One of the enduring
legacies of Newark's once-thriving Jewish Community, which peaked at 75,000 in
the mid-1930s, was an Eastern European Jewish food favorite which prospered in Newark for
more than a quarter of a century, the "Watson Bagel."
In today's world, the bagel has
evolved as a widely popular American breakfast staple in a wide range of
varieties, and available in virtually every type of eating establishment from
Dunkin Donuts to MacDonalds.1
In the Newark of the 1940s, 1950s
and 1960s, the bagel appealed to a more ethnic audience. Jewish Newarkers
thronged to Watson Bagel -- first on Watson Avenue where it was started in 1940,
and later, for many years on 280 Clinton Place -- to satisfy their yearnings for
this delectable hand-rolled crusty baked specialty.
As Leo Bauman was identified with
the Weequahic Diner and Sam Teiger with the Tavern Restaurant, the one
individual closely identified with the Watson Bagel throughout most of its existence
was Sonny Amster -- a native of Newark's old Third Ward, and a South Side High
Sonny Amster was, and has been
identified with bagels his entire life. He is the son of a Newark
bagel-maker, who had worked in an earlier Newark bagel operation on Belmont
Avenue. Sonny Amster had apprenticed in bagel-making at his father's side.2
In 1957, Amster became a partner
in Watson Bagel with Joseph Pearlman, a New York City bagel-maker, who had
earlier bought the Watson operation. By then it was well established at
280 Clinton Place.
280 Clinton Place Location
I recall, during my many visits to
the Clinton Place location, the bagels were brought to the store front retail
operation from the brick ovens located in the back. They were hauled in
from the back in large wicker baskets pulled along the wooden floor and slid
down a sloping wooden ramp.
The bagel store and the two ovens
in the back operated 24 hours a day as Watson Bagel had a substantial walk-in
trade from mostly Jewish area residents who knew that at any hour of the day or
night, at Watson Bagel they could always walk in and get steaming hot bagels
fresh from the ovens.
At 280 Clinton Place, they were
made in only two varieties -- plain and salt.
In addition to its retail trade,
Watson Bagel also had a thriving wholesale business3.
They supplied all the area supermarket chains, as well as neighborhood grocery
stores, and diners and eating places that catered to the breakfast trade.
The Weequahic Diner was a good customer.
Reason for the Wooden Ramp
The reason for the wooden ramp to
the retail store was that the ovens had been located in a building in the rear
behind a cleaning store in the front. Access to the bagel operation in the
back was through the driveway of the adjacent building. When the driveway
owner bricked up the driveway, Watson Bagel took over the front store for a
sales room and linked it to the existing rear building which was on a higher
elevation with the wooden ramp.
A Watson Bagel Ramp Recollection
I recall, on a Saturday night in
1960, driving to Watson Bagel from my home in Hillside with my younger son, Les,
then five years old. The store manage, Walter Tomachek, whom I had known
since early childhood, treated my youngster to a wicker basket ride from the
over premises, down the ramp, to the front of the store.
In his adult years, as a Federal
Government employee in Washington-- in occasional visits to our current home in
Cranford -- son Les always made a stopover at Watson Bagels to buy up a
In recent years, since Watson
ceased operations, Les stops at Elmora Bagels in Elizabeth, owned by the former
Watson Bagel proprietor, and loads up with what he calls "Watson-Cousin
What Made Newark-Made Watson Bagels Taste So Good?
Amster says the Watson Bagels made
at 280 Clinton Place were better tasting than bagels at any other location
because they were the only bagels made in brick ovens with brick and sand
bottoms. The high quality of Newark water helped, too.
When Watson Bagel later moved, the
brick ovens were replaced by revolving stainless steel ovens with slate shelves.4
Ingredients and Manufacturing Procedures
Throughout its existence, the
formula and ingredients remained the same: Precise amounts of high-gluten flour,
salt, malt, and yeast.
The bagels were hand-rolled into
donut shapes, allowed to stand for one to three hours until their yeast content
had caused them to rise to the right proportions. The bagels were then put
into a vat of boiling water for one minute to be cooked.
(The boiling water treatment is
supposed to gelatinize the gluten in the bagel dough, seal the outer bagel
surface which becomes the crust, and ensure retention of the full flavor and
goodness of the bagel's inner contents).
The bagels were then placed in the
oven on wooden boards and baked until brown -- usually 10 to 15 minutes.
When the bagel baker sees that they have reached the right degree of doneness,
they are removed from the oven.
My Addiction to Watson Bagels
My first exposure to Newark-made
Watson Bagels was in 1947. Shortly after I was married, we found an
apartment on Chancellor Avenue over a store that carried Watson bagels and sold
them for three cents each.
