The New Artisans: 5 & Dime / Zev Forman
It’s the late 18th century. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. A time that marked the transition from traditional manufacturing processes to new production methods. With an increase in factories and the development of new machinery came the growth of mass production, the rise of entrepreneurship, and an overall increase in social living standards.
Yet, it also brought about the transition from an agricultural economy to one of capitalism, giving power to entrepreneurship. Most workers who only had their labour to sell were forced to turn to factories for a living. Innovative machinery allowed for goods to be produced at a lower cost than before, and determined how, where, and how cost effective and efficient this could be done.
Today technological innovation and automation is more prominent than ever and continuously growing. At the same time there’s a return to handmade goods and old-fashioned craftsmanship, to appreciating the value of handmade, high quality products. Traditional, labour intensive manufacturing processes are on the rise again, with a focus on sustainability, creativity, and high-quality.
The New Artisans is about the makers and designers behind our everyday products. It is about their stories, manufacturing processes, and mindful consumption.
To start off The New Artisans I talked to Zev Forman, professional bagel baker and founder of 5 & Dime. Zev started 5 & Dime mainly out of frustration with a lack of ‘real’ bagels in Australia. Having grown up in New Jersey in the States he knows that the saying ‘if it ain’t boiled, it ain’t a bagel’ is true. The fact that the bagel is a very labour-intensive worker’s bread with humble beginnings also played a big role in making it an attractive entrepreneurial journey. 5 & Dime is possibly the best example of a sustainable business that’s based on a quality product made by hand, sold fresh every couple of hours - bagels made for people by people.
Zev tells us more about the process of baking bagels, the early beginnings of this type of bread, and the importance of systems.
I read somewhere that Australian Bagels just didn’t cut it for you having grown up in New Jersey. I’m curious - was that the only reason for opening up a bagel bakery or were there any other reasons for going down the entrepreneurial route?
We live in South Caulfield, which is the bagel capital of Melbourne. My father in law would drop off bagels every Sunday morning, but they just weren’t what I grew up with in the States. Every weekend I was disappointed, and every single weekend I’d joke that it’s not a bagel – it’s rounded bread and it has a hole, but it’s not a bagel. So I started making my own bagels at home, looking at recipes online, which quickly grew into going to a farmer’s market once a week, and that grew into everything else.
When did you realised you’d be a professional bagel baker?
I guess it was at one of the first farmer’s markets when I sold out really quickly. Before then I was baking for myself, but when I got a positive response I realised that this is something people would be into. Some people, who had been to New York before, told me my bagels were just what they had been looking for over here.
Going back even further – what’s your background?
I was working as a cook in Melbourne. When I first came over I was doing a bit of fine dining stuff, but it was the coffee that really blew me away. The idea of maybe opening a café really grabbed me at the time. And bagels and coffee are a natural pair. Before I moved here I lived in Tel Aviv for a while, and my flatmate and I always had these ideas of opening a wine bar or a café. Everything fell flat, but it was always on the backburner of what I wanted to do. Once I got here and had a bit more experience in some really good kitchens and behind the coffee machine everything fell into place to open a business.
Tell us more about where the bagel comes from.
There’s the legend that it was made by an Austrian baker in honour of King Jan to look like his stirrup, as he was an avid horse rider, after he defeated the Turks in battle.
The one I buy into more is that it became illegal for the Jewish community in Poland to bake bread, so they started boiling it. The boiling is what makes a real bagel. A lot of people try to make it easier and cut that step out by steaming it, but that’s a commercially made bread product, not a bagel. All the bagel guys in New York say ‘if it ain’t boiled, it ain’t a bagel’.
The bagel has humble beginnings, but it was also at the forefront of the labour movement in New York. One of the strongest unions was the Bagel Bakers Union. The bagel is a big deal in New York and it’s really labour intensive, which is one of the reasons it’s really hard to do right. Back then they would work all night in these four man crews. There’d be two guys rolling, a boiler and a baker. They’d work in hot basements with coal burning ovens and they needed a strong union because they were taken advantage of.
One of the reasons I didn’t want to be in fine dining anymore is because you have ten or 15 chefs in the kitchen cooking for 20 people in the dining room. I wanted something that was more egalitarian, something that was a little more ‘the food of the people’. It appealed to me that the bagel was this really humble workers’ bread.
And so you went back to the States to train with some of the best bagel bakers?
