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A Closer look at Einstein Bros. Bagels

A few weeks ago I bought a challah from Einstein Bros. Bagels, which had taken over from the Noah’s in my town sometime last fall. Noah’s had supplied my daughter’s school on Fridays and their challah was pretty good for store-bought–this tasted the same. I hadn’t been in the store since the takeover so I didn’t really know what to expect, but other than the name change outside, it looked the same and had more or less the same offerings as ever.

I’m not sure what prompted me to go online and look for their nutrition information sheet, but I wanted an idea of what was in the challah, so I looked. I couldn’t find it on the Einstein Bros. site, but there was a pointer to the Noah’s web site–still up after the takeover, apparently, and that had the challah listed. What I found for the challah itself wasn’t incredibly shocking or anything, ingredients more or less kosher, not too bad on any of the nutritional factors. In fact, it’s probably one of the best bets at our former Noah’s, although you have to order a couple days ahead for Friday morning pickup.

On the other hand, the bagels and other menu items really stood out for sodium–most were over 500 mg per bagel, and some of the “gourmet” varieties of bagels were in the 700-900 range, even without lox. A few sandwiches soared as high as 3500 mg sodium (more than a day’s worth even for today’s average intake, and about two days’ worth according to the CDC and AHA guidelines)–just for a sandwich. Anything with chicken on it was astronomical as well–above 1600. Which sounded like Denny’s or Chili’s to me.

I started to wonder just who designed the food and how “designed” it was. Were we talking mostly bagel joint, or were we talking fast food with a highly engineered, set-in-stone formulation? If I wanted to contact them to ask about lowering the sodium in their dishes, was there a real person I could talk to?

The Einstein’s web site doesn’t have a lot on it other than Flash bells and whistles–the site is extremely corporate as far as information goes. The only thing I found that seemed worth noting here is the management team, and even that–maybe it was the Flash, or maybe there was some programming in the web site, but after three management biographies it failed to load any others. I had to shut my browser, clear my cache, and try again.

What I found surprised me (I’m kind of naïve, I know it). Even with all the evidence to the contrary–my sister once did a comprehensive marketing survey of west coast bagelries and concluded none of them had the real, crackle-crusted thing, it was all just ring-shaped white bread–I still harbor a faint hope that if it’s a bagel shop, it must be Jewish. Especially since the founder of Noah’s is, and Einstein Bros.–well, what would you conclude? But you would be wrong.

From the website (all the links in the box will get you the management main page):

http://www.einsteinnoah.com/about/management.aspx

Senior Executives

Jeffrey J. O’Neill President and Chief Executive Officer
Emanuel “Manny” Hilario Chief Financial Officer
Dan J. Dominguez Chief Operating Officer
Rhonda J. Parish Chief Legal Officer and Secretary
James P. O’Reilly Chief Concept Officer
Board of Directors

Jeffrey J. O’Neill Chief Executive Officer and Director
E. Nelson Heumann Chairman of the Board
Thomas J. Mueller Director
Michael W. Arthur Director
Frank C. Meyer Director
S. Garrett Stonehouse, Jr. Director

From their biographies, it looks like none of the five senior execs are Jewish. Maybe the board of directors, but that’s less than clear. Still, going down the list of credentials (I don’t know if the links I cut and paste will work here or whether you have to go to the Einstein Bros. site), we find no ties to any  recognizable Jewish bakery or deli business.

The credentials run instead with the biggest American fast-food chains and products: KFC, Pepsi, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Burger King, and more. All of them targeted in recent years for engineering their menu items to exaggerate the salt, fat and sugar content for what Dr. David Kessler calls “hyperpalatability” in his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite .

So that unfortunately answers the first question, neighborhood bagel joint vs. impersonal fast food chain approach, but it also gets into an ethnic duplicity issue: are they masquerading behind a Jewish name to peddle yet another version of generic fast “food”? McLevy’s?

Is it too late to save the bagel from this fast-food fate? Probably–and if I’m being honest with myself, probably by 35 years, starting with Lender’s Frozen Bagels, which were truly white-bread, gummy and awful (even though the founder was in fact Jewish). These my mother bought on the theory that since we lived in the South, where there were no real bagel joints, it was better than nothing–something I’ve learned over the years is rarely true.

Even I can admit that it’s not likely, with a lineup like the one at Einstein Bros., that I’d get anywhere asking them to reformulate without all the salt.

In the meantime, I’m going to take some of the bowl of dough I’ve had in the fridge this week and make some real bagels with it, because I’m old enough and lucky enough to have had grandparents who brought the real thing down from a real bagelry in Long Island (Andell’s, I think my Grandma Thel said, and sometimes Goodman’s) to our small southern town whenever they visited. I’m going to boil the bagels a minute or so on each side before I bake them–forget the malt syrup, it’s unnecessary for a good shiny crackle–and they’re going to be good.

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