Alex Berkowitz's sandwich creations are bagels with a schmear in the same sense that monster trucks are transportation. The same basic elements are there, but they are rendered in a form that's bigger, louder, and designed to thrill a crowd. His shop, the Bagel Nook, in Freehold, New Jersey, offers no less than 40 self-described "crazy" cream cheese options and ever-expanding line up of novelty bagels. He’s the mastermind behind Oreo bagels, Flamin' Hot Cheeto bagels, Fireball whisky bagels, and a number of other Willy Wonka-esque creations that regularly become Instagram sensations.
Berkowitz's bagels might seem strange, but at heart, he’s a crowd-pleaser. The Bagel Nook is close to its customers, and the development process for their creations comes from their customer responses. "It's actually a group effort. It's a family business,” Berkowitz explained. “We all just love trying out different kinds of things, seeing what works, what doesn't." What ends up on the menu is simply what's popular, doable, and Instagram-worthy. This gives him the freedom to mix and match in a way that would appeal to mad scientists, kids-in-a-candy-store, and stoners with equal measure.
It's a creative process that's worked out well for him, since there's no tremendous risk taken in whipping up a single batch of a flavor that doesn't fly off the shelves. Their test lab is the store itself, so there's no need for him to hold back when assembling a new flavor.
"We've actually never said no to any ideas,” Berkowitz said. "We always try at least once. Some stick and some don't, some just fall short. It's trial and error. We try to come up with craziest thing, we're always trying to outdo ourselves. We take suggestions from our staff. We take suggestions from our customers. It's really everybody. Once you're there and you see it and you're in the moment, everybody's always trying to chip in and try and come up with something crazier than the next."
The wisdom of the crowd can't be denied, at least when it comes to creative bagels. The Bagel Nook’s presence alone is a phenomenon unto itself, particularly on Instagram, where attaining the latest bonkers bagel has become a kind of sport. “We're most famous for our Oreo bagel,” Berkowitz said. “The Flamin' Cheeto was another great hit. That could pair with our ghost pepper cream cheese which is one of the hottest peppers in the world right now. People love it and, believe it or not, people love the spiciness, people love the sweetness. We have something called the Elvis. It's a French toast bagel with peanut butter swirl cream cheese, bananas, and bacon on top. It's incredible."
The result is a cult-like following locally and nationwide shipping through Goldbely for non-local customers curious about these unique treats. While their reach is expanding, Berkowitz says he has no immediate plans to open more locations. "Right now, we're just enjoying the moment. We love the reactions that we get from people, we love working in the store right now, and we're just enjoying it," he said. His work is part of a long culinary tradition in this country. Novelty foods are as American as apple pie. Like nitro-burning funny cars, reality dating shows, and man caves, we love an update of a familiar formula. It's a weird can-do attitude that drives us to combine ingredients together to form other new but somehow familiar avatars of food. Breakfast foods especially lend themselves to this practice with orange soda Pop Tarts, Taco Bell's fried-egg taco, and IHOP's latte-infused pancakes. So, in that grand tradition, Bagel Nook is just making it possible have your cake and eat your bagel too.