St. Urbain Bagel Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Bagel chain born when 2 bored accountants rolled up their sleeves to roll dough

What do two accountants do when they get tired of number-crunching and want something more hands-on? Answer: They open a bagel bakery.

Bernie Good and Eric Bailis were those accountants, who were working at the same Toronto-area firm in 1987. But Good says neither was sure what to do for a career change. Then one day along came inspiration at a bagel shop in Thornhill, Ont.

“The owner said he’d just sold his shop in Montreal to his lawyer and accountant,” Good recalls.

So the two started talking bagels. It was really a foreign language to Good, who admits he knew nothing about bagels except how to eat them. But the idea was irresistible.

One minute, Good and Bailis were behind a desk; the next minute, there they were with their sleeves rolled up at 4:30 in the morning rolling bagels seven days a week.

“A couple of our employees taught us. We had a small shop with an oven and a fridge for cream cheese. We made sesame, poppy and plain,” Good recalls.

The name, St. Urbain, comes from Montreal

That year, they decided to add some more varieties of bagels and knishes, which they brought in from Montreal.

“That’s where the name, St. Urbain, came from. There was the influence of Duddy Kravits, and Montreal,” he says.

The duo soldiered on in the Thornhill location for six years, then they opened in the St. Lawrence Market. One year later, St. Urbain Bagels came to its Forest Hill location on Eglinton Avenue.

He chose Forest Hill because he lived in the area and there was a scarcity of bagel bakeries at the time.

St. Urbain Bagel is still a seven-day-a-week business, but the hours have improved. The day starts at 7 a.m. Twenty years ago, the duo opened a commissary, where the dough is made then shipped to the stores for baking. Now, there’s no need for the duo to roll dough.

Challah joins the product list

It was kismet that saw challah added to St. Urbain’s offerings.

Good explains.

“When we opened, we didn’t sell challahs. But around the corner from the original store was a Portuguese bakery. The baker sold it in 1990 and came by with a challah recipe and offered to teach us.”

Good can still roll the dough and braid the loaf.

Challah buns evolved from the loaf. Whole-wheat challahs appeared 10 years later when customers felt like celebrating the Sabbath with a “healthier” bread.

Customers can choose from over 12 varieties of bagels, although Good says sesame seed and poppy seed remain the favourites. Yes, there are whole-wheat, flax and multi-grain with poppy seeds and sesame seeds as well.

The offerings may have grown, but the décor stays spartan. Customers can enjoy a bagel with cream cheese or chopped egg at rickety tables and chairs. Good says there’s no need to upgrade. The customers, many of whom are titans of industry and finance, wouldn’t hear of it.

“We opened a few fancier places and found that’s not what people are looking for. They are looking for the product. The surroundings needn’t be fancy.”

Like many merchants in the Bathurst and Eglinton area, the construction of the LRT may be a sign of progress but it has hurt business.

Good doesn’t like to dwell on the topic.

“We serve people from a 10 to 15 block range. As the LRT construction came closer, we’ve lost business because we’ve lost parking. But we are staying strong and trying to fight our way through it because when it’s done, we will still be here.”

He credits staff, Jeff his baker, Heidi the store manager and Lisa, Helen and Beth, who work the counter – all long-serving employees – with being vital to the success of the Forest Hill location

He notes that as the product line has grown, so has the clientele.

“We are catering more and more to the Filipino community.”

St. Urbain Bagel’s Village address is 895 Eglinton Avenue, 416-787-6955.