By Margot Adler
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City. Founded in 1920, it’s faced hard economic times and changing neighbourhood demographics.
Now, the shop has been rescued by two Pakistani Muslims — and they’re keeping it kosher.
Coney Island Bialys and Bagels makes everything by hand, the old-fashioned way. Zafaryab Ali, who worked in the bakery for 11 years before leaving to drive a cab, now runs the shop, along with his partner Peerzada Shah. He gives an abbreviated bagel tour of all the regular flavors: plain, poppy, onion, egg, salt, onion, garlic, and so on.
It’s a small store, being slowly renovated, in a rundown area on Coney Island Avenue. But the customers know what they like.
Jeanie Wittson, who works in a nearby store, wants her bagel scooped out with a little butter.
“I love their bialys and I like their fleigels,” she says. “That is a flat bagel. They are not as doughy.”
Today she’s getting a cranberry bagel with a little butter.
A Family Affair
The store was founded by Morris Rosenzweig, who came from Bialystock, Poland, at the turn of the 20th century, where bialys originated.
Bialys usually have an indentation in the middle, but it’s not a hole like a bagel, and they often have some onions in the middle or other flavoring.
At one point the bakery did so much business, it was open 24-hours a day on the weekends. Later, the store was run by his son. And then by Steve Ross, Rosenzweig’s grandson, now in his 50s.
Ross remembers, “By the time I was 10-, 11-years-old, I was working the cash register, had to stand on a milk case. By 12-, 13-years-old, I was making bialys. By 16, I was rolling bagels. So I worked literally [from] the bottom up.”
Ross also worked as a firefighter until he got injured on the job. He’s had three surgeries and couldn’t easily commute from New Jersey to take care of the shop. Also, the neighborhood changed.
Ross says many of the traditional customers moved to the suburbs. He tried to sell the business, but there were no buyers.
When Ali heard about it, Ross asked him, so you want to take it over? Ali decided to try.
Keeping It Kosher
Shah, Ali and Ross say that not much has changed. They are using the same ingredients, from the same suppliers.
“I gave them all the phone numbers,” says Ross. “If you need this. this is who you are going to get it from and they stayed with all that.”
For the bagels, that means high gluten flour, brown sugar and liquid malt. It means making them by hand, not by machine, and boiling them not steaming them before they are baked.
As for keeping the bakery kosher, Ali says, “Kosher and halal is very, very close, like brother and sister, maybe twins.”
Ali and Shah say the only thing remaining is official kosher supervision and certification. They are looking for a rabbi to bless and supervise.
Ross, Shah and Ali talk to each other at least several times a week. They all say business is picking up.
And when people look askance at the idea of Muslims running a kosher Jewish bakery, Ross says, “They were reliable, I taught them everything, they always showed up, there was never any argument. I wish them well.”