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The Bagel Man

By Phil Goldfarb

Who doesn’t like a good Jewish bagel? The “Jewish English muffin” as the Lender family called it, brought the bagel (frozen) into kitchens across the country. Lender’s bagel bakery was established by Harry Lender, a Jewish baker from Chelm, Poland who was born on December 14, 1894 and had immigrated to the United States from Lublin in August 1927. Contrary to the popular Anglophone assumption influenced by the family’s Jewish roots that the family’s surname refers to moneylending, it is in fact a transliteration of the Yiddish word meaning “countryman” or “person living in a rural area.”

After first working in a bagel bakery in Passaic, New Jersey, Lender purchased his own bakery on Oak Street in New Haven, Connecticut for $600 and brought his family to join him in the United States on December 30, 1929. New Haven then had a population of over 162,000, many of them new immigrants, and a Jewish population of 25,000, accounting for almost one sixth of the population. Lender’s bagel bakery, called the “New York Bagel Bakery,” was one of the first bagel bakeries in the United States to be established outside of New York City. Harry would hand roll the bagels and bake them in a small oven.

In 1934, Lender moved to a large former Italian bakery, in a multiethnic neighborhood of New Haven. Aside from sales to individuals, Lender sold his bagels to other bakeries as well as to delicatessens and restaurants. As the largest sales of bagels came on Sunday morning, Saturday night was the busiest time at the bakery, and people of all ethnicities, even from out of town, began to stop by the bakery on Saturday nights to purchase fresh bagels.

By the mid-1950s, the logistics of producing as many as 6,000 bagels for sale on Sunday morning, in contrast to relatively low activity the rest of the week, began to demand a solution. As a result, in 1954 Lender perfected a method of freezing the bagels, so that the labor could be spread more evenly throughout the week as well as keeping the bagels fresh. This was kept secret, but after two years, the bakery accidentally delivered the frozen bagels, and the secret was revealed. Customers were initially angry, but were won over, when they realized that these were the same bagels they had been satisfied with for the previous two years, and the New York Bagel Bakery started to market the frozen bagels, delivering them also outside of New Haven, initially to resorts in the Catskills.

Further refinements were developed, such as pre-slicing the bagels and packing them in polyethylene bags to keep them fresh after thawing, and the bakery began selling the packaged frozen bagels in supermarkets. To introduce bagels to an unfamiliar public, the Lender family would prepare and distribute them in supermarket aisles. The plastic bagged, frozen six pack of pre-sliced Lender’s Frozen Bagels began to gain market share, and by 1959 supermarket sales accounted for half of the sales. New varieties of bagels were invented, and production was switched over to rotary ovens, rather than labor-intensive open, flat ovens.

On October 20, 1960, Harry Lender died, and his sons, Sam and Murray, who had been running the bakery with him, continued. In 1963, the Lenders leased the very first Thompson Bagel Machine, invented by Daniel T. Thompson. Until then, according to Thompson, “Sam Lender mixed the bagel dough and one man cut it into small slabs and fed it into an Italian breadstick machine. The Italian breadstick machine made bagel dough strips that were then distributed to workstations where six to eight men rolled them by hand into bagels. With this system, they averaged 50 dozen bagels per hour per man. The first Thompson machine, with three unskilled workers, was able to do the work of eight skilled workers.”

In 1965, the bakery, now renamed “Lender’s Bagel Bakery,” moved to a 12,000-square-foot plant to have ample reserve capacity for expansion; business increased so quickly that the bakery was working at full capacity within a year. The Lenders began flash-freezing the bagels and produced softer and sweeter bagels than was traditional. In 1978, the family opened a bagel restaurant in Orange, CT under the name “H. Lender and Sons.” Two years later, they opened a second one in Hamden, CT. After Lender’s Bagels was sold to Kraft Foods in 1984, the name of the restaurants was changed to S. Kinder Restaurants. The name is derived from Yiddish esst, kinder, meaning eat, children.

Lender’s Bagels eventually grew to a highly automated 25,000-square-foot bakery, pioneering the modern automated bagel bakery. Lender’s Bagels, now owned by the Pinnacle Foods Group recently had revenue of over $41 million dollars with the sale of 24 million six-bagel packages in variants from cinnamon-raisin to the green St. Patrick’s Day variety.

Phil Goldfarb is President of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Tulsa and can be e-mailed at: phil.goldfarb@cox.net

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