Ex-ad man gets cooking as bagel mogul

December 31, 1990|By Lynda Robinson

Greg Novik does a convincing imitation of a man taking a morning break.

He slathers cream cheese on a sesame bagel, tops it with a tomato and some alfalfa sprouts, grabs a can of juice and lights up a Danish cigarette. He even pulls up a stool and sits on it for a few seconds.

Then the timer on a convection oven behind him buzzes impatiently.

Mr. Novik, a rumpled 44-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard and rapid-fire mouth, whirls around and starts pulling out trays of hot, chewy, cinnamon raisin bagels. More trays of unbaked bagels go into the oven. He checks on the progress his bakers are making on a batch of chocolate chip dough. Someone at the front of his funky Belvedere Square shop in northern Baltimore calls his name, and Mr. Novik races off to see what is needed.

About an hour later, Baltimore's most unlikely bagel baron finally takes a bite from his sandwich.

"My wife and I goofed off when we were young," Mr. Novik says as the lunch rush begins. "And now we're working."

Greg Novik isn't the kind of guy you'd expect to find behind a bagel shop counter.

An avid musician who plays the bass, guitar and piano, Mr. Novik came to Baltimore in 1964 to go to the Johns Hopkins University, where he graduated after "four lovely years, not a day spent sober." He played in some bands after college before he got his first real job with an advertising agency.

He worked as a writer, producer and, finally, a creative director. He also earned a lot of extra money writing jingles -- hundreds of catchy tunes for customers such as Maryland National Bank, Care First, Channel 45, and the Hutzler's and Stewart's department stores.

After 18 years in the advertising industry, Mr. Novik was in an enviable position. "I was making a lot of money and working very little," he says.

But he was increasingly disillusioned with pitching other people's products.

"It was stupid," Mr. Novik explains.

He was already looking for a way out of advertising when he and his wife, Kathy, decided to make a batch of bagels in the kitchen of their Northwest Baltimore home in 1986.

"I think we did it for something to do on a Sunday afternoon," he says. "It was a lark."

They pulled out an ancient copy of "The Jewish Cookbook" and followed the recipe. The bagels were terrible.

"Rock hard," Mr. Novik recalls. "It was like eating a stone. I think they were so horrible tasting that it spurred us on to try again."

Mr. Novik wanted to make a bagel that tasted more like the ones he'd eaten in Canada, where bagels are made by hand and boiled in honey water. They are lighter, sweeter and more flavorful than U.S. bagels.

The Noviks experimented with different recipes and consulted with bagel makers in Montreal, St. Louis, San Diego and Long Island. Their bagels got better and better. And they started wondering what would happen if they sold them.

Mr. Novik began carrying two 30-pound bags of bagels wherever he went, selling bagels at his office every Monday and Friday. The response convinced him he had found his ticket out of advertising.

He and his wife took their life savings of $30,000, borrowed $5,000 more from a friend and opened Greg's Bagels in a cheerful, black-and-white tiled store at Belvedere Square. They admit they knew nothing about commercial baking and nothing about running a business.

The first day, they put a sign outside the store that read: "We're not really open, but come on in for a free sample anyway." They sold $81 worth of bagels.

But lots of people balked at their prices, which, Mr. Novik agrees, aren't cheap. Most of his bagels, including the cinnamon raisin, sesame, poppy and onion, cost 60 cents, compared to about 35 cents at Giant Food. Exotic specials such as white chocolate, double almond or international multifruit can run as high as 80 cents.

The price is higher because they use high-quality ingredients -- pure barley malt, honey and soy flour -- and hand-roll their bagels instead of stamping them out by machine, Mr. Novik says.

Business started off slowly.

"When a customer came in, you'd jump up, grab and hug them and give them a free bagel," he says. "You had a lot of chiselers. But you had a lot of people who said: 'These are amazing.' "

Before long, word spread about the bagels. Customers started lingering at the tables that line one side of the long, narrow store, sipping coffee and munching on some of the strangest bagel sandwiches devised by man.

Billed as "new, exciting and oh-so-profitable," the caviar combination includes caviar, cream cheese, onion, lemon juice, chopped egg and the bagel of your choice. Sahib Greg's Taste of India features curried chicken salad with mangoes, raisins and almonds on a bagel spread with vegetable cream cheese and tandoori paste.

People who eat at the store get to watch Mr. Novik run up and down the long counter, refilling baskets with fresh bagels, making sandwiches and generally harassing his customers.

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