How two love birds became night owls – seven days a week, all for their adoring customers.
Since 1995, Joe & Joanne Berlin, owners of Bagel Lovers Cafe, have dedicated their nights to the laborious and time-intensive process necessary to make authentic New York-style bagels. “Bagel quality is key, but it’s very tricky,” said Joe. “You can’t fool people; if they buy something once and it’s not right they won’t come back again.”
Bagel Lovers Cafe’s dedication to consistently producing perfect, 5 ounce., kettle-boiled, NY-style bagels has led the Berlins to oversee the baking at Bagel Lovers Cafe’s flagship Brandywine Plaza location “every night, seven days a week,” explained Joe. The Berlins and a staff of bakers prepare hundreds of bagels each night, frequently working straight through until morning. “This is our home,” said Joanne. “Our house is where we hang our hats and go to sleep, but we exist here.”
The couple met while studying at the State University of New York, before marrying and relocating to Central PA. “Joe was a plant manager for ASK Foods working tremendous hours when he decided he wanted to do something on his own,” recalled Joanne. “Joe has a degree in Food Science, and I hold a degree in Chemistry, so we had to do what we knew; we knew it had to be food.” The concept for Bagel Lovers Cafe came to the Berlins when they asked themselves, “what can’t we get here that we really would appreciate?” said Joanne. “Real bagels. I grew up in Rochester New York and Joe grew up in northern New Jersey, and when we moved here we always had either family bring us real bagels.”
The concept of a “real bagel” has always been extremely important to the Berlins. “The key is you make these bagels using the best, freshest ingredients,” said Joanne. A single bite of one of Bagel Lovers Cafe’s bagels reveals the essence of a New York-style bagel; a crunchy crust with a moist, chewy center. But after settling on the idea for Bagel Lovers, the Berlins were forced to confront the fact that, as Joe put it, “we didn’t know anything about making bagels.”
“We got out the map and went to 30 different bagel shops in the northeast, trying different ones and seeing what we liked,” said Joe. “We finally found a shop in Jacksonville, Maryland that was our favorite, and I went to the owner and said I’m from PA, I won’t be any competition for you, but I’d like to work for you for a week to learn how to make a bagel.” The shop owner accepted the request, and Joe put himself up in a nearby motel and worked the overnight shift at the bakery, learning the kettle-boiling process that would become his signature at Bagel Lovers.
Joe combined the techniques he learned with Joanne’s chemical expertise to create Bagel Lovers Cafe’s unique recipe. “After getting the exact percentage of gluten in your flour, you make the dough and proof it, and develop it overnight in a cooler,” said Joanne. “There’s a fermentation taking place overnight with the yeast where the flavor comes from. Then you kettle-boil in water, which seals in everything; that gives you the top crust on the outside and nice and doughy inside.”
On March 16, 1995, the first Bagel Lovers Cafe was opened in Harrisburg’s Oakhurst Plaza. “It was an education,” said Joanne. “The Jewish community understood, but then everyone else had to be educated on what a real bagel was.” The store was remarkably successful, and spawned a second location in Strawberry Square in 2002, as well as a wholesaling operation that supplies bagels, pastries and homemade spreads to establishments throughout the Harrisburg area.
After 16 years in Oakhurst, Bagel Lovers’ flagship cafe relocated to nearby Brandywine Plaza at the corner of Paxton Church Road and Progress Avenue. “There’s a lot more room, a lot more capacity, and we were able to use the expertise we gained to lay out the space the way we wanted to,” explained Joe. “We’ve got the two large ovens in the back, and we can have 10 people working at once without bumping into each other. With everything controlled here, the nice thing is that Joanne and I can keep an eye on quality.”
Bagel Lovers Cafes produce over 20 varieties of bagels regularly, as well as a specialty Bagel of the Week. Past specialty bagels have included French Toast, Parmesan Peppercorn, Butterscotch, an Omelette Bagel containing egg, bacon, onion and red pepper, and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip. Bagel Lovers also makes over 10 flavors of cream cheese, and features full breakfast and lunch menus at both locations. The Berlins will continue to experiment with new flavors made from fresh, local ingredients, but Bagel Lovers Cafe will never stray from their commitment to quality and consistency. “No matter what, we do not ever want to change the size or quality of our bagels,” explained Joe. “We’re going to keep making fresh, real bagels everyday.”
Bagel Lovers Cafe has two locations in Harrisburg as well as a stand in the West Shore Farmers Market. For more information including catering options and wholesaling call 717-545-1655.