Most people know Collegetown Bagels as a popular spot off-campus to grab a bite to eat, but few know the man behind the business: Gregar Brous.
Brous began baking bagels while attending Ithaca College. By the time he graduated, he had become the manager of the back of the house, where the bagels are made.
“We were over here [in Ithaca], and I liked the business, so I began looking around for another location that was somewhat similar to Collegetown, this kind of environment, because I enjoyed it,” Brous said. “The guy that owned the place at the time said to me, ‘Why don’t you just buy this place? I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
Collegetown Bagels was started in 1976 by a “couple guys from Long Island,” and Brous purchased it a few years later, to claim part-ownernship. In 1995, Brous opened the current location, across from the original location.
It would seem that bagels have always been Brous’ calling. Before making bagels, Brous was a dishwasher at restaurants, and eventually became a cook. Brous also held a job as a printer, which he likens to making bagels.
“We did letter-press printing and it was very similar to baking bagels. Bagels came off of a machine and one-by-one, over and over again, and we handled them one-by-one,” Brous said.
Inspired by his artisan experiences working at a printer, Brous began making bagels.
“I very much enjoyed the process of starting with a bag of flour and ending with a finished product that we sell to the public,” Brous said.
Brous attributes his restaurant’s success to this kind of attention to detail. One aspect of the bagel making process that Brous proudly maintains is his use of malt.
“We try to keep true to the original roots of a bagel and the original recipes,” Brous said. “Outside of that, we’re very specific and careful with the size, the shape, and the mix and the texture, and the flavor, so we pay attention to what we’re doing.”
Before the bagel arrives on the customer’s plate, the dough must be prepared the night before at Ithaca Bakery — Collegetown Bagels’ commissary for baked goods. Every morning, a truck arrives at CTB, delivering thousands of raw bagels awaiting the next step in the process, the boiling. This step activates the yeast, helping to develop the bagels’ unique texture. Brous pays special attention to the boiling process, treating it with utmost precision.
“Depending on how far the bagels have risen before they went in the cooler, they have to stay in the boiling water for different lengths of time, so you have to judge how long they’re going to need to be into the water,” Brous said. “I have to teach [new employees], ‘no that one’s not ready yet.’”
After being boiled, the bagels are baked upside-down, and eventually flipped right side-up to finish cooking. From there, they are placed in bins: ready for consumption.
CTB’s most popular bagel is the humble plain bagel. In second place is the Long Island Bagel, and the sesame bagel comes in at third. Besides its bagels, Collegetown Bagels produces all its food — including pastries, salads and spreads — fresh every day.
Collegetown Bagels makes about 1,000 dozen bagels in a “good day,” according to Brous. That comes out to over four million bagels a year, more than enough to span from Cornell University to New York City when laid side-to-side (assuming each bagel has a diameter of four inches).
But not all of Collegetown Bagels’ food is served to customers. Leftover bagels are processed into bagel chips for soups, and unpurchased items are sent to food pantries, soup kitchens and farmers to use as pig feed.
You’d think Brous would be content with the success of his restaurant, whose name is stickered on everything from laptops to water bottles. In the near future, Collegetown Bagels will roll out its newest innovation, a delivery service, which will be available from 10:30 a.m. to 2:00 a.m.
“We’re always thinking about what are new things that people need, directions we can go, partly to keep our lives interesting and creative. Because we enjoy that. Otherwise I would get bored. And partly to be in touch with our customer base and fulfill the needs that they have,” Brous said.