Back to roots: Two brothers bring east coast style bagels to Tahoe
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – When brothers Jeff and Justin Kaplan moved to South Lake Tahoe to work in fine dining, they realized something was missing in the city; bagels.
So, in Dec. 2019, just months before the pandemic would change everyone’s lives, the brothers dropped everything to open Tahoe Bagel Co.
The Kaplan’s grew up in New Jersey and came from a long line of bakers.
“My father grew up baking, his grandmother ran the bakery, his great uncle, who I named after, was the head baker and we grew up with pretty high standards for this kind of food,” Jeff Kaplan said.
Almost a decade ago, Justin moved to the basin to work in fine dining, and three years later, Jeff said he acted like a typical little brother and followed him.
Justin opened Cold Water Brewing with Debbie Brown and Jeff was a food and beverage manager at Edgewood. Justin moved back east to open a restaurant then came back to Tahoe.
“Justin and I just had this growing frustration, I guess with the lack of bagels in town, we grew up in New Jersey, where bagels are very much a way of daily life,” Jeff Kaplan said. “And we just really wanted to bring our favorite food to our favorite place.”
So Justin went back to New Jersey to learn everything he could about owning a bakery while Jeff worked on finding a location and developing the physical location.
The Kaplan’s wanted their restaurant to be catered to locals, so they hoped their location at the corner of Lake Tahoe Blvd. and Al Tahoe Blvd. would be a convenient stopping point for people during their morning or lunchtime commutes.
“We realized pretