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A Night At The Beigel Bakery

December 30, 2015
by the gentle author

New Year’s Eve is always the busiest night of the year at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery, so a few years ago I chose to spend the night of 30th December 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 the 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.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. December 30, 2015

    I swear I can smell those wonderful beigels from here in Germany! Valerie

  2. Eastendbutcher permalink
    December 30, 2015

    I love the place. Been there a lot just lately, usually around 5.00am. Just last week I had to pick up 15 dozen Beigels for a Christmas lunch. They wanted something different so they had salt beef beigels! I of course supplied the Salt Beef… Long may it continue. It’s a part of our lives now.

  3. neal nicholls permalink
    December 30, 2015

    I would love some of those right now.

  4. Robert permalink
    December 30, 2015

    Love this place even the tardy service is quickly forgiven as I get in my order of salt beef, rye, gherkin and mustard. You get so much meat that I have to eat some first before I can handle my sandwich properly.

  5. Catherine permalink
    December 30, 2015

    I love this place and wish I lived closer, nothing like it in SE London.

  6. Ron Pummell permalink
    December 30, 2015

    Dear Mr. G A will you please advise your readers that here in the UK the correct spelling, and pronunciation of this product is BEIGEL. Other countries have different spellings and that is their prerogative. By the way my favourite filling in a beigel is cream cheese.

  7. Ron Pummell permalink
    December 30, 2015

    PS. I have used that particular bakers for many years.

  8. Stephen Foster permalink
    December 30, 2015

    Of all the places I have to go to when I’m in London, I think this is the top of my list. I can miss going to Fortum and Mason. I can miss going to Scotland to visit my family, but I can’t miss the Beigel Bake. Year after year I see the same familiar faces shouting at me from behind the counter and taking my money and I know I’m going to have a feast of beigel and salt beef. It’s as much tradition to me as Christmas, except I might get there 2 or 3 times per year.
    When I lived in London though, while still as busy, outside was bustling with newspaper sellers which are now no more. I think that’s a shame.
    Thanks for sharing GA.

  9. Alice O permalink
    December 30, 2015

    What a beautiful story and pictures. Wish I had been in line to get a dozen of those.

  10. Ruth permalink
    December 30, 2015

    The only beigels in the world. Just wish they could be delivered to Hove. No other beigel tastes like these…magically delicious

  11. Chris debono permalink
    December 31, 2015

    Been going there since it opened
    a cheap meal at end of a night out
    When living in Bethnal green in 80’s it was just round corner so I was a regular customer
    Having now moved to North west London on visits back to home town
    the first stop is bagels shop to buy 3 dozen Bagels to take home or get lynched by family on my return
    2nd stop pie mash
    Now my own 4 kids eat with or without a filling butter or no butter they don’t care they love um
    Better than any other bagels in world
    Busy 24 hours a day
    Getting parked takes longer than getting served in shop

  12. The Idle 'Prentice permalink
    December 31, 2015

    I first went in there over 20 years ago. When we reached the age where learned to drive we’d drive there from Essex. I can still remember the smell and the humid atmosphere of that first visit. Spitalfields was a markedly different place back then before the days of beards, hipsters late night bars and loud music everywhere. That end of brick lane was very quiet I seem to remember. It always seemed to be dark and winter and cold and the street lights would reflect off the wet cobble stones and the cleared bits of debris where the market in Sclater street is seemed very eerie and haunting. The whole place seemed to be like a Dore engraving but without the crowds of people. Those salt beef beigles were and still are worth the journey on a cold night.

  13. acadarchist permalink
    January 3, 2016

    Whenever I`m in London, I ALWAYS visit the area (even if I`m miles away) and always visit BB. The salt beef /mustard/pickle beigel is very special, but I have a preference for the smoked salmon and cream cheese beigel. On a different level.
    Thanks for the insight GA, I wish you a Happy New Year, and look forward to more of your musings in 2016.

  14. bagelholic permalink
    January 4, 2016

    London isn’t London to me without having a lovely solt beef bagel and a salmon and cream cheese dream!
    Amazing to find myself in one of your pictures!!
    A real treat!!

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