It’s around lunchtime on a cold but sunny spring day, and Jeremiah Cohen is walking along H Street NE when he spots a “for rent” sign on a dilapidated storefront. Undeterred by the large, faded “grand opening” banner still legible in the window — testament to a previous failed business — he starts dialing the phone number listed on the sign.
Cohen, the former general manager of the troubled Tabard Inn, is looking for a new home for his business, Bullfrog Bagels. And he needs one. Since its opening day last September, Bullfrog has taken off, and it has been bursting at the seams of its current space, which it shares with a tavern at the far end of the rapidly developing H Street corridor.
Much like spring peepers, a small but vocal species of frog, Bullfrog appeared not with the roar of a large corporate-backed enterprise but with a number of small, insistent cries for attention. In October, just one month after Bullfrog’s debut, Zagat highlighted it as one of the eight “most promising independent bagel spots” in the United States. In April, Washington City Paper’s reader poll named it the best bagel in D.C. — until recently, perhaps, a dubious distinction.
Bullfrog is no doubt part of the maturation of Washington’s bagel scene, whose primary product is moving from puffy and pre-frozen to smaller, thinner, more authentic and made from scratch, said Joan Nathan, longtime local food writer and cookbook author. “The trend now is to go back to the real foods,” she said, crediting such cooks as Mark Furstenberg of Bread Furst and Frank Ruta of the Grill Room for helping bring more attention to a traditional style of bagel.
Bullfrog’s bagels began as an experimental small-batch project produced at Cohen’s home after his mother fired him from the Tabard as part of a family drama unfolding at the 91-year-old hotel and restaurant. Cohen, who had no professional baking background, then went to work as a pizza baker at 2 Amys pizzeria in the District, where he continued his bagel experiments. His dense, chewy rounds wound up on the menu and proved popular with the clientele — so much so that Cohen also started selling them at a private residence. (Buyers texted to a private number the word “BULLFROG” — a reference to the “Jeremiah was a” lyric in the Three-Dog Night song “Joy to The World.”) Soon after, the hand-rolled, boiled-and-baked rounds made a more public debut during two weeks of pop-ups at Cork Market on 14th Street NW and Cakelove on U Street NW.
Bullfrog’s current base of retail operations is a small deli counter within the Star & Shamrock, a Jewish-Irish hybrid tavern with which it also shares a cramped kitchen. The arrangement is thanks to both luck and the nature of the closely knit Washington food community. Jason Feldman and Mike Schuster, two of the bar’s three owners, say that they first learned about Bullfrog from their other partner, Mark Menard, and invited Cohen to set up shop. Says Feldman, “Anything authentically Jewish in this city, as we’re a Jewish-Irish hybrid kind of place, we’re always interested in what people are doing.”
Cohen’s dozen or so employees are remarkably upbeat for a crew that arrives before dawn and seems to have no downtime. The deli counter is gleaming, and the environment — a bagel's toss from the Star & Shamrock’s carved wood bar — is colorful, the contents of the refrigerated case neatly stacked, with labels facing the customers. People seem happy to be there.
Their boss is often out to take care of different aspects of the business, but when he returns he immediately wants to know what’s going on. “I take the quality of the product super personally,” Cohen says, admitting to some perfectionist tendencies. “Not just in terms of making the bagels, but frying an egg and cutting onions: the whole nine yards.”
While Cohen, 48, is in the kitchen micromanaging his staff, it’s common to see Sara Hill Isacson, the branding and marketing consultant responsible for Bullfrog’s robust online presence, staging bagel sandwiches for photos intended for their Twitter feed. The sandwiches are gorgeous in a way that advertising agencies so often try to make food appear. The bagels and bialys — which come in plain, poppy, sesame, onion, salt and everything — are a deep golden brown, cheese perfectly melted, house-cured meat stacked high and glistening.
The crew is eclectic, a combination of lifelong Washingtonians and people from all over. Rhiannon Daniels, a Washington native, works with at-risk youth in her off time and is championing a self-empowerment movement titled “We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For.” One baker (who recently left for another job) is a former Tibetan monk who learned to bake at a temple and who often prays over the food he prepares.
The baking typically begins at about 4 a.m. In keeping with Cohen’s intention to produce a “D.C. bagel,” the dough is made with District tap water, and the bagels are open-fermented with wild airborne yeast. The kitchen itself is cramped and belongs to the Star & Shamrock for its own food prep after a certain hour. The oven used for baking the bagels holds 180, which means multiple bakings for the wholesale business, a never-ending process.
The owners of the Star & Shamrock liken the arrangement to having a roommate who’s always coming and going. “The bar is closing at 3, they’re cleaning up, they’re getting ready to break down [for] the night, and the bakers are coming in for the morning,” says Feldman. “It’s a lot of moving parts and sort of a never-ending stream of people in and out.”
Both Feldman and Schuster say Bullfrog’s presence brings new customers into the bar, but it can be a challenge to share the kitchen. “You definitely create some operational issues, because you have no downtime, you have limited space, you have limited storage,” says Schuster.
Such challenges led Cohen to partner with Mess Hall, a food business incubator housed in a refurbished warehouse in the Brookland neighborhood. The new arrangement gives Bullfrog the ability to triple its production; the access to a larger space and storage should also make it easier to produce a more consistent product — and up to 4,000 bagels at a time. With the increased capacity, sales hit $60,000 for the month of April. (Retail, the bagels sell for $1.50.)
Bullfrog, whose first wholesale account was Smucker Farms of Lancaster County on 14th Street NW, has sold its bagels to a growing number of area stores and restaurants, including the recent addition of Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, D.C. They’re now sold at all five locations of the Tryst Restaurant Group: Tryst, Tryst at the Phillips, the Coupe, Open City and Open City at the National Cathedral.
Robert Theriot, corporate executive chef for the group, says carrying the bagels was an easy decision. “Sure enough, it was an unbelievable product,” Theriot said. “From word of mouth in the industry to great fan base, we’ve definitely got a good cult following that line up for the bagels. We’re selling easily 40, maybe 50 percent more bagels just from carrying Bullfrogs.”
These days, Cohen is exhausted. Bullfrog is a labor of love, which “transforms work from something that is, like, not so fun to something that is challenging.” But he adds: “When it’s a labor of love, it’s still a labor. Frankly, I’d like to go sleep for a full eight hours. That was really fun.”
The storefront on H Street that Cohen called about didn’t work out, but he recently announced that he’d found one near Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market, at 317 Seventh St. SE, where he hopes to open in September. He plans to keep operating the counter at the Star & Shamrock and will maintain the Mess Hall production space — all of which means that a full night’s sleep is probably nowhere in sight.
Dean is a freelance writer and recipe tester living in Washington.