Photos by Michael Piazza
It's not often that you get to witness the development of a new food product from nearly its very first days. And it’s even more rare that the item in question is a hit right out of the starting gate. Which is why the appearance of homemade bagels on the menu at Cutty’s sandwich shop in Brookline Village—for the time being, available only on Friday and Saturday mornings—a few months back was such a big deal. The bagels—chewy and airy inside, crackly and shiny outside, flavored with a hint of malt and a subtle sourdough tang—are undeniably great, which explains why they’ve been selling out almost since day one.
But that isn’t even the best part of the story: more importantly, they are the brainchild of Cutty’s kitchen manager Mary Ting Hyatt, who—having dreamed of owning her own bagel shop someday—is getting to build a reputation for herself and her bagels from within the comfortable and safe confines of her position at Cutty’s, rather than fend for herself at this early stage in her career. This microbakery within a sandwich shop (which, though not yet independent, does have a name of its own, “Bagelsaurus”) exists because Cutty’s owners Charles and Rachel Kelsey consciously decided to give Hyatt the opportunity to pursue her bagel dreams in-house, knowing it would be to everyone’s benefit.
Hyatt had long wanted to run a food business of her own, but it wasn’t until quite recently that the idea of making bagels entered the picture. “Ever since I had a lemonade stand, I’d wanted to own a cafe,” she told me. “At first I had in mind more of a coffee shop, then in college I got more interested in food, and I realized it had to be a food cafe, then I got increasingly more into baking, and then I realized it needed to be a bakery.”
She’d always been fond of bagels, but there were few good examples in her home state of Delaware. It wasn’t until she moved to Vermont for college that the bagel bug really dug in: “I really loved this bagel shop in college, Middlebury Bagels. I have a model in my mind of what a bagel shop should be from going there every weekend.” It was a small, family-run, homey place that was a popular gathering place for both students and locals, and served good bagels to boot. “When I came here to Boston, there wasn’t a place that served bagels and was a cool hang-out spot too, so I’ve had it in my mind that I’d create something like that.”
Hyatt wasn’t a bread baker by training, so it took some time to come around to the idea of making the bagels herself. Since moving to Boston in 2007, she earned a culinary degree from the Cambridge Culinary School and served stints in the kitchen of Hungry Mother in Cambridge and in the pastry department at Clear Flour Bread in Brookline. But she had little experience working with bread, so when she decided to give the bagel idea a go, she had lots to learn. She read as many bread books as she could find, and started experimenting with recipes in her home kitchen in her free time.
And she visited other bagel shops and bakeries for inspiration. While she drew inspiration from those found in bagel meccas like New York and Montreal, it was those from one particular bakery, Scratch Baking Company in Portland, Maine, that served as the initial spark for the Bagelsaurus recipe: “I love the flavor of the bagels at Scratch,” she explained. “I think I got the idea to put sourdough in my bagels from visiting them.” (Though Hyatt’s bagels incorporate a sourdough culture for its acidity and complex aroma, they get additional lift from the use of baker’s yeast.)
And then last April the accident happened. She convinced a local bagel shop to let her trail during a baking shift and came home with far more than just a better sense of how bagels were made on a commercial scale. “They had this old shaping machine that portions the dough and sends it down a conveyor belt and then shapes it into rings.” The belt got stuck, and somehow she managed to get tangled up in it when it began moving again. Her left arm was crushed by the rollers. “Even the paramedics were screaming when they saw me. But I was really lucky, I somehow only ended up breaking one bone.” She left the hospital with a cast on her arm and metal rod where her radius once had been.
For most people, having an arm mangled by a shaping machine would likely mean the end of a bagel-making career, but it only spurred Hyatt on with greater zeal. “I took it as a challenge. Plus, sitting around for 6 weeks with a cast on made me really antsy. As soon as it was off I just wanted to do everything.”
And it wasn’t long after that that she landed on a recipe that she was happy with: “Throughout the process I had been bringing bagels in for Charles and Rachel to try, and they were pretty honest with me about what they thought, especially Charles. They were pretty bad for a while, and I was getting pretty discouraged. After the injury, though, I really started testing, and then I found a recipe I was really happy with, and I presented it to them and they really loved it.”
It was at that point that she tried to give notice at Cutty’s, thinking it was time to take her recipe and set up shop somewhere on her own. But they talked her out of leaving, suggesting she first try selling her bagels there in order to get a sense of whether people would buy them or not.
“It never even crossed my mind the idea of building a bakery within a business,” she explained. “It was their idea more than mine. They presented it as an opportunity to me because they knew how much I wanted to make bagels.”
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, almost from the very start. What started as a dozen bagels a day (before Hyatt started making them in house, Cutty’s barely sold half that many on an average day) has ramped up to 24, 36, 48 and now 120, and still they sell out each and every day. (There’s no room at the moment in the Cutty’s kitchen for an electric mixer, so she does all the kneading and shaping of the dough by hand. And until they find someone to serve as her assistant, 120 is the maximum number she can produce in a day.)
That the bagels are selling so well leaves Hyatt lots of room for experimentation. Aside from the classic plain, sesame, poppy seed, and “everything” varieties, she makes a lye-dipped pretzel bagel, which gets served with a side of mustard butter. And she has several new flavors in development now, including rye-raisin and olive.
Hyatt has been amazed by the response the bagels have received, and is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the future. “I’m inclined to want to plan, but I’m just trying to go with the flow because things are happening fast,” she says. “The great thing about doing it at Cutty’s is that I can really experiment, and I have this customer base from the get-go.”
The same goes for Cutty’s owners, who are excited for Mary and her bagels, no matter what happens with Bagelsaurus down the line. As Rachel Kelsey told me: “We love the bagels, and you can’t get them anywhere else, so that’s good for Cutty’s, too. We always knew that she was eventually going to do her own thing. And we also just want better food around, so we love people to learn how we like things and then go do their own thing. We just want to be able to eat awesome stuff, wherever it comes from.”
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Winter 2014 issue; since publication, Mary has opened her own freestanding Bagelsaurus shop located at 1796 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, just outside of Porter Square.