Bagel Boosters : Expanding San Diego Chain Will Soon Open Its First Shop in O.C.

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A San Diego-based chain of bagel shops will soon bring its first restaurant to this area in a move to grab a big bite out of Orange County's growing market for the chewy rings of dough.

The Baltimore Bagel Co.--with a menu of more than two dozen varieties of bagels--including chocolate chip and banana nut--will open the most elaborate store in their 10-restaurant chain in Irvine's Jamboree Center at Harvard Place next week, joining about a dozen other bagel-only eateries in Orange County.

The company also hopes to convince supermarket shoppers, who buy frozen brands for about $1.59 a half-dozen, to pick up a baker's dozen at their store for $4.80.

"We want to educate people that bagels should be part of your diet, not just a snack," said Rachel Brau, 39, who founded the chain with her husband, Richard. "We want people to walk out of Ralph's (supermarket) and come over here and buy a dozen bagels for the week."

The Braus, who founded their chain of bagel stores 12 years ago, say they sell 21,000 bagels a day in San Diego County, and that their business has grown from three employees to 120. Although the couple decline to release exact sales figures of the privately held company, sales continue to grow--up 21% in 1991.

Rachel Brau predicted that their company could do just as well, perhaps better, in Irvine. The store is strategically placed next to an office park and upscale housing tracts.

The Braus are banking that their investment of up to $200,000 and a dozen employees at the new location will pay off and could lead to two or three other Orange County locations in the next few years, although they have been cautious about expanding elsewhere in Southern California too quickly.

"There's no master plan (for future growth)," Rachel Brau said. "It has been slow and steady growth. We have our thoughts and ideas, but I can't tell you what will happen a year from now."

Bagels were regular fare for the Braus, who were raised on the East Coast. Michael Brau, an Easton, Pa., native, would often visit relatives in Baltimore when he was a child and feast on Sunday morning brunch that included bagels, lox and cream cheese. Coincidentally, Brau met and later married Baltimore native Rachel Cherubin, who was an advertising executive in Los Angeles.

In the late 1970s, after launching his own business in San Diego that sold and maintained house plants, Brau got the idea to try to re-create the bagels for the Southern Californian market.

Shortly before setting up the bagel business, Michael Brau traveled to Baltimore and took a two-week crash course in bagel baking. He also picked up tips on selling from family friends who owned their own store.

In April, 1980, the couple opened their first Baltimore Bagel, a 700-square-foot shop in La Jolla. After their first few months the couple, who did almost everything themselves, sold about 1,000 bagels a day.

"We were successful the first day we opened. We knew it was a hit right from the start," Rachel Brau said. "We got into the business when bagels were just coming into the mainstream, out of the ethnic Jewish world. There was nothing in San Diego, and there were few in Los Angeles."

The growth of Baltimore Bagel has paralleled the gradual acceptance of bagels into households nationwide, largely over the past decade. Last year, an American Institute of Baking study showed that Americans consumed 3.4 pounds of bagels per capita in 1990, up 58% from 1988.

The bagel is now "much more versatile," said Jean Elliot Brown, a spokeswoman for Lender's Bagels, one of the largest bagel producers in the country, which baked 1.3 billion bagels in 1991. "It's much more available. They used to be only handmade. But we learned to freeze them, and that was somewhat of a breakthrough."

In Southern California, the Braus have attracted health-conscious eaters by touting the health merits of bagels: low fat, low cholesterol and low salt. In addition, everything is fresh, and all cooking and mixing will be done on site.

"Orange County is wide open for us," Rachel Brau said. "Orange County is very densely populated, and it is on the upscale side. . . . A more upscale, sophisticated population that is conscious of what they eat."

But others have lured the bagel unitiated to their outlets using similar marketing ploys, as well as offering offbeat varieties, such as pizza and garden vegetable. And each chain claims to have the Southland's best bagel.

"Ours is a real bagel," said Shirley Merrifield, the self-proclaimed "Bagel Lady" who said she introduced bagels to Orange County 12 years ago and now has three Bagels Etc. outlets. "It doesn't taste like a hamburger bun like some of them sell."

Merrifield and some other bagel shops make bigger, chewier bagels of about four ounces after baking. The Braus' products weigh about 3.5 ounces.

"You're talking two different kinds of bagels," said Warren Phillips, who has opened East Coast Bagels in Irvine, Mission Viejo and Long Beach in the last six months and plans to add five more shops by the end of next year. "It's the difference between a Cadillac and a Chevrolet. It depends on what you like, but theirs is a mini-bagel. It's a different size, a different taste."

Rachel Brau insists that the Baltimore Bagel Co. is different and said that the bigger bagels have "too much dough and sometimes aren't cooked enough." She points out more subtle differences as well.

"I believe we are the largest users of 'craisins' in the country," she said, referring to cranberries that are dried like raisins and put into bagels.

Even though the Southland is home to such unique bagel varieties as jalapeno, don't expect the chains to outdo themselves and mutate the bagel beyond recognition. Brau said purists can take solace in their most popular seller: "Far and away, it's plain."

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