If you’re in Leiden and you’re craving a New York-style bagel, there’s no better place to go than BetterBagels on Lange Mare. Owner Frank Zweerus developed a bagel habit while living in New Jersey, where he worked for several years in IT. When he returned home to Holland, Frank wanted to change careers. So he decided to see if he could get his home town as hooked as he is on proper bagels. When you stop by BetterBagels, you can watch Frank and his colleagues twisting, boiling and baking the bagels. You can also meet Joe the Slicer – but make sure to stand back!
Before returning to the Netherlands in 2011, “I was in clinical IT. The last seven years in Brussels, and before than in the U.S. And before that in the Netherlands … [while in the United States] I lived in New Jersey and also in North Carolina. In North Carolina they fry everything. In New Jersey they have bagels.” As a clinical IT specialist, Frank focused on automation of the clinical trial process for new medications.
“I probably had one [bagel] before [moving to] the US. But not really … You can see a lot of bagels in the Netherlands, but almost none of them are real … if you look at some of the supermarkets they sell bagels, or at least they sell something that looks like a bagel and they label it a bagel. But it doesn’t have the New York-style bagel process like being boiled. So real bagels are hard to find here.”
New Jersey is a state that borders New York, so New York-style bagels are popular in New Jersey.“When I worked in New Jersey, Friday was ‘bagel day.’ And everybody rotated with taking bagels to the office. So it was an interesting way to learn … all the different kind of bagels. Because everybody was coming from a different place. Some were coming from New York City, others from down in New York. They all have their favorite place… That’s how I got exposed to all types of bagels.”
When Frank returned to Holland from Brussels, “I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do something broader that allows me to use more of my different skills … So when I was in this phase … I first thought of retail…I thought that would be interesting because you get more people involved.”
“If there was one downside to the [clinical IT] job it was all the time spent to get to the success … If you work in clinical IT it takes you five or six years before you know if [the trial medication] was any good … I was looking for some instant satisfaction. You do something and it makes people happy and that makes you happy.”
“I thought that was more available in retail. And then I thought ‘bagels.’ And I thought ‘bakery? bagels? why shouldn’t I do that?’ So I started doing an investigation. And really when I came back from the U.S. I tried to buy bagels here every time something opened, but every time nothing [was] as good as what I had experienced.”
Longtime interest in baking: “I used to collect bicycles and … old bakery bicycles. I bought my first one when I was 12. And then I had some friends that … got enthusiastic about buying these things.Frank points to a photo on the wall at BetterBagels. The [bike] on the right is the one that’s in front of the store now.”
“So we have these [vintage bakery bikes] and … we thought ‘well, maybe we should sell bread with them’… And we started selling raisin buns on [Leiden’s annual 3 Oktober holiday]. We did that 15 years in a row … I grew up here in Leiden. So a lot of people knew me from this.”
“During the period I lived in the U.S. … I would come back to sell raisin buns [during the 3 Oktober festival] … just purely for fun. A lot of people thought I was a baker, which I really wasn’t (laughs). But I just liked the idea. And I liked the artisan concept of the profession.”
The decision to open BetterBagels: “I was hoping there a niche [for bagels] but I wasn’t sure … There is a trend to come back to more artisanal things. And you find that when people want to go into the city, they don’t go in to buy the stuff that they need. But they want to go into the city to have a good experience … So I thought maybe this was a good time to do this. And there are other examples of bakeries that do well … that do [something] like French bread and are very successful … so that’s what I had in mind.”
“I looked around at different places. Leiden is my home town, but I also looked at Amsterdam and Utrecht … If I want to do something different it needs to meet some criteria. It needs to make me feel good. And … it’s important that I do things in a fair way. So I try to use as much organic food as I can. And I want to do it in a small size. I want people to see and experience what we’re doing, so we have an open bakery … And one of the other things is that if we’re going to do it, I want to do it in a place where I feel good. So I [decided] to do Leiden … even though it would be easier to do in Amsterdam because there are many more tourists.”
Frank opened BetterBagels a little over five years ago. “It’s been a very hard ride. It’s hard, hard work.” Operating BetterBagels “is not pay that compares to what you earn in clinical IT … but we’re still improving, and we’re doing relatively good.” Frank supplements his income by continuing to do some clinical IT work.
The process: “There’s a few things about bagels that make bagels bagels. One is that they need to be boiled. And the other thing is that the dough needs to rest ... So you prepare the dough the day before, and it goes into the cooler and gets recharged for a long time. And then in the morning you boil and bake it … so when I come in [in the morning] it’s putting the oven on. And then you boil the bagels, and you bake the bagels, then turn them around and you bake them again.” On the days that Frank works at the bakery, “I usually start at 7:00 and usually end up around 9PM.”
Learning how bagels are made: “My mentor was a bagel baker in New Jersey … I got in contact with him, and he told me basically how to make the bagels … I got all the information from him, the initial recipes … That helped me a lot.”
What makes the job fun: “It’s still the instant satisfaction. Making something and preparing something.” And the interaction with other people. “Here every day it’s completely different people that come in. You never know who’s going to walk in … I’m very interested in people.. It’s very nice that we have lots of interactions with all different kinds of people, and I like that a lot.”
Concerns: “When I started this [business] I didn’t make it easy for myself … because I wanted to do something artisanal, and it’s work that takes a lot of time. I wanted to do it on a small scale, and I wanted to do it with fair products and with fair prices … and in combination those are all hurdles to make it profitable … the challenge remains how profitable can you make it to really make it stable.”
“When I started it … I immediately knew I liked it. But I didn’t know exactly what I liked about it … whether it’s the fact that you interact with people, or that you work with your hands. It wasn’t entirely clear what exactly I liked about it so much.”
Competition?: “For true bagels, there’s not really any other new effort that I’m aware of in the past five years, or anybody else trying to do this ... It’s a lot of work. And that’s probably the reason why. Most of the people who jump into this type of business are going for the quick win.”
Why do bagels have a hole in the middle: “There are many stories about it, and I don’t believe most of them … the real reason is that if you want to boil something … it takes a long time for the heat to get into the center. But if you make a hole it’s like three to four times shorter … You need to kill the yeast quickly and get the temperature real high. And in order to do that you kind of need the hole.”
Balancing work and other parts of life: “That is tough. And probably more tough for my family than for me. Because I get so much fulfillment out of doing this that there is less need to have a hobby or something outside of this … In reality, I don’t have a lot of things besides this. But it’s more because I get so much fulfillment out of this that I don’t really feel the need for a hobby.” Frank lives with his wife and four children in Alphen aan den Rijn.
Operating a business like BetterBagels “is like a 24/7 kind of thing. If you’re walking on the street and you see something, you think ‘I can use that!’ It’s like you can’t switch it off. It’s nice. And I don’t feel any stress at all … that probably helps.”
BetterBagels is located at Lange Mare 96 in Leiden. For more information, you can visitwww.betterbagels.nl.