The Hole Truth: Meet the Baker Behind Phoenix’s Bagel Boom

Robrt L. PelaNovember 1, 2023
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Photo by Brandon Tigrett
Photo by Brandon Tigrett

Phoenix bagel baker Charles Blonkenfeld has a good problem: too much business.

“I knew we had a chance of making it when people from New York started telling me our bagels were the best they’d had since they moved here,” says Charles Blonkenfeld of his Bagelfeld’s shop in Phoenix.

“But I really knew we’d made it when a guy came in and got three bagels and ate them in one sitting. In his car! I was like, ‘OK, this is happening. People can’t wait to get home to eat our bagels.’”

In the middle of the Valley’s bagel boom (see sidebar), Bagelfeld’s nudged out worthy contenders to take top honors as the place to get the hottest, freshest bagel in town, according to Bon Appétit. When the magazine named Bagelfeld’s “one of the best bagels in the U.S.” in June, business went berserk.

“I’m not sure how all this happened,” says Blonkenfeld, who grew up in suburban Phoenix in the 1970s. “I dropped out of college a couple of times and did the fishing boat thing and then I came back to Phoenix and got a job as lead line cook at Steamers, and that was what I thought I’d be doing the rest of my life.”

In the ’90s, Blonkenfeld fell into catering and worked his way up to executive sous chef for catering company Fabulous Food. He got sober and took a side gig at The Phoenician in 2006. A couple of years later, he opened a Downtown sandwich shop, Chaka Chaka Urban Cuisine. Things were looking up.

“Then in 2010, everything fell apart,” he recalls. “My shop closed, my wife left me and I lost my house.”

While he considered his next move, Blonkenfeld catered for event planner George Abrams and worked as a private chef. But he wanted something more. During the pandemic shutdown, he spotted a trade ad for a bagel shop in Connecticut.

“A lightbulb went on,” he says. “I rented a kitchen with a good kettle and a good hot oven. The question I asked myself was, ‘Can I sell 300 bagels at the farmers market?’ That was my goal.”

The question Blonkenfeld didn’t ask himself was whether Phoenix needed another bagel shop. Chompie’s had long had the bagel market cornered, and places like the Nosh Café and chain Einstein Bros. Bagels crowded the market. Blonkenfeld didn’t care.

Blonkenfeld prepares his secret bagel recipe.; Photo by Brandon Tigrett
Blonkenfeld prepares his secret bagel recipe.; Photo by Brandon Tigrett

“I wasn’t thinking about if there was a need for a better bagel,” he admits about his move from Phoenix farmers markets to a brick-and-mortar storefront last year. “My thinking was more like, ‘I just hired this person to make bagels with me, and she bought a car and now I’m responsible for her car payment.’ The need was I gotta keep selling bagels to pay the rent. I wanted to make a better bagel to stay in business.”

Staying in business has proven to be easier than he’d expected. Word got out that Bagelfeld’s was different – that its plain bagel tasted more like a proper French baguette, that Bagelfeld’s bagels didn’t need to be toasted because they were sold still warm from the oven. And then came the Bon Appétit bump.

“The week that happened, we went from selling 9,000 bagels a week to 15,000 bagels a week,” Blonkenfeld says. “We ran out of bagels every day, and it was horrible having to turn people away. But it was a good problem to have. It made our bagel more desirable, too. Like, you need to get there early to get one, and all that.”

Bagelfeld’s is still running out of bagels – for a number of reasons, says Blonkenfeld, who would rather run short than change his business model.

“We want to sell the best bagel every time, and the best bagel is one that we just baked. I’m not making 500 of them in advance… Also, I won’t tell my crew they have to stay an extra four hours to make more bagels. I’m not that boss.”

If Blonkenfeld is still wrapping his head around his unexpected success, he’s crystal-clear about how to make a better bagel.

“I worked on this recipe a long time,” he says. “And it comes down to temperature control and adapting your baking time to Phoenix’s hot climate.”

And the rest of the recipe?

“I’m just keeping that to myself,” Blonkenfeld laughs.