I became enamored over the chewy,
crusty breakfast treats with their yeasty, malty, and deliciously flavorful soft
However, much as I enjoyed them, I
also recall, that when the store raised the price to four cents each, I had
remarked to my new wife that bagels were getting too expensive. (Today,
the price of a bagel is 50 cents).
Since my retirement in 1988, after
decades as a New York City commuter, I resumed my Watson bagel breakfast habit
with purchases at Watson Bagels in Irvington while it was till open.
Later, I switched to a Watson Bagel "sister" store in Elizabeth.
I follow an unwavering routine of
a bagel for breakfast every morning of the year.
The End of Watson in Newark
The Watson Bagel operation in
Newark continued until the 1967 riots, when, whatever Jewish population still
remained in Newark, abruptly left the city.
Following the departure from
Newark of most of its primary clientele, Watson in 1967 transferred its
operations to a wide glass-fronted location at 675 Chancellor Avenue in
The new location was one-half mile
up the street from Newark's Weequahic neighborhood which, a decade earlier, had
been the most thickly populated Jewish neighborhood in Newark.
Watson Bagels continued at its
Irvington location with the Amster-Pearlman partnership still intact until the
mid-1980s, when Pearlman died. Amster then became the sole owner of Watson
By 1998, the primary clientele of
Watson Bagels had moved out of the changing Irvington-Chancellor Avenue Newark
area, and as business declined at that location, the Watson Bagel store was
closed on June 11, 1998.
After 38 years of operation, the
"Watson Bagel" name ceased to exist at any bagel-making location.
How The Watson Tradition Continues
While the Watson Bagel name is no
longer in use, the crusty Watson Bagel formula continues to be widely used in Amster-owned
or Amster-related operations.
Using the same ingredients and
baking procedures, Amster had opened two other solely-owned bagel-making
operations earlier: Elmora Bagels at 183 Elmora Avenue in the heart of
Elizabeth's Jewish residential district -- opened in 1970, and Sonny's Bagels at
123 South Orange Avenue in South Orange -- opened in 1971. Both of these
Amster-owned operations are currently in operation.
In addition, Amster took over the
Wigler Bakery on 1933 Vauxhall Road in the Millburn Mall, near Millburn Avenue,
in 1982. He converted it into Sonny Amster's Bakery, a traditional Jewish
bake shop, but also included Watson-style bagels which are made on the premises.
Amster continues a hands-on
operation of the bakery, where he is often seen chatting with the customers.
A third generation of the Amster
family also is in the bagel business in a big way. Sonny Amster's son
Harlan, the oldest of his four children, who had learned the bagel business
working for his father at Watson Bagel, now owns and operates fifteen
"Bagels-4-U" stores in various suburban locations. They, too,
are in the Watson Bagel style.
In a conversation with Sonny
Amster before writing this "Memory," he told me "I still own the
Watson Bagel name, but I am not using it at present, although the bagels in my
operations are made the same way, with the same ingredients.
* * *
Some Bagel Trivia
First written mention of the bagel was in Krakow, Poland, in
First union exclusively for bagel bakers was formed in New
York City in 1910.
The bagel is the only bread product that is boiled before it
Eating a bagel is equal to eating four slices of bread.
The first bagel topped with cream cheese was in 1880 when
this cheese was invented.
The first bagel-making machine was introduced in the 1960s.
The nation's largest maker of frozen bagels is
Lenders. Annual sales $275 million.
The largest bagel franchiser is the Einstein/Noah Co. with
* * *
Some Bagel History:
The boiled and baked roll with the
hole dates possibly from Roman times. Eventually, the bread specialty
worked its way to Poland and Russia, where it became a food favorite.
Although other Eastern European
bakers may have made bagels at one time, Jewish bakers became specialists, often
using leftover morning roll dough for the evening and bagel snacks.
Fortunately, bagel bakers were
among the mass of Eastern European immigrants who came to New York in
1880. Also in that same group were many with a craving for bagels.
The immigrant bagel bakers began
practicing their bagel business in New York. Their bagels were sold on the
streets of the lower East Side by street vendors, who carried them on long
sticks with the bagels threaded over them.
As popularity of bagels spread to
Jewish communities in other parts of the country, the term "New York
Bagel" was often used to imply that they were bagels made the original way.
Email this memory to a friend.
* * *
Books About Bagels
The Bagel Bible for Bagel Lovers
by Marilyn Bagel
Globe Pequot Press
The Bagels' Bagel Book
By Marilyn Bagel and Tom Bagel
Acropolis Books, Inc.
The Bagel Book
June Roth, Grace Shaw (edited by)
Putnam Publishing Group
* * *