Minutes after they finished watching the Canadian Olympic hockey team defeat the Slovakians last Friday, Joel Tietolman and Jon Leitner walked into St.-Viateur Bagel, paid for the 115 dozen bagels they had pre-ordered, and began loading them in Tietolman’s Volkswagen Passat.
The bagels – 90 dozen sesame, 15 dozen poppy seed, and a few dozen of assorted other varieties – were destined for Mile End Deli, a new restaurant serving Montreal-style Jewish deli food in the Boerum Hill neighbourhood of Brooklyn.
When Noah Bermanoff, an ex-Montrealer living in New York, opened Mile End two months ago, he had a bit of a problem getting Montreal bagels for the cream cheese-and-lox sandwiches he was serving at the deli. At first, he had bagels shipped overnight from Montreal by FedEx, but these didn’t arrive until 10 a.m. the next day. In addition, snowstorms further delayed delivery several times during the deli’s first weeks of business.
All of that changed when Tietolman, who had helped Bermanoff set up his deli in January, proposed importing the bagels from Montreal on the weekends. Around midnight on Friday nights, Tietolman and Leitner now leave Montreal in a car packed full of bagels, driving for six hours or so before crossing the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn at sunrise.
“They’re still soft when we get down to New York, which is the beauty of this operation,” said Tietolman, who attended Montreal’s Herzliah High School with Leitner and Bermanoff.
The duo made their second run to New York this weekend. When asked why they chose to export bagels from St.-Viateur over those of rival Fairmont Bagel, Tietolman and Leitner exchanged knowing glances.
“It’s our favourite bagel,” Leitner said with a laugh.
“There’s a St.-Viateur in Ville St.-Laurent, where we both grew up,” Tietolman added, “and that’s where our parents would run Sunday morning to get bagels.”
Though Bermanoff still ships bagels by FedEx during the week for cream cheese-and-lox, the deliveries have enabled him to sell fresh bagels by the dozen on the weekends. And because he is saving on shipping, Bermanoff is now actually making money.
Bermanoff serves other Montreal comfort food as well, including smoked meat sandwiches and his version of the Wilensky’s Special, the pressed bologna sandwich served at the famous Montreal deli. Mile End has also become the latest New York eatery to offer poutine, which Bermanoff makes with organic potatoes, homemade gravy, and what he calls “the most phenomenal cheese curds I’ve ever tasted” from a small farm in Maine.
Bermanoff estimated that about three-quarters of Mile End’s customers are New Yorkers, with the remainder made up of Canadian expatriates. A significant number are former McGill students, said Bermanoff – who is himself a McGill alumnus – looking for a smoked meat sandwich without making the trip to Montreal.
Business has been so good during Mile End’s first couple months that Bermanoff is looking to expand his operation, particularly his smoked meat production.
“I don’t have the space or refrigeration or smoking capacity to actually stay open for dinner, because the smoked meat sells out completely in the afternoon and I’m more or less forced to close down,” Bermanoff said.
For their part, Tietolman and Leitner don’t plan on spending their weekends running bagels forever. Tietolman is a law student at the University of Ottawa and Leitner works in the family import-export business – an experience that has come in handy when filling out forms at the border. The duo plans to hire drivers to make the runs in the coming months and is considering an eventual expansion: multiple runs per week, maybe, or deliveries to locations in Manhattan as well.
For Bermanoff, who dropped out of law school and took out loans to open Mile End, getting back to his Montreal roots is the best part of running his deli.
“It’s definitely a highlight of my day when someone comes in and we get to talk about Montreal and the good times we had at McGill,” Bermanoff said.