Traditional bagel making lives on at South City bakery

Photo by Andrew Kerman

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Every year the Riverfront Times devotes one issue to recognizing the “Best of St. Louis.” In the category of Best Bagels, I had assumed that, as in years past, the winner would be one of the usual contenders, namely, the Bagel Factory, Companion Bakery, Einstein’s or Pratzel’s Bakery. Instead, the 2010 title went to Black Bear Bakery.

I stared at the newsprint in total surprise. Black Bear Bakery? I had visited its booth at various farmer’s markets and had seen some of its baked goods in some grocery stores. Breads and pastries, of course. But the best bagels? I didn’t even know Black Bear made bagels. How could I have missed that? I decided it was time to investigate.

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As I learned, Black Bear Bakery is truly unique. First off, it is located at 2639 Cherokee Street in the old Vandora Theatre building. Second, it operates as a co-op, a collective enterprise that is worker owned and operated. To the extent that there is a manager, every employee is a manager. Everyone bakes, everyone drives the delivery truck, and everyone works the retail counter. And when it comes to making decisions, everyone make those, too.

The bakery first opened in 1997 as City of Little Bread and was located in the former Mayer Bakery space on Pestalozzi and Jefferson avenues. Two years later, it changed its name to Black Bear Bakery and seven years ago moved to its current location in the former theater. Before opening in that location, the bakers developed a plan for renovating the space using what they describe as “a grassroots do-it-yourself sustainable design approach hiring people from the local community.” Many of the materials used in the renovation are recycled building supplies found in alleys. Much of the bakery equipment once lived elsewhere, including the huge Middleby Marshall deck oven, dough mixers, refrigerator, baker’s racks and dough scales.

But perhaps the key recycled element – and thus the key to understanding how this South City bakery is producing outstanding bagels – is the bakery’s collection of recipes. They were handed down from Lickhalter Bakery, which is where Samuel Lickhalter, a Russian Jewish immigrant, began baking his legendary bagels and signature sourdough rye breads in 1915 in a small shop below his apartment on 1119 Biddle Street. Black Bear bakes those same bagels and breads in exactly the same way. The bakery’s daily output averages somewhere between 60 and 400 loaves of bread and 8 to 10 dozen bagels, depending on orders.

Along with the bagels and the sourdough rye bread, which is made with the original sourdough starter, Black Bear also bakes Mr. Lickhalter’s Pumpernickel, Caraway Seed Rye, Swirl Rye, Pumpernickel French, Vienna White, Raisin Babka, and challah breads. Bakers have added some of their own specialty breads, including Olive Rosemary and Brioche, three whole grain varieties, various pastries and pizzas. And they make a variety of naturally sweetened granolas and a soup of the day. Everything is made from scratch, and the ingredients are, to the extent possible, fair-trade, organic, and local.

So what about those award-winning Black Bear Bakery bagels? I spent a few hours schmoozing with the bakers and watched as they made the dough, cut it into pieces, formed the bagels by hand, boiled them, and finally baked them. When the bagels were deemed ready by the particular baker manning the oven that day, they were set out onto giant cooling racks. I eagerly waited until the bagels were cool enough to handle, and then picked one up and took a bite. Oh, my. With just one bite, I felt the crisp crust crackle under my teeth and tasted the tender, yet chewy, interior- absolutely delicious.

For those of you who prefer your bagels seeded or sweet, the bakery will also bake “to order” cinnamon raisin, poppy, sesame, whole wheat, everything, and pumpernickel. And order you must, because the bulk of Black Bear’s sales are to restaurants such as Winslow’s, Local Harvest, Dominic’s and Duff’s, and to stores such as Straub’s Global Foods and Sappington Market. While Black Bear generally bakes extras for walk-in customers, there’s no guarantee that bagels will be available the day you visit. The bakers only bake on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, so be sure to call in your bagel order the day before.

Though baking bagels in your own kitchen is fun and exciting, it is also a lot of work. I suggest you leave the baking to the folks at Black Bear and instead create some of these tasty schmears to serve with them.

Black Bear Bakery

2639 Cherokee Street

St. Louis, MO 63118


Bakery hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m Tuesday-Saturday,

Vegetarian Brunch every Saturday, 9 a.m.-2 p.m


Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three. A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected].

Sinfully Rich Chocolate Schmear


4 tablespoons quality chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

Chopped, toasted peanuts, pecans, or almonds (optional)

Fresh banana slices

Melt chocolate chips in the top of a double boiler or microwave in a microwave safe bowl at 20-second intervals, stirring after each interval until chocolate is just melted.

Combine melted chocolate, vanilla extract and powdered sugar in a small bowl. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Smear chocolate on bagel and top with any combination of sliced bananas, finely chopped toasted peanuts, pecans, or almonds. Totally decadent!

Sun-Dried Tomato Schmear


8 oz. cream cheese, softened

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1 tablespoon heavy cream or milk

1 cup loosely packed basil leaves, finely chopped

12 sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, chopped very fine

1 tablespoon reserved oil from tomatoes

1/4 cup pine nuts, pan roasted and cooled

Salt and pepper to taste

1 small garlic clove, peeled and finely minced (optional)

Mix cream cheese with yogurt and cream or milk. Mix in chopped tomatoes, reserved oil, chopped basil, salt and pepper. Fold in pine nuts. Add salt and pepper, to taste, and minced garlic, if using.

Maple Pecan Schmear


8 ounces cream cheese, softened (You may substitute low-fat cream cheese.)

1/4 cup pecans, toasted and chopped

3 tablespoons maple syrup

Milk, for thinning if desired

Combine all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; beat with a wooden spoon or in a mixer until thoroughly combined. (For a thinner consistency, add a few drops of milk while stirring.)

Spoon schmear into a small crock or bowl and refrigerate until needed.

Edamame Hummus Schmear


1/2 pound fresh or frozen shelled edamame beans (about 1 1/2 cups)

1/4 cup sesame paste (tahini)

2 tablespoons water

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice (from 1 medium lemon)

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Add beans to a pot of salted, boiling water and cook for 5 minutes. Drain beans, reserving water.

Transfer warm beans to a food processor. Add sesame seed paste, 2 tablespoons reserved water, lemon zest and juice, garlic, salt, cumin, and coriander. Mix until smooth. With the motor running, slowly drizzle in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and mix until combined. If mixture is too thick, thin out with more olive oil or some of the reserved water.

Transfer hummus to a small bowl and refrigerate until needed. Before serving, stir in chopped parsley and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.