Christopher Pugliese, owner of hugely successful independent Manhattan bagel shop Tompkins Square Bagels, talks to Emily Lewis about strategy, location and community
Dubbed the ‘cream cheese innovator’ by Eater NY, Tompkins Square Bagels (TSB) has breached the tipping point, transforming from quirky eatery to local phenomenon. Holding an estimable reputation among regular patrons and foreign visitors alike, Pugliese’s bakery brainchild has received recognition for its legendary bagels and whacky cream cheeses.
With visitors from as far as London and Berlin, and queues of customers snaking down the street daily, waiting to sample the 37 flavours of topping, just what exactly has made this little shop an East Village culinary epidemic?
How did you first get involved with the industry?
I guess you might call me a ‘lifer’. The first job I ever had was in the neighbourhood pizza place. I was 13 years old. When I was 15 I took a job at the local bagel shop. I loved both jobs. I kept that bagel shop job all the way through college. Both places had great food and both owners cared deeply about the product they were creating.
What was it about those first jobs that kept you in the business?
What drew me most to the business was not so much the food part. I was much more attracted to the idea of a place where people of all sorts came together: the cops, the firemen, students, business men, teachers, local mom’s and dad’s, you name it… I just loved that. It’s connection, community.
What made you confident that TSB would be a success?
I was not confident TSB would be a success. I actually had a good amount of fear about how it was going to go. I’d say things to my wife like “What if there’s a reason no one has opened a bagel shop in the East Village for 20 years?”
Did the prospect of failing ever make you second-guess opening TSB?
I think every real deal restaurant person knows that there are no guarantees in this business. I had been part of a restaurant that had failed a few years before. Failing stinks, but it was a great thing to go through because it taught me everything not to do.
How did you prepare for the opening of your own business?
I learned everything. I studied ovens; how they’re built. How they work. The different types. I studied the psychological effects of different colours on people before I painted my walls! I learned about everything from light fixtures to concrete epoxy. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down with my best shot.
Had you always planned to include quirky flavours in your bagels and cream cheese?
A lot of the things we did were off-the-cuff ideas. When we were building TSB, my buddy and I were pulling lots of late nights, living on raw cookie dough that we bought at the bodega across the street. We literally sat on the floor in the shop one night, looked at each other and said “yeah, we have to put this stuff in the cream cheese”. That’s how our Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cream Cheese came about.
What would you say is your most popular cream cheese flavour?
Birthday cake is our most popular by far. With that, I was trying to replicate the jumbo sprinkle cookies that I used to buy when I was a little kid from this old Italian bakery in my neighbourhood called Cuccio’s. The guests kind of renamed it on me and I went with it. My main goal was achieved. Make people happy. Make them smile.
Having seen the huge lengths your lunchtime queues get to, how have you managed to keep up this momentum?
First, be in your store every day to make sure it’s being run the right way. You only get one first chance to impress. Second, focus on the basics and your core. Before TSB started experimenting we had a very solid and strong foundation. Lastly, I keep my staff focused on the hospitality end of the business. Our motto is ‘we are in the happiness business’.
When do you think ‘fun’ food breaches the tipping point and becomes a national phenomenon?
It has to taste great. Instagram photos, hype and PR will only get you so far. To keep people coming back long-term, your product has to be good consistently. Otherwise it’s just a big overhyped let down; like 3D movies in the 1980s.
What does success look like for TSB?
Success equals more hard work. Those big lines stress me out because I want every one of those people to be happy they came. Think of what a compliment, an honour, it is that someone has come to try your place out for the first time. Or even someone who had decided to make your spot their ‘go-to’ place. You just want to work that much harder to make them happy they did that.
Read more about culinary epidemics here.