The Chronicle sat down with Isaac Henrion from Isaac’s Bagels, a bagel shop a five-minute walk from the Duke Arts Annex, to talk about his entrepreneurship journey. This interview has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.
The Chronicle: What was your inspiration behind starting Isaac’s Bagels? How did it evolve from a pop-up to a storefront?
Isaac Henrion: I started baking bagels during the pandemic. I had lost my job. I was working in a coffee shop, and now I had a lot of time on my hands. I kind of missed bagels. I used to live in New York, and I used to have great bagels. I wanted to make one that I really enjoy and that my friends enjoyed. So I just started toying around with the bagel recipe, making them and sharing them with friends and neighbors. At some point, I thought, well, maybe I could sell these. So why don't I just try and sell them? Initially, I was just making them out of my home, and I think I made like 20 bagels and sold them in the park. And then the next week, I made 30 bagels, and the next week I made 50 bagels, and then it kind of just went from there, really.
TC: So how long did the whole process take, from making bagels at home to making it to the farmers' market and then making it to the storefront?
IH: I made my first bagel at home – not for sale, just for me – in Oct. 2020. I sold the first bagel in the park, I think, in April 2021. Or maybe May. And then we did this pop-up residency at Queeny’s; they gave us this amazing opportunity to have a weekend bagel shop in Jan. 2022. And then from there, I think we started the farmer’s market by July of last year, and then did a full year at the market. By the time we had done a year at the market, we were about ready to open this place.
TC: The opening of your own storefront must have been exciting. Can you describe the atmosphere and how it felt?
IH: It's kind of surreal, because you know, I used to live a half mile or less from the storefront; I don't live here anymore. But that's where I started the business. So a lot of the neighbors that I had, friends I had from the neighborhood in the beginning. It's kind of our local shop. It was very surreal to come full circle and be back in the same location. And then on top of that, just having this team that is growing and growing. [It] feels like every week, we've got new people coming in, learning new things and contributing new ideas and energy. Now it's kind of settling down. We have a little rhythm, but the first few weeks were super crazy, because we were very, very busy. We didn't have enough people to make everything. Now we're getting to the point where we feel like we know what's going on, we're a bit better organized. It's amazing just to have a great team that work very hard for each other and always want to learn.
TC: Speaking of community, how has the support been from the Durham community as an entrepreneur?
IH: I mean, it's been pretty emphatic. We've been really fortunate to be busy from the first day we opened the shop. I know there was a lot of excitement about it. Because, you know, people would talk to us at the market. They wanted us to open a storefront. When we had that opportunity to actually do it we knew that we'd get some level of support, but we were super blown away by just how many people turned up on the first day and how much it's continued since then. So that feels really, really good to have people in Durham enjoying our bagels and supporting us.
TC: How was your experience using Kickstarter to fundraise? How was it like getting people to donate, and what were the challenges you felt faced while using a Kickstarter campaign?
IH: So we started a Kickstarter campaign because basically the costs of opening a place like this, a bagel shop in 2023, escalated very, very rapidly with a lot of inflation in the last couple of years. The costs just kept kind of mounting up way beyond what the initial project budget was, and so we felt like, Okay, why don't we turn to our own supporters, our own community, for them to help us. And again, that was unbelievable. It's incredible, we got to our goal, I think in three or four days or something like that. I can't even remember. It was not very much time. I thought we would get there, I wanted to succeed and I was just blown away by how quickly and amazingly, everybody supported us. I thought that the biggest challenge was going to be [getting] people to support us, but luckily, we had a lot of love from the community. Now the challenge is to get everyone's rewards out and to gather all these amazing things — food, experiences, merch and all this stuff that is now coming online. That is definitely a fun project that is almost a separate whole project.
TC: How do you think New York bagel culture has impacted Isaac's Bagels, or just a Triangle bagel culture?
IH: I lived in New York for a few years and that was where I developed a taste for bagels. I'm originally from the UK, there aren't really great bagels in most parts of the UK. There are some places that make bagels in London, but where I grew up, it wasn't part of my daily diet.The culture of, of bagels in New York has been hugely influential on what we're doing and what we're trying to execute that is something that is very faithful to the kind of North American Ashkenazi Jewish food culture. We're trying to serve all the things that go with that cuisine. Classics, like whitefish salad or lox, things like that. Stuff that belongs on a bagel, thing that are the tried-and-true classics. I guess makes it a little bit easier that we're not trying to reinvent the wheel. We're just trying to do a good job of executing a cuisine that's tried and tested and that people have been making for many, many years.
TC: What is the bagel-making process like?
IH: One of the things I really love about bagels — and all bread, but especially bagels — is the that the bagel you eat, at least in our shop, passes through so many different people's hands on the way from the flour to the bagel. You have somebody [that] mixes the dough, then proofs for a short time before being divided by somebody else. Then it's hand-rolled into a bag before going into the refrigerator for two nights. Those two nights improve the texture, the flavor, develop the gluten and add a little depth and acidity to the bread. So you can really tell the difference between a bagel that hasn't had that overnight proofing step and the ones that have, they've had that time to kind of mature in their flavors.Then [in the] morning, we bake them. Somebody boils them and puts them in a kettle. The kettle has lots of barley malt syrup in it, which adds a malty flavor and also some sheen to the finished bagel before being seasoned and then baked. The bagels we baked today, we rolled them two days ago, they've been sitting in the fridge for two days developing. The whole process takes a lot of people, a lot of steps to make the bagel. Practically half the team touches that bagel on its way from flour to you as a sandwich. You cannot do it on your own. I did it on my own in the beginning, but I didn't make very many and I burned a lot.
TC: Any future expansionary plans? What is your next goal?
IH: I just want to make the shop as good as it can be. I'm not really thinking much beyond that. We want to get the menu filled out, get open more hours and more days. Hopefully get our catering menu up and running. Maybe do some wholesale and then just get better at what we are doing. I don't think that our bagels are the finished article — you're never quite happy with them. They're always ways you can tinker with them to make them better or make them more consistent. It's like: that was great, but how do we make it just a bit better? How do we just push it a little bit farther? And there's so much there. Even [with] just making a bagel, you could spend your whole life trying to make a better bagel, right?
TC: If I were to come to your bagel shop, what is one thing I should definitely order that you think represents the ethos of it?
IH: I think that the lox sandwich is really, really good. It's obviously a very classic bagel sandwich. Perhaps the most classic bagel sandwich there is. We put a lot of care into, obviously, the bagel, but also the texture of the cream cheese. The way that it's presented to the way that the garnish is plated on the bagel. The lox sandwich is so good, because it's just delicious. I mean, almost any lox sandwich is great. [Ours] just has a lot of care in the ingredients, the process and how it's presented. So I think it's emblematic of what we do — we take a lot of care over every part [to] make it, you know, beautifully.
I’ve been to Isaac’s three times now, and every single time I’m blown away by the bagels. They’re affordable and excellent. The sesame and poppy bagels have been my favorite. They pair wonderfully with the spicy Sichuan chili cream cheese or the smoky jalapeño cream cheese. I’d highly recommend a trip.
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Arnav Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and culture editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.