Bruce Treitman, former store clerk of Western Bagel in San Fernando Valley, California, might take credit for inventing the sauce-covered round known as the pizza bagel in 1974, but Katz Bagel Bakery owner Richard Katz (pronounced “Cates”), wants you to know one thing: they’re dead wrong.
“I would like to see some proof of that assertion,” Katz says. “My father started making pizza bagels in 1970. The problem with anybody saying they invented a particular food product is nobody can prove it. In this case, I can definitely say, the way we process the dough, nobody does that. My father invented many things since he started this place in 1938. He just never made a big deal over his ideas.”
And Bagel Bites? Somehow Katz hasn’t even heard of those. Maybe because they were invented by Florida residents Brendan Birdshaw and Quan Tran in the 1980s, well after Harry Katz began slathering sauce and cheese on a bagel, and selling them to late night crowds in Chelsea.
Richard Katz, 73, has spent his whole life at the Katz’s bakery on Park Street in Chelsea. His father, Harry, had him running various tasks in the shop by the time he was five, when they still had to get to work at three in the morning to warm the ovens. He lived in the tiny apartment above the bakery until he was 16, when his parents decided to move to Marblehead. But the real breakthrough for the family came when Harry stumbled upon that now-famous combination of tangy sauce, mozzarella, canola oil, and the flat, holeless bottom of pre-baked round; a combination that transformed Katz’s from a neighborhood favorite to a regional institution.
“I still sell a shitload here,” Katz says. “I would say 50 percent of our total sales are pizza bagels. Any bagel shop you go into, their sales are mostly based on selling sandwiches, not bagels. So, we sell pizzas instead of sandwiches. People are great in Chelsea, the Hispanic population today loves the bagels. Spanish people love a crispy product. They don’t like soft, mushy shit like Wonder Bread.”
Pizza bagels have sustained three generations of Katz bakers, a timeline that includes Richard’s own sons, Jimmy and Jeremy. They’ve been around since Chelsea was predominantly Jewish and the seedy Universal Boutique Hotel across the street was more than a frequent crime scene. Their popularity made Harry’s traditional babka and challah bread—recipes he brought with him from Russia—a forgotten novelty. And after Richard discovered his par-baked, nitrogen-blasted trick in the early 90s, they even enjoyed a wave of freezer aisle fame.
So what is it that makes Katz’s campy snack such an enticing hybrid? It’s not the homemade sauce or some ancient, sphinx-like recipe handed down through the family. “Bagels are bagels,” Richard says. “Flour, water, sugar, salt, and yeast. It’s all in the way you make it. You would think somebody else would copy this, but it’s a pain in the ass to make. Most bakeries take a baked bagel, cut it in half, and put sauce and cheese on it. What that does is take all the moisture out of it when you reheat it. Ours is only been boiled and par-baked, so the moisture is still present. It’s crispy like a bagel, but tastes like a pizza. It’s a pizza bagel.”
Even during its heyday, Katz’s frozen legacy had a number of near fatal obstacles as big box stores like BJ’s Wholesale Club and Costco abruptly terminated their contracts and sent the family scrambling for the next opportunity. It’s now been more than a decade since supermarkets like Market Basket and Shaw’s have stocked Katz’s pizza bagels, as the product lost all profitability in the price wars and politics of big business.
“Once in 1994, I went into a Shaw’s as a novice consumer and asked an employee if they stocked ‘those new pizza bagels made in Chelsea.’ He said, ‘yeah, we have them over here,’ and pointed behind a pole to a spot at the very bottom. There’s something called a slotting fee, where to put anything at eye level, you have to pay $50,000. In lieu of not having the money, they were shoving everything where it couldn’t be seen. I wasn’t making enough product to justify keeping the factory running five days a week, so I closed down and I went out of business.”
Now after all these years, Sysco, the world’s largest food distributor, wants to bring back the Katz’s pre-packaged pizza and mass-produce them for schools, hospitals, and supermarkets. Even Whole Foods is working with Katz on a bromide-free version, which they’d like to market at stores across the country.
“The warehouse in Chelsea isn’t there anymore,” Richard says. “I had to sell off all the equipment. I mortgaged my house, took every nickel out of the bank, and borrowed money from both my father and father-in-law to help keep it afloat. I’m taking little steps, though. I want to retire, but I also want my boys to be self-sufficient. What I really want to do is reopen the pizza bagel factory and get the hell out. With these new developments, I think that’s a real possibility. I still think it’s a great product. It’s the only thing like it in the world.”
139 Park St., Chelsea; 617-884-9738 or katzbagelbakery.com.
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