Night at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery
New Year’s Eve is always the busiest night of the year at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery, so yesterday I chose to spend a night accompanying Sammy Minzly, the celebrated manager of this peerless East End institution, to observe the activity through the early hours as the staff braced themselves for tonight’s rush. Yet even though it was a quiet night – relatively speaking – there was already helter-skelter in the kitchen when I arrived mid-evening to discover five bakers working at furious pace amongst clouds of steam to produce three thousand beigels, as they do every day of the year between six at night and one in the morning.
At the centre of this tiny bakery which occupies a lean-to at the rear of the shop, beigels boiled in a vat of hot water. From here, the glistening babies were scooped up in a mesh basket, doused mercilessly with cold water, then arranged neatly onto narrow wet planks named ‘shebas,’ and inserted into the ovens by Stephen the skinny garrulous baker who has spent his entire life on Brick Lane, working here in the kitchen since the age of fifteen. Between the ovens sat an ogre of a huge dough-making machine, mixing all the ingredients for the beigels, bread and cakes that are sold here. It was a cold night in Spitalfields, but it was sweltering here in the steamy atmosphere of the kitchen where the speedy bakers exerted themselves to the limit, as they hauled great armfuls of dough out of the big metal basin in a hurry, plonking it down, kneading it vigorously, then chopping it up quickly, and using scales to divide it into lumps sufficient to make twenty beigels - before another machine separated them into beigel-sized spongey balls of dough, ripe for transformation.
In the thick of this frenzied whirl of sweaty masculine endeavour – accompanied by the blare of the football on the radio, and raucous horseplay in different languages – stood Mr Sammy, a white-haired gentleman of diminutive stature, quietly taking the balls of dough and feeding them into the machine which delivers recognisable beigels on a conveyor belt at the other end, ready for immersion in hot water. In spite of the steamy hullabaloo in the kitchen, Mr Sammy carries an aura of calm, working at his own pace and, even at seventy-five years old, still pursues his ceaseless labours all through the night, long after the bakers have departed to their beds. Originally a baker, he has been working here since the beigel bakery opened at these premises in 1976, although he told me proudly that the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery superceded that of Lieberman’s fifty -five years ago. Today it is celebrated as the most visible legacy of the Jewish culture that once defined Spitalfields.
Hovering at the entrance to the kitchen, I had only to turn my head to witness the counterpoint drama of the beigel shop where hordes of hungry East Londoners line up all night, craving spiritual consolation in the form of beigels and hot salt beef. They come in sporadic waves, clubbers and party animals, insomniacs and sleep walkers, hipsters and losers, street people and homeless, cab drivers and firemen, police and dodgy dealers, working girls and binmen. Some can barely stand because they are so drunk, others can barely keep their eyes open because they are so tired, some can barely control their joy and others can barely conceal their misery. At times, it was like the madhouse and other times it was like the morgue. Irrespective, everyone at the beigel bakery keeps working, keeping the beigels coming, slicing them, filling them, counting them and sorting them. And the presiding spirit is Mr Sammy. Standing behind the counter, he checks every beigel personally to maintain quality control and tosses aside any that are too small or too toasted, in unhesitating disdain.
As manager, Mr Sammy is the only one whose work crosses both territories, moving back and forth all night between the kitchen and the shop, where he enjoys affectionate widespread regard from his customers. Every other person calls out “Sammy!” or “Mr Sammy” as they come through the door, if he is in the shop – asking “Where’s Sammy?” if he is not, and wanting their beigels reheated in the oven as a premise to step into the kitchen and enjoy a quiet word with him there. Only once did I find Mr Sammy resting, sitting peacefully on the salt bin in the empty kitchen in the middle of the night, long after all the bakers had left and the shop had emptied out. “I’m getting lazy! I’m not doing nothing.” he exclaimed in alarmed self-recognition, “I’d better do something, I’d better count some beigels.”
Later he boiled one hundred and fifty eggs and peeled them, as he explained me to about Achmed, the cleaner, known as ‘donkey’ – “because he can sleep anywhere” - whose arrival was imminent. “He sleeps upstairs,” revealed Mr Sammy pointing at the ceiling. “He lives upstairs?” I enquired, looking up. “No, he only sleeps there, but he doesn’t like to pay rent, so he works as a cleaner.” explained Mr Sammy with an indulgent grin. Shortly, when a doddery fellow arrived with frowsy eyes and sat eating a hot slice of cake from the oven, I surmised this was the gentlemen in question. “I peeled the eggs for you,” Mr Sammy informed him encouragingly, a gesture that was reciprocated by ‘donkey’ with the merest nod. “He’s seventy-two,” Mr Sammy informed me later in a sympathetic whisper.
Witnessing the homeless man who came to collect a pound coin from Mr Sammy nightly and another of limited faculties who merely sought the reassurance of a regular handshake, I understood that because it is always open, the Beigel Bakery exists as a touchstone for many people who have little else in life, and who come to acknowledge Mr Sammy as the one constant presence. With gentle charisma and understated gesture, Mr Sammy fulfils the role of spiritual leader and keeps the bakery running smoothly too. After a busy Christmas week, he was getting low on bags for beigels and was concerned he had missed his weekly deliver from Paul Gardner because of the holiday. The morning was drawing near and I knew that Paul was opening that day for the first time after the break, so I elected to walk round to Gardners Market Sundriesmen in Commercial St and, sure enough, on the dot of six-thirty Paul arrived full of good humour to discover me and other customers waiting. Once he had dispatched the customers, Paul locked the shop again and we drove round to deliver the twenty-five to thirty thousand brown paper bags that comprise the beigel shop’s weekly order.
Mr Sammy’s eyes lit up to see Paul Gardner carrying the packets of bags through the door in preparation for New Year’s Eve and then, in celebration of the festive season, before I made my farewells and retired to my bed, I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph these two friends and long-term associates together – both representatives of traditional businesses that between them carry significant aspects of the history and identity of Spitalfields.
Old friends, Paul Gardner, Market Sundriesman, and Sammy Minzly, Manager of the Beigel Bakery.