May 19, 2021
Talking bagels with the guy from Greenberg’s
Julian Cavin, half the team behind Bed-Stuy bagel hotspot Greenberg's, shares his go-to sandwiches and discusses his upcoming pizzeria
You might be surprised to learn that the guy who finally brought bagels to Bed-Stuy isn’t so much of a purist. Julian Cavin, half of the team behind Greenberg’s bagels, isn’t above slumming it.
“At this point, I’m just addicted to bagels,” he says.
And he’s gotten his customer base equally hooked as well. Greenberg’s opened its doors on Bedford Street in February 2020, unfortunate timing. But the bagel shop filled a bagel hole in Bed-Stuy. Minimalist and cool, Greenberg’s—which Cavin opened with Chuko Ramen chef-founder Jamison Blankenship—was an instant hit.
For a month.
Then the city locked down.
Still, the shop has survived and even thrived. Turns out to-go bagels are pretty pandemic friendly. And Greenberg’s was the right vibe at the right place at the right time: The shop has social media smarts and has received shout-outs from his pal Nicolas Heller, better known as “New York’s Unofficial Talent Scout” New York Nico, who has some 588,000 Instagram followers. Greenberg’s has launched savvy pop-up collaborations with popular non-bagel eateries like Park Slope’s Winner and L.A.-based Uncle Paulie’s Deli. Up next is a collab with Smashburger.
Also up next? A pizza shop. The Greenberg’s team has taken over the storefront next door and will be opening Frankie & Vali’s pizzeria in July. This is on the heels of Cavin’s other recent endeavor: “Brooklyn’s Best,” a line of low sugar iced teas and lemonade.
Cavin, who was a DJ until getting into the food business, chats with Brooklyn Magazine about bagels, Bed-Stuy and what’s next. The following conversation has been edited for flow.
There is no shortage of opinions about bagels. What does it take to be a proper bagel store?
It doesn’t really need much. It’s kind of no frills, just needs delicious bagels. It doesn’t really need a menu; you kind of know what you’re going to get. So you just have to have the same offerings as what a New York bagel store has, all the appropriate bagel flavors, all the appropriate cream cheese flavors, basically egg and cheese with any meat that you want. And then, you have your whole classic appetizing section.
There’s this whole philosophical debate about what makes a good bagel. And there have been all these articles about L.A. bagels and New York bagels. Do you care about any of that? What makes a good bagel? Is it the water? Is it the boiling? Or what?
I like most bagels, all different types. I still go to Dunkin’ Donuts sometimes, and I love their sesame bagel with cream cheese.
So you’re not a purist.
It’s kind of like pizza: Even bad pizza is good, to me. If you get Tom’s Bagels from the supermarket in Ohio and you double toast them and put some delicious cream cheese on it, it tastes good.
I literally had a Thomas’ bagel this morning. And I was not going to mention that to you, but…
No, I’m not a bagel purist. I just love them. I think at this point I’m addicted to bagels. It’s past love.
Do you have a favorite sandwich? I ask because I’ve seen the bacon, egg and cheese with grape jelly on your Instagram and I’m sort of obsessed.
That’s funny, because in high school, [at] the stands that had the really sweet iced milk coffee, and then either a buttered roll or a bacon, egg and cheese, most people would just put grape jelly on their bacon, egg and cheese. It was a pretty normal thing that I’ve never really seen on the menu in bagel stores. I don’t follow any sort of menu when I go into a new bagel store anyway, I just go with my typical combinations that I like. I’ve switched over to sesame. I like sesame, or everything, or plain.
You like plain. Interesting.
I like a plain bagel. I think when I get a sausage, egg and cheese, I like to do that on a plain or a sesame. Bacon, egg, and cheese I like to do it on an everything. I don’t know why, but it just feels right to me. If I’m really hungry, I’ll get a bacon, egg and cheese on an everything, a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese, and just take bites out of both.
You grew up in Windsor Terrace?
So growing up, Terrace Bagels was my bagel store, and I loved it. I’d go on vacation somewhere, and the first thing I did when I got back was go get a bagel from Terrace Bagels.
Talk about your shop. You guys opened February 2020, and that was a month before the pandemic hit.
Yeah. So I have my partner on it, Jamison Blankenship.
I was going to remark that neither of you are named Greenberg.
