“I probably had interviewed for one more urban planning job — this is probably really honest — but I think one of the people interviewing me was falling asleep. I’ve worked in the office world and that’s not the world I want to be involved in. I need to create a tangible product and be active all day long, so I was just really sold. It all came together in my mind: my interest in urban planning and my interest in food businesses. I really found a sense of being content with the concept and that just felt really great,” Newman said.
He began his “bagelsmithing” career by searching for bagel recipes on the Internet. With time, Newman said, he graduated from using cups of flour, to measuring ingredients with a digital scale that is accurate to grams, and then measuring yeast to a tenth of a gram — improving the recipe with each additional step. Newman also learned a few tips and tricks from New York Bagels in Ferndale and Zingerman’s Bakehouse in Ann Arbor.
“I’m pretty confident now that I make good bagels,” he said. “I think in the beginning, people were supporting me and the concept. Now, I’m confident that even if they didn’t like me or the concept, but they liked good bagels, they would support the business.”
The Newman brothers began selling their homemade bagels during a three-week fundraiser at the Isaac Agree Synagogue. They also sold their bagels at Eastern Market each Tuesday, Newman said. After receiving positive feedback and overwhelming support from bagel enthusiasts, Newman said he realized that the DIB needed to open a shop where Detroiters could buy more of their bagels.
With the purchase of their building on Michigan Avenue, which they have dubbed “the gateway to Corktown,” come added responsibilities, he said.
At present, Newman makes all of the bagels himself, and his brother Dan serves as his online ambassador and business partner from his current home in Seattle. A large cost that he anticipates in the future is paying more employees. As the DIB expands and the growling in every Detroit bagel lover’s stomach gets louder, the costs of running the DIB will increase, Newman said.
“The other big question mark is how do we go from making 15, 30, 45 bagels a day to 1,500, 3,000, 4,500 bagels a day, which is a different scale,” he said. “Zingerman’s has let me come into their space and New York Bagel in Ferndale has let me come into their space to see how they do it, but it still requires me taking what I currently do and trying to keep the quality on the same level as we expand.”
Despite the anxiety of facing the first of each month, Newman said he’s learned a lot. Things are moving along, and he said that he plans on building new construction between the DIB and PJ’s Lager House. Although it has set the opening a few weeks to months behind schedule, this new construction will allow all of the bagel making to occur on one floor, making the process more efficient.
Newman also notes that his transition into the bagel business has been defined by his ability to work, learn and benefit from other local business owners. For example, he said, the owner of Astro Café purchased and planted trees for the DIB. Newman says he’s continuously inspired by the owners of Supino’s Pizzeria, Mudgie’s Deli, Park Place Bar, Sugar House, Green Dot Stables, Astro Café and Corridor Sausage Co., to name a few.
As Newman enters the club of Detroit entrepreneurs, he’s proved to be a support system for others, as well, said co-owner of Corridor Sausage Co., Will Branch.
“He’s one of those guys that you can bounce ideas off of,” Branch said. “The one thing I always like to thank Ben for: He found the space I moved into at Eastern Market a few months ago. This was a space that was never going to be on the market, he turned me onto it, and it’s an excellent home for us.”
Newman is also an inspiration for budding Detroit business owners and students, said Wayne State English major Gina Koki.
“Ben's place is about more than just bagels; it’s an establishment that was founded by someone who wasn't afraid to take a chance,” Koki said. “What better example for a community of college students who will soon embark on taking their own chances in the real world.”
Newman looks forward to days on which he will have to wake up at 3 a.m. to turn on the oven and kettle to prepare bagels for hungry Detroiters, who will eventually be able to spill through the doors of the DIB from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Newman said he hopes that the DIB will create a place that residents can take pride in and visitors can support.
“I hope that we can sustain it. I hope that we create a place where a diverse group of people will want to come in and interact with each other. I hope that we create a place where the employees like to come into work and customers like to come interact with them,” he said. “That’s the beauty of bagel: everyone — with the exception of anyone who can’t eat gluten — loves a good bagel. It’s something that everyone can relate to and it’s affordable for everyone.”