With a pandemic, comes new bagels.
Well, at least in the Bay Area. That’s been one positive outcome of the COVID-19 crisis — it’s given rise to a new homegrown bagel business that will hopefully last much longer than the virus.
Hella Bagels is run out of chef-owner Blake Hunter’s Oakland home, where he is only able to make about 100 at a time. Although Hunter started the business in early March, it’s been an idea he’s had for about two years. Hunter has no prior experience in the food industry, but when he began dreaming of opening a bagel business, he read everything he could get his hands on.
“At this point, it’s been about two years where I really just told myself that ‘this is it,’ and started learning about baking, the science and all the nuances,” he said. “I went all-in on bagel culture and the education and I’ve grown and learned so much.”
Hunter is a Bay Area native, from Antioch and Concord, to be exact, but his parents moved here from New Jersey right before he was born.
While growing up, a “New York bagel was like a carrot dangled in front of me,” Hunter said, “I was always told, ‘You’ve never had a good bagel.’”
When he started making his own bagels, he made them for friends and family only. But it wasn’t long before others noticed his Instagram page and started placing orders there. He has since put up a web site.
“I had been baking for two years, and beyond my girlfriend and my dog, I wanted to know what people thought,” Hunter said about why he decided to make Hella Bagels an official business.
His bagels come in seven flavors: plain, sesame, garlic, salt, poppy, onion and everything. “Nothing crazy, as I read that some people get really offended by that,” Hunter explained. His schmears, though, do come in quite non-traditional flavors, including sambal and black bean scallion.
Hella Bagels are boiled in water with barley malt syrup. Although Hunter says he’s inspired by but not wedded to the New York bagel, we found Hella Bagels to be very close to the style in flavor and chew.
On Sundays, Hunter boils and bakes the bagels, then delivers them himself around the East Bay (between San Leandro and El Cerrito). Orders must be made on Instagram a week in advance, but good luck trying to score some — his entire run usually sells out within seconds.
Hunter has a full-time job as a sales manager at Red Bull, but he intends to keep doing Hella Bagels on the side. He is currently in the process of transitioning to a commercial kitchen. “Shelter-in-place has lasted longer than I thought so I’m figuring it out by day,” he said. “But eventually doing schmears in a food truck is the goal.”
With enough money coming in from his sales job, Hunter has donated all profits from Hella Bagels to nonprofits. Most recently, he’s given to organizations fighting for racial justice and LGBT causes during Pride month.
It’s still very early in Hella Bagels’ trajectory, but Hunter feels he’s on the right track.
“I’m just trying to make people happy by giving them a good experience,” he said.