On a cold winter morning, just before sunrise, the snow is falling gently onto the sidewalk outside of Kossar’s (367 Grand Street, 212-473-4810). Inside, the talk is all about bialys.
“I can’t tell you how much I missed this,” says one man, taking a bite.
“Butter. Yes, please, lots of butter,” a woman says as she places her order.
“Oh, wow, I didn’t realize there were so many kinds,” another man muses.
Following a five-month renovation, the revered Jewish bakery recently reopened with a gleaming new look. The entire infrastructure was replaced, and suddenly the store (originally opened on Clinton Street in 1936 before moving to its current location in 1960) leapt ahead to modern times. Still, while stalwart patrons — the kind who will show up at 6 a.m. to get a taste they remember from childhood — might see a place for Kossar’s on the much-changed Lower East Side of 2016, others might be more skeptical. Can bialys support a small business in this city anymore?
“The first thing was to redesign and reposition the store into a business that could sustain itself, because the existing business was not sustainable,” says Evan Giniger, who has co-owned Kossar’s with business partner Dave Zablocki since 2013. “As much as people hate to see change in any way, the fact is if we didn’t change, we would not exist in another year or two. All we sold were dry bagels and bialys.”
Part of the updated Kossar’s m.o., Giniger explains, involves ensuring a more consistently high-quality product. That means bialys and bagels are baked throughout the day so that those sitting in bins are as hot and fresh as possible — a system that, in its first few days after reopening, the place was still trying to get right. Another aspect of the revised regime means maintaining a healthy balance of new menu items. In addition to a bialy with butter, you can now order a pizza bagel, babka french toast, or a bialy sandwich with hummus and avocado (you can also take home the store’s trademarked “Schmears” cream cheese).
The sense of history plays a big part for longtime customers. “There is a love for this store. We get people who have been coming in here for forty years. We get people bringing their kids, their grandkids,” Giniger says. “You stand in the store for half an hour, somebody will come in and tell you how their grandfather used to bring him here.”
Giniger says the key to creating harmony between the old and the new is staying true to the same recipes that Kossar’s has been using since day one. Even the mixer used on the dough is the same one they’ve always had.
“A lot of the newer stores that come out talk about how they do things the ‘old-fashioned way’ or they’re doing things the ‘artisan way,’ ” says Giniger, who himself once made childhood trips from Long Island to Kossar’s with his father. “We’re better than artisan — we’re authentic. People replicate what we’ve been doing all along.”
To keep pace with the demands of operating a business in this century, the owners are counting on a new sandwich menu, along with a decision made last year that was somewhat controversial: to open on Saturdays. Though they’ve lost a few of their Orthodox Jewish customers who don’t support the move to operate on the Sabbath, the Saturday business has apparently more than made up for that. Says Giniger, “Unfortunately, as much as you want to hold to tradition for tradition’s sake, I’m paying 2016 rent, and I have to be able to be open seven days a week because I’m paying rent seven days a week. It really was an economic decision more than anything else.”
While tour buses make regular weekend stops at the bakery, it remains a challenge to convince the world outside of the L.E.S. that bialys deserve to be in the spotlight alongside bagels. The bialy, a traditional Polish peasant bread featuring an indentation instead of a hole in its middle, is more efficient to make and, owing to its shape, more naturally conducive to sandwiches — but as eaters nationwide have grown accustomed to gobbling up oversize bagels, bialys have waned in popularity. Giniger hopes a marketing campaign, along with sales on Kossar’s updated website, will boost the foodstuff’s lagging profile.
It deserves that chance, even if it’s understandable how, in New York — where excellent bagels can be found in just about every neighborhood — the bialy has taken a backseat. Eating one fresh from the oven at Kossar’s, and discovering that it remains the flavorful little bread it’s been for eighty years, makes you wonder how that ever happened.
For now, though, in a neighborhood where rapid development continues to butt up against longstanding tradition, Kossar’s is poised to bring bialys back into the city’s culinary conversation — which, according to Giniger, means keeping the focus as local as possible.
“We know first and foremost we’re a neighborhood store, so that’s who we have to cater to before anything else. We spent a lot of time thinking about what the neighborhood loved about us, what they were asking us for, and what we needed, and I think we have a great combination of all three.”