From There to Schmear
By Claudia Ricci
Chances are that if you decided to open a bagel café, you’d have a bundle of bagel-making experience under your belt.
But that’s not exactly the way Judy and Marvin Lieberman got started 17 years ago when they arrived in Great Barrington determined to bring good—as in New York–style bagels—to the Berkshires.
“We knew nothing,” says Judy, flashing the dazzling smile so familiar to customers. “Really, we knew nothing. It was very scary, as we had no idea how to make a bagel!”
One thing the Liebermans did know, however, is that they needed to get expertise fast. So when a friend in New York saw an ad for a “bagel consultant” in the newspaper, the couple acted quickly to bring him on board. The consultant spent three weeks with Liebermans, teaching them the bagel basics. He also helped them select the best equipment, and helped them understand how to outfit the store with salads, lox, pastrami, deli meats and pastry.
The day before the Great Barrington Bagel Co. opened in February 1996, Marvin was still learning how to make bagels. “It was Marvin’s final exam,” laughs Judy. That first day, despite a giant snowstorm in Great Barrington, business was brisk. At that time, there was no other place to get baked-from-scratch bagels.
Judy and Marvin have come a long way since that first day. They now feature 26 types of bagels, 17 flavors of cream cheese, four soups daily, lots of lox and myriad salads. Marvin has earned a particularly good reputation for his delicious whitefish—while most other stores rely on small fish for this, Marvin uses a three-pound whitefish, which he slits and cuts into small pieces.
Marvin has also earned a reputation for his jokes, delivered in a true New York City accent. Customers respond well to his sense of humor. But Marvin and Judy say a sense of humor is essential as they serve the hundreds of customers who come in each week. Marvin says he thinks Judy is better working with the public than he is.
“I marvel at her patience with people,” he says. When hungry customers get unruly, Marvin will yell out “Who has number 22?” Since the bagel café has no customer-numbering system, it throws people into a total panic.
Some regular customers get upset when Marvin doesn’t remember their names.
“It’s so hard,” he says. “When you’re dealing with hundreds of people, I
The couple has come up with a saying to make people laugh. “Welcome to the Great Barrington Bagel Co., where everybody knows your name—except Marvin.”
The Liebermans, who moved to Great Barrington from Westchester County after giving up career jobs in graphic design, have built up a first-class reputation for the quality of their bagels, so much so that people come from both near and very far to get their bagels.
“We are no longer just a café, we are a destination!” Judy says. The store is attracting customers from afar. Edith, in her 80’s regularly makes the drive to Great Barrington from Woodstock, New York, to buy five dozen bagels for herself and several other senior citizens. Another regular customer drives in from Rochester. Other customers come in from New Jersey and Connecticut. And the store ships bagels to Alaska.
But perhaps the most telling mark of the Lieberman’s success: Several Berkshire County weekenders from Manhattan “buy their bagels here and take them home to New York City,” says Judy. “We are really proud of that!”
In 2007, Boston magazine voted the bagel café “Best Lunch in the Berkshires.” The bagel café is also doing more and more catering, for a variety of events and parties, even wedding brunches.
Both Judy and Marvin have developed specialty items that are in big demand at the café: Judy’s gazpacho soup, for example, and Marvin’s lobster salad.
While at first the Great Barrington Bagel Co. was best known for its breakfast business, it’s now a big lunch destination. “I attribute that to Marvin,” Judy says. “He’s done a lot to create new items as lunch specials.”
That may be true, but what makes Marvin the most proud isn’t the specialty items. It’s not just the food or bagels, either. It’s the fact that the café has brought together people from all walks of life: Jews and Christians, company executives and carpenters, farmers, lawyers and blue-collar workers, retirees and people of all ages.
“This place is a melting pot,” says Marvin. “We brought the better part of New York to the country. I love it. It serves everyone. I love it, I love it!”
And judging by the huge crowds who pack the store, especially on weekend mornings, the customers love it too!
Claudia Ricci, PhD, formerly a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a prize-winning reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, has published two novels, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She spent 15 years teaching journalism and English at the University at Albany, and taught at Georgetown University in 2009. She is now a writer for the Huffington Post.