BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A titan of the Buffalo bagel scene is closing its doors after finalizing a deal with national chain.
Bagel Jay’s, renowned for selling fresh New York-style bagels to Western New Yorkers for more than two decades, agreed Wednesday night to sell all three of its locations to Bagel Brands, which plans to turn the stores into Bruegger’s Bagels, owner Jay Gershberg confirmed to News 4.
All Bagel Jay’s locations will be closed at least into next week as the stores begin their transition. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“The way Western New York has embraced us … it’s been very motivating and very satisfying,” Gershberg said, reflecting on nearly 50 years in business. “We didn’t make everyone happy, but I think we made most people happy. We brought bagels to Western New York, plain and simple. And we’re the last man standing. Now, somebody else is standing in our shoes, so to speak.”
Bruegger’s is a well-regarded national chain with approximately 200 locations across the country, including eight in the Rochester area, four in Syracuse, and about a dozen locations in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Its parent company also owns Panera Bread, Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bros. Bagels. Bruegger’s did not return a request for comment this week.
Gershberg said he has a “mutual level of respect” for Bruegger’s, which also specializes in New York-style bagels and boasts of its Vermont-made cream cheeses. He believes Buffalonians will agree.
“They make a New York product that is somewhat similar to us,” he said.
All current Bagel Jay’s employees will be offered a continuation of their job with Bruegger’s, Gershberg said. He is working on a program for customers who still have with Bagel Jay’s gift certificates.
The sale marks the second time Gershberg’s bagel empire has been sought after by a national chain.
Brothers Bob and Jay Gershberg began selling New York-style bagels here in 1976 after relocating from New York City. They eventually expanded their Bagel Bros chain to more than two dozen locations, stretching into Cleveland and Chicago. In 1996, they sold to national outfit Manhattan Bagel, but later reached a court settlement following Manhattan Bagel’s financial troubles.
That settlement, reached in 2000, included a one-year non-compete agreement, Gershberg said. In 2001, Bagel Jay’s was born.
The origin story of Buffalo’s bagel barons owes to the fact that we were once a city without a schmear. To the Gershbergs, that presented a market inefficiency worth exploring.
“Back in 1976, I already had a teaching degree, I was doing construction work building schools,” Jay Gershberg said. “The bottom fell out of New York city, financially, in 1975. My brother was at Oswego State and we started talking about what else we should do. We talked about pizza, we talked about bagels, and went to see a lot of different people about bagels. We decided on working with a gentleman who was an old Brooklyn bagel baker who was working at a shop in Ithaca. We spent months learning how to make bagels and so forth.
“We went to Buffalo in 1976 strictly because – we wanted to stay in New York for some reason, I couldn’t tell you why – Buffalo was the only city, and a big city, without fresh New York bagels. Rochester, Ithaca, Binghamton, Utica, Syracuse, Albany, Kingston, pretty much everywhere upstate, there were already bagels. But we were able to get into the business and the community embraced us.”
The first Bagel Jay’s location opened at Hopkins and Klein roads in Amherst in September 2001, and the Delaware Avenue store opened a year later. When Manhattan Bagel went out of business locally in 2016, Bagel Jay’s took over its Snyder location on Main Street at Harlem Road.
What set Bagel Jay’s apart, Gershberg believed, was quality.
“Consistency of product was a mainstay through most of the years,” he said. “Being what we consider a good New York bagel shop, my brother and I, and going forward into Bagel Jay’s, I never compromised – whether it was on the bagel itself or any of its fixings. I think we always did quality deli meats, cream cheese schmears that we did, our signature tuna fish, chicken salad, egg salad, I think that’s all a part of it. There’s no comprise. We were mostly consistent, and that’s what you want in a restaurant.”
While fans have loved Bagel Jay’s in part for its wide selection — offering 20 flavors of bagels and eight schmears a day — Gershberg said the plain bagel, forever, has been the number-one seller. Everything bagels, though, recently moved ahead of sesame into second place. The Delaware, a holdover from the Bagel Bros days, is the store’s most popular sandwich, featuring roasted turkey, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, and Russian dressing atop a bagel of your choice.
Gershberg believes seasonal specials like the all-green bagel for St. Patrick’s Day helped endear his stores to a wider audience.
“That’s as popular as can be,” Gershberg said of their green bagels. “It mixes Irish and Jewish. We did well with that. It crossed ethnic lines so well, like St. Patrick’s Day. It just was fun. It gave us an opportunity to reach a lot more people than were regular customers. They’d say, maybe, I don’t want a bagel, but maybe for the fun of St. Patrick’s Day [I would]. And it kind of almost notes the beginning of springtime in Western New York, I believe.”
September marked 47 years since Gershberg began serving bagels to Buffalonians. He doesn’t expect to launch another venture this time around.
“I’m 71,” he said. “I’ve paid my dues. It’s time for me to enjoy my grandchildren.”
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Nick Veronica is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as the Digital Executive Producer in 2021. He previously worked at NBC Sports and The Buffalo News. You can follow Nick on Facebook, Twitter and Threads. See more of his work here.