Finally, there’s a bagel place in the heart of Savannah.
I am more than a little verklempt.
When my wife and I first visited back in 2013 and began house-hunting between the Victorian District and Ardsley Park, we drove by that empty art deco-ish former garage on the corner of Bull and 37th dozens of times.
No lie: pretty much every time we passed it, I said, “If I had a bunch of money and some guts, I would buy that building and open up a gelato bar or a bagel shop.”
I shared that with Kay Heritage this past Saturday as we sat on two folding chairs outside her new bagel shop, and she laughed. The light morning breeze wafted the in-the-oven aroma of everything bagels over us. Between overseeing the opening of Bodega and still working Big Bon Pizza events, it might have been the first time in a week she had sat down.
Over the last two years, all of us watched with eager interest as that vacant property was niftily renovated to include two floors of apartments, the sleek and curvy building given new life, painted bright white with black-paned windows to look like it was pulled from the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery or “The Fountainhead.”
And yet we waited and waited to see what would open in the window-filled retail space on the ground floor.
At 7 a.m. April 10, Big Bon Bodega opened for business on that site as Heritage and her Big Bon team realized a collaborative vision of making wood-fired bagels for the masses and ventured into their first brick-and-mortar space.
“My friends at Service Brewing, Meredith Sutton and Kevin Ryan, kept texting me the photo of this building,” Heritage recalled, explaining how it all began. “They said, ‘This is where you should be.’”
Well, before the doors opened that first morning, a dozen people were lined up in the breaking dawn. Yup, an even dozen. That had to be bagel kismet. At half-past six, Heritage was manning the stately Marra Forni bread oven, sliding soldier rows of bagels into its fiery mouth atop red oak sheebas (think: bagel surfboard.) After baking for four minutes on the dampened boards, she flipped the bagels over, right onto the oven’s deck, to bake for another seven minutes, a process that makes for an evenly baked bagel with no distinct top or bottom.
Before another sheeba lined with bagels is inserted, each row is nudged over to make room, timed out to the second the ones on the far-right are done. It all makes such sense as does the stratagem of starting the day’s baking with the plain bagels before moving on to the sweet and then the more loaded savories, keeping the naked rounds untouched by a single poppy seed, raisin, or toasted garlic shard.
Like Big Bon’s pizza, the bagels at Bodega are not cheap, several pennies of which can be chalked up to the ingredients and the painstaking process executed by the BBB baking team. At $2.25 a pop, this might not be a warm-and-toasty treat you can afford every day — or even every weekend. A baker’s dozen is $22. In all honesty, it would be nice if the bagels were a quarter cheaper — or a quarter bigger.
Still, the bagels are truly amazing, chewy and dense in all the right ways with a lightly crisp skin. It had been more than four years since I had eaten one that could be mentioned in the same breath. The everything bagel has perfect punch without the usually overwhelming onion or garlic, and the plain, cinnamon raisin, and sesame seed are textbook. I am not a poppy seed fan, but I might tuck into one of those, too, if it were less coated in tiny black dots.
Are they 95-cents better than those at Midtown Deli & Bagel Shop? Maybe not, but Bodega is 10 blocks from my house and is in a lovely spot that beats driving four miles down Abercorn to, meh, a strip mall.
What might come as a surprise to locals who follow Big Bon Pizza on social media like it's Adele is that the bagel idea predated the 2016 pizza launch. Even more incredible is the fact that Heritage had never made a bagel before she began researching and prototyping about 10 months ago, which included a friendly practicum at the Call Your Mother Deli in D.C., whose owners wanted to pay their bagel knowledge forward.
Heritage credits the bagel idea to a good friend who lives in Canada and who knew that wood-fired baked goods were the Big Bon Family’s fascination.
“She texted me while she was visiting her family and sent me a video of Montreal-style bagels and said, ‘You should do this.’” As a fitting homage to that friend’s brainwave, The Donna is now on the Bodega menu: a sliced turkey, bacon and avocado sandwich.
From there, Heritage’s daughter, Anna, Big Bon family’s co-founder and pizza director, connected her mom with SCAD grad Charlotte Masters, and the three had a ‘dream conversation’ that landed squarely on round wood-fired bagels.
Bodega’s Euro-clean and sinuous interior is the thoughtful product of designer Jerome Elder and Masters, BBB’s creative director who’s also tasked with the tiny market’s carefully selected cold case items, including unique wines and beers, and sundries. In addition to a pork bulgogi, kimchi cream cheese, and peanut slaw bagel, you can pick up a small bag of chips, gum, ketchup, Advil, Spam and a roll of toilet paper before you place your order.
“We wanted our guests to be part of the whole process, the visual, the smell,” Heritage said of the shop’s design. “It was proven through our pizza experience that people want to be in the kitchen,” which is why the wood-fired bread oven was put behind one of the building’s garage-door windows and facing the queued-up customers, a visual treat that whets the appetite and abates the wait.
A Savannah resident of the last 28 years, Heritage admitted, “I’ve always loved bagels, but I never made them at home. I would go to Panera.” Just like the rest of us.
Here in Savannah, she found a mentor in Maté Factor’s Brian Baruch, whom she praised for his guidance and generous spirit in coaching her through the bread process over the last several months.
Each Bodega bagel’s life starts the day before it is eaten with dough that goes through a 24-hour cold fermentation. Once hand-rolled and proved, the bagel takes a poaching dip in a malt-and-honey infused bath before being baked. The only structural difference between a Bodega bagel and a traditional Montreal-style bagel is a smaller center hole, which is a design triumph because no one wants butter dripping through the middle.
From bagel board to basket, 12 minutes.
In these early days, Heritage’s team has come in at 4 a.m. — baker’s hours, folks — but she hopes that they will become more efficient in the coming weeks and months, which may mean coming in at… wait for it... 5 a.m.
By 1 o’clock on Day 1, they had sold out. On Friday afternoon, only a dozen-odd bagels remained, and the closing crew took them down to Old Savannah City Mission.
That first Saturday morning, at 9 a.m., there was no line out the door, but a healthy one snaked inside, plus another half-dozen folks holding their plastic numbers and awaiting their paper bags of toasted goodness. By 10 o’clock, the line had doubled, and the Yum Yum Twists had already sold out.
Though it was a busy first weekend, customers stood on line only five or 10 minutes before another fiver waiting to be handed their orders. All in all, pretty expedient. Heck, plenty of restaurants in town that have survived for years don’t have customer logistics or coherent staffing remotely as good, and Big Bon Bodega is less than a week old.
Leo Durocher was wrong. Nice people don’t finish last. Kay Heritage and her Big Bon Family are living proof that nice people work hard. Nice people put passion into their enterprise.
Nice people make delicious pizza and bagels. First-rate bagels.
Someday, Neil and his wife will be living in a tiny town in the south of France, eating, doing crosswords, and playing Scrabble. For now, when he is not grading papers, baking bread, or watching EPL soccer, he builds furniture and writes.