We’ve actually gotten a couple of emails to the website asking about that. “Are either of you guys Jewish? What’s the deal with this?” I’m Jewish. My name is Julian Cavin Zeidenstein. For my whole life, Zeidenstein was a little complicated for people, for the teachers, and for writing stuff out. Basically, everyone from growing up just knows me as Julian Cavin. My mother’s side is Greenbergs and then Zeidenstein was from my grandfather’s side. When it came time to name the bagel store, I thought Greenberg’s was a better name than Zeidenstein Bagels. Also because my cousin, Hank Greenberg was always my idol. I never knew him; [he was a] distant cousin on my grandmother’s side.
You and Jamison met working separate stalls in the food hall? The North Third Street Market? And then decided to open a bagel stand?
We used that as a proof of concept before we dove in and really invested money into it, because actually Jamison and I both had separate stalls in there, neither of them bagels. Jamison owns Chuko Ramen on Vanderbilt. And I licensed an Italian sandwich spot from Orchard Street called Regina’s Grocery. There wasn’t a single business in there doing well.
Why do you think that is?
Williamsburg has super high rent, and I think what attracts people to Williamsburg, it’s super cool, beautiful, nice, clean. But it’s maybe that it’s not crowded like the city. So when it comes to having a commercial space, and the draw of the neighborhood being that it’s not that crowded, it doesn’t really work for having volume of customers.
Didn’t Berg’n in Crown Heights close down for a similar reason? The pandemic didn’t help.
The whole food market concept in New York City, I would never get near it again.
Well, Time Out New York has that whole thing in Dumbo and it’s not great.
Exactly. And if Time Out New York can’t do it in that space, it’s like, who can do it?
So you guys partner up and then you decide to open a spot in Bed-Stuy. And there’s no real bagel competition in Bed-Stuy.
Well that was really pretty amazing. If you think about neighborhoods in Brooklyn: There’s so many bagel stores in every single neighborhood. You got Bagel Pub in Crown Heights, you got Bergen Bagels a little over a mile from us, and besides that, I don’t know why, there was no bagel stores. If I tried to open Greenberg’s Bagels in Park Slope, there would be nothing special about it. Bed-Stuy really needed a bagel store.
So you open and then a month later there’s a lockdown.
We had a huge opening event, it went great. Every weekend was getting better and better, the four weekends before the pandemic. And then I just remember there was this last Sunday where a lot of customers were coming in with masks and then just overnight, just like, “Nope, no more business.”
But you made it through.
Our operation at the beginning was so funny. I had the tablets in my apartment and the orders would come into the tablets, I would write them down, and then I would call the shop with 10 orders at a time, give them to them, and then they’d put them on the counter and people would point them in the window. And then we put a sign in the window saying to order that way. The orders would come to the tablets in my kitchen. And I would wake up, be in my pajamas, get my little notepad ready. And then after a week or so of it, it was just too much. So we brought all the tablets to the shop, but this is when it was still, people were scared to be outside. It was crazy.
So, we brought all the tablets to the shop. We put in a slide window, like a take out, fast food window, so that we could keep the door closed, and then, just a bagel business. I think all bagel businesses did fine during the pandemic, because it’s already a grab-and-go food.
I think I first found out about you, probably as did a lot of people, from New York Nico. How do you guys know each other?
Me and Nico have just been friends for a while. We both were raised in the city, knew similar people. When we would be still just in the market in Williamsburg, he’d come by and just grab some breakfast. He’s like, “Yo, as soon as you guys get yourself a proper storefront, let’s do a pizza bagel together.” And it turns out he has a lot of followers in Bed-Stuy. We knew there wasn’t really a bagel store, but we didn’t know how badly people needed one.
And now you’re actually getting into the pizza business? Talk about Frankie and Vali’s Pizza. Right next store?
Our landlord has that building. Throughout the pandemic, we remained a great relationship and unfortunately, the restaurant next door to us decided to just stop and move elsewhere. But they had built out a beautiful restaurant. We had joked about it when we signed the bagel store, like, “Wow, there’s no pizza in this neighborhood either. There’s no slice shop.” There’s Neapolitans here and there, but there’s nowhere to just get a quick, easy slice on the run, Joe’s style. Then, when the pandemic happened and the storefront next to us became available, our landlords were like, “Just take the space next door. Just do it.” We couldn’t say no and it became a thing. We found an amazing chef, because we’re not pizza guys.
Well, it sounds like you weren’t necessarily bagel guys before either.
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