Five days a week for the last 16 years, Steven Ross has commuted from his home in Manalapan to Coney Island Bialys & Bagels in Brooklyn, leaving around 2 a.m. each day. His return trip home each afternoon takes three hours, as he weaves through New Jersey making deliveries to customers, including various Foodtown supermarkets, Jerry and Harvey’s in Marlboro, and Bagel Boy in Old Bridge.
Giving up this routine will be “heartbreaking” for the owner of Brooklyn’s oldest bialy shop. Ross announced the closing this month of his family’s 91-year-old business. When the landmark bakery turns off its ovens, it will leave a giant hole at the center of a bagel and bialy scene that extends from city to suburb.
The business is a victim of the bad economy and changing neighborhood demographics, Ross said in a phone interview with NJJN, in between serving customers eager to stock up on Coney Island bialys before their extinction.
“There’s nothing better than a good bialy. My father used to call it Jewish heroin. Once you had a bialy you never went back to a bagel,” said Ross, 52. The bialys are popular at the Gordons Corner Fire Company in Marlboro, where Ross is a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. They also made for very savory favors at his two children’s b’nei mitzva celebrations.
Taste of New York
The bialy, described in a cartoon on the store’s register as the offspring of an onion bagel and an English muffin, arrived on American shores by way of Bialystok, Poland. So did Ross’s grandfather Morris Rosenzweig, who founded the business in 1920. Rosenzweig passed it to his son Donald in 1960, who passed it down to his son Steven in 1995. Steven’s son Bryan, 22, serves as manager.
Up until 1980, the shop produced an average of 400 dozen bialys during the week, and about 900 dozen on the weekends, Ross said. In the ’80s, production dropped to three quarters of that; in the ’90s it plummeted to half. Today, they bake about 75 dozen bialys a day, and 20 dozen bagels a day. In peak years, the store employed up to 20 employees; now Ross is down to two.
As many Jews left New York, mail order became a big part of his business. “We’ve hit every state in the U.S. including Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and as far as South Africa, Great Britain, Israel, and Spain,” said Ross. “I get letters and e-mails from all over the world thanking me for shipping them a little taste of New York.”
The closing leaves Ross and his family heartbroken, he said. “Mom-and-pop shops like mine really took a hard hit in this economy,” he said.
Bialy buffs at Jerry and Harvey’s in Marlboro are also brokenhearted by the news, said owner Jerry Feldstein.
“I know the family for about 60 years. When Steve told me the news, I felt terrible,” Feldstein said. “His bialys are a very nice seller in our store and will be missed. People are buying an extra dozen or two to put in their freezer.”
When his ovens are turned off for the last time, Ross plans to launch a consulting business that trains organizations in first aid and CPR.