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Koreans Roll In To D.C.'s Bagel Businesses

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Bagels may be most often linked to Jewish communities, but Korean bakers in the region have taken over many of the bakeries where they are made.
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Bagels may be most often linked to Jewish communities, but Korean bakers in the region have taken over many of the bakeries where they are made.

When Yo Sup Lee emigrated from Korea to Washington, D.C., in 1968, he had never tasted a bagel. But now, nearly 30 years later, he says he can’t get enough of the doughy, chewy treat.

“I love bagels!” he exclaims with a smile. “I am three-quarters Jewish.”

Those “three-quarters” come from Lee’s job as owner of Rockville’s Bagel Towne Deli, where he sells 18 kinds of bagels, along with sandwiches like “The Mitzvah,” and “The Yenta.”

“[A lot] of my clients are from Potomac, so they are Jewish,” he explains. “And they always say, ‘Hey, yo! You’re not Jewish yet?’ I always say, ‘I’m almost!’”

In America, the bagel was initially brought to New York City by Jews from Poland. By 1900, Jewish immigrants had nearly six-dozen bagel bakeries on the Lower East Side alone.

Fast-forward more than a century, though, and not only have bagels spread across the country, but — from plain to poppy to everything — they’re being peddled by everyone. And here in the D.C. region more and more bagel shops are being run by members of the 60,000-strong Korean community — like Yo Sup Lee, who bought Bagel Towne Deli from its original, Jewish owner in 2007. Though at the time, the purchase had very little to do with bagels.

“It’s not that I especially decided to do the bagel business,” he says. “I’d been in the beer, wine and convenience business 20 years in D.C.”

He even became head of the Korean-American Grocers Association of Washington, or KAGRO. But after two decades he wanted something more.

“Korean people are very demanding and diligent,” he says. “We don’t have much patience to wait until we build up our things. So after we do certain things we’re not satisfied with our status.”

Yo Sup Lee has owned Bagel Towne Deli in Rockville for seven years.

Which is not unlike their bagel-baking predecessors, he says: “[It’s the] same as the Jewish people over here. [The] first time they’re not satisfied with what they’re doing, and [want to] change their lifestyle. So they tried to get a better position or status to their business or incomes, and a better life.”

Veteran baker Mark Furstenberg offers three kinds of bagels at Bread Furst in Northwest D.C., and he seconds Lee’s motion.

“It’s a departure for bagels to be made by non-Jews. That’s certainly true,” he assents. “It is not a departure, however, for Koreans to take possession of a business that previously belonged to Jews.”

One reason, he says, is “Koreans are best known, at least in Washington, for having opened dry-cleaning establishments and liquor stores, both of which were ways that Jews entered America. When I was in high school my best friends’ fathers owned liquor stores in Baltimore or they bought dry cleanings. Now those small businesses are being passed on to Koreans and other newly-arrived Americans.”

Sue Hopkins emigrated from Korea to Kentucky decades ago. But it wasn’t until she moved to Washington in the early 1990s that she tried a bagel, and it was love at first bite. So it worked out nicely that in 2011 Hopkins bought K Street Bagel and Café from a fellow Korean immigrant.

“I always wanted something like this,” she says. “Because I love to give, and I love to see people. You know, [I’m] a people’s person, I guess you could say.”

Not only that, she says, “but D.C. is the place to have a restaurant or deli, right? So it’s not that ‘I want to own a deli.’ It’s just opportunity.”

Of course, it can also be a lot of work. Nowadays many bagelries — Korean-owned or not — use frozen dough they get from a distributor, and rely on a machine to shape their bagels. But at Sue Hopkins’s shop, everything is from scratch.

“We make our bagel every day,” she says proudly. “One of few stores! I get the satisfaction out of it when [customers] say, ‘Oh, it was really good!’ And that’s it; that makes my day!”

Sue Hopkins has three children, the oldest of which helps out in the store a couple times a week. So it’s pretty much a family affair at K Street Bagel and Café, as it is half-a-dozen blocks north on P Street, at Bagels Etcetera.

SuChan Kang is 35 years old. His parents, David and Judy, have owned Bagels Etcetera for 28 years. Though — like Sue Hopkins and Yo Sup Lee — the Kangs knew nothing about bagels when they immigrated to America in the early 1980s.

“The first couple years they bounced around working little jobs and I think they heard deli and bagel shops were doing well, so they tried and it worked,” Kang says with a smile. “And it’s still here!”

It’s still here, and doing a pretty brisk business — among locals and tourists alike.

“On the weekdays it’s [a] majority [of] regulars,” Kang explains. “We know them by their first name and we know what they want before they come in the door.”

And that’s one of SuChan Kang’s favorite things about working at his parents’ store — and one of the reasons he hopes to take it over once they retire.

“I didn’t want to just sell it,” he says. “Because it’s a waste, don’t you think? Almost 30 years and then let it go?”

Under his ownership, he says, Bagels Etcetera might start up online-ordering for customers, maybe even delivery service. But the bagels would remain the same – these doughy, chewy delicacies that — whether in the hands of Eastern Europeans or Northeast Asians — just keep rolling on.

Music: "Where is my Bagel?" by 윤정주 from Where is my Bagel

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