If you pull up early enough in the morning outside the New Paltz Bagel Café in the Tops Plaza, you’ll see two oldtimers unpack their folding chairs from their cars, grab their coffee and fresh hot bagels, and sit outside the movie theater. Even though the booths are currently closed at the bagel shop, the culture of community and the friendships that it has helped foster are not.
Paul Kellerman is the owner of New Paltz Bagels, now in its 25th year. He can tell you the name of everyone who sits at any particular booth during a certain time of day, what type of bagel they like, who their friends or family members are. He and his staff even know to look after one gentleman who has diabetes to make sure that he’s checking his insulin.
“We’re really a family-type business,” said Kellerman, originally from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, “where food was your life. You were either being fed or trying to feed someone or thinking about what you were going to cook.”
After a long stint as a project manager at IBM, Kellerman said that he “saw the writing on the wall” and decided to switch careers before it wasn’t his choice. “My wife stayed on, so we were fortunate with that, but I knew I didn’t want to go back to a big corporate business.”
The secret of a good bagel
He became a business partner with his longtime friend John Didio, who owned Hot Bagels in Hopewell Junction. Together they opened up two more bagel cafés in Dutchess County, and eventually Kellerman went out on his own and to open up the 2050-square-foot shop in the New Paltz Plaza, next to the cinema. He feels so “grateful to have had both my kids work with me and really grow up here,” he said, “and my wife worked behind the scenes when she could doing the books, so it really began as a family business.”
What is the secret of good bagels? “Buying good ingredients, making everything here fresh and on-premises, having good water, and staying small enough that you can control the environment,” he said. The water, he pointed out, “is very important. We’re lucky to have good water here. That’s what helps makes good bread and good coffee.”
He thinks staying small and “picking a good crew” have been key to success. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have the same three employees work with me for a long time, and they’re great. They make the dough, bake the bagels, run the front. They really put forth a big effort into helping this business be successful.”
While Kellerman gives a lot of thanks to his friend Didio for teaching him about how to run a business, the café owner also credits the people of New Paltz. “They’ve been helpful to me since Day One, educating me – and not in a preachy way,” he said. “We don’t use styrofoam, we have all paper packaging, even my napkins are biodegradable. We also try not to waste anything if we can. We work closely with the college and sororities and Family of New Paltz and the Hudson Valley Food Bank.”
No rainbow bagels here
Customers want their ingredients unadulterated. “There’s always been a push for us to make a ‘rainbow bagel,’ which I haven’t done because we like to keep all of our ingredients chemical-free, and with bright food coloring, you’re looking at a lot of additives.” While not including a trendy, tie-dyed-looking rainbow bagel, the array of donut-shaped bread offerings is astounding. There are plain, poppyseed, garlic, onion, pumpernickel, rye, whole wheat, cinnamon raisin, apple cinnamon, marble, pretzel, sesame, salt and “super” bagels, which have a little bit of everything on them.
The super bagels are the best-seller by far. “They outsell every bagel three to one,” he said. The shop offers a plethora of different types of cream cheese, as well as homemade muffins, baked goods, wraps, fruit smoothies, homemade salads, and most recently Gary’s Pickles.
“We’re a dollar if not two dollars per dozen cheaper than almost anywhere,” he said. “And we don’t try and compete with local businesses. I try and do different things than The Bakery does, and I also try and use local business for everything that I can, whether it’s propane or eggs.”
True to Kellerman’s own heart, and even more in focus now, is how he and his employees handle the food they’re making for their customers. “I’ve always been a real stickler about hygiene and food-handling, and we have always used gloves when preparing people’s food. One thing that was important to people was having a grill, so I invested in putting a grill out front, raised the floor, put it in plain view so that everyone could see their food being made. I think that’s important.”
The busiest season
Kellerman said that 60 to 70 percent of his clientele are locals. “We get a lot of college students when they’re in session, and we also get a lot of the people who live in Florida during the year but come up North in the summer. They love it here because you can get a double egg, cheese and bacon and a cup of coffee for $5, and during normal times hang out in a booth and socialize with each other.”
Like many local cafés, bars and restaurants, New Paltz Bagels’ busiest season runs from May through the end of October. How many bagels might they sell on a busy weekend in the summer? He punched some numbers on a calculator and said, “roughly 2200.” That’s right: two thousand and two hundred bagels a day. The shop also does caterings and post-wedding breakfasts, bar/bat mitzvahs and different social events.
With the exception of the Covid 19 guideline signs and plexiglass over the counter and the use of masks by both employees and customers, the shop has not changed much, except for the booths being closed. Similar to other local eateries, those booths were always filled with regulars who wanted to socialize while they enjoyed their favorite bagel, beverage and cup of joe. “Every day we have people who come in and say they’re so tired of eating their bagel sandwich in their car and just want to come back in,” he said. “We’re really like a family here, and we keep track of how everyone is doing.”
Kellerman said that he “stayed open out of loyalty” handling to-go customers rather than shut his doors when the public-health crisis hit in March. As a food provider, his store was classified as an “essential business.” Many eateries closed due to plummeting sales, with most people not leaving their homes. “This community has been so good to me, and we still had first responders and healthcare workers and other people that had to go to work,” he said. “If they needed breakfast or lunch ready to go, then we were here.”
The bagel shop went down to a skeleton crew and shortened its hours from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. (instead of closing at 5), but stayed open despite losing money every day. “We were operating at 20 percent of our regular sales until a few weeks ago,” he said. “It’s finally started to pick up, and hopefully things will continue to get better.”
It becomes apparent after talking with Kellerman and watching him interact with his employees and customers that the greatest ingredient to New Paltz Bagels is his relationships with people. He believes in cultivating a place where they feel safe and comfortable and nourished in ways that go beyond a bagel.
“If anyone needs anything, we’re here,” he said. One got the sense that he really means it.