After the first few months at the farmer’s market I thought my bagels were ok, but they weren’t what I wanted them to be. I was never trained as a baker, I still wouldn’t really consider myself one. I picked up stuff along the way, but I was sure that I was wasting time and materials. I wanted to see how it was done at a larger scale and by the best bakers in the world, so I went and worked with bakers in San Francisco, New York, and New Jersey.
What impact did the training have on you, both professionally and personally?
It taught me that the only way to get things done is to have everything in its place. One of the reasons I don’t think I was ever destined to be a great chef is because I’m not very organised. It’s also been hard to overcome in terms of running a business. I’m really good at big picture stuff, but when it comes to the daily minutiae I get distracted easily. To be a really great chef or baker you need to be really good at systems. Up until I trained with those bakers I had been like ‘oh, the dough looks sort of wet, I’ll throw in a little bit of this or that’. The training really helped me to set up the systems to be able to move from making 100 bagels to making 5000 bagels.
What was it like when you first started out? Was it just you by yourself or did you have help from friends, family, or a business partner?
In the beginning I was doing the farmer’s market on the weekends, and renting kitchen space from a little bakery in Elsternwick. I’d come in on Friday afternoon after they had finished, make dough, roll the bagels all night, go home, come back Saturday night, boil and bake the bagels all night, go to the farmer’s market, sell them, come back Sunday afternoon, clean the kitchen. There was no sleep all weekend. I remember I’d be baking and see the first tram of the day go by, which meant I had to pack up and go to the farmer’s market. It was really intense. Not having a lot of space was also a problem.
How did you overcome those challenges?
I left the kitchen and moved to Port Melbourne where I was sharing a kitchen with Pure Pie. I hired my first employees and we started running seven days a week. But it was still a matter of space, very quickly we started trying to push bagels into the refrigerator and there were big piles of pies in there. I realised that we needed to have our own space, which was a whole other challenge. What makes sense for a bagel business is to get a warehouse out in the middle of nowhere, it’s cheap and you can produce a lot. But to me the idea of having a bagel place where you’re not baking on-site doesn’t make sense. Bagels are best when they’re right out of the oven, and I wanted people to be able to see us boil the bagels because that’s our point of difference. I wanted to be able to give people fresh bagels. So that’s what we do now, we bake every couple of hours.
What do you do on days where you just don’t feel like working?
Have a coffee. I also go for a swim in the morning if I feel really out of it. That usually gets my head on straight. Sometimes I also go for a long walk if I need to get out. But when it’s your business you don’t have a choice.
What are some traditions and routines you have at home and in your personal life?
I get up really early, tend to miss breakfast, get into the café around 4am and make coffee for the team and myself. We’ll finish the bake, pack up everything, and I’ll grab a bagel at some point with nothing on it, just so I have some food in my belly. People think that you eat a lot when you work in a café, but I rarely do. I’ll have something on my way home or make myself a sandwich so I have energy when I get home by 3 o’clock. Then I hang out with my daughter for a few hours, I’ll take her swimming or we’ll go for a walk, and then I make dinner. When my wife comes home from work we all eat together.
It’s a really hard balance. When I’m home I’m trying not to think about the business, but I am thinking about it. When I am at work I see people come in with kids, and all I want to do is be home and hang out with my daughter. I think finding that balance is the hardest part of running a business.
What was your favourite childhood dish? Was it bagels?
We had a lot of bagels, but my favourite childhood dish is probably a cheese steak. I grew up in New Jersey, just between New York and Philadelphia. My dad used to take me to the football game every Sunday and we’d get a cheesesteak. It’s what I really look forward to having when I go back to the States.
What role does food play in your life?
The role of food in my life has changed a lot since my daughter was born. I used to spend a lot of time reading cook books, I was really into modernist cuisine and experimenting with cooking. I used to throw these big, extravagant dinner parties and spend a lot of time online looking for the next hot restaurant. Now it’s all about what I can get on the table for dinner that’s healthy and that my daughter’s going to like. It’s important to me that we all eat the same thing. Usually we have simple dinners, some kind of grain, protein and a salad.
I want the business to constantly be putting out the best bagels of Melbourne. When people think of bagels in Australia, I want them to think of 5 & Dime. In whatever way we grow, I want it to be a quality product. Whether we’re still just in the one café or have a couple more, I want every bagel to be perfect. Everything else will follow from that. You never get to perfection, but when you aim for it you get closer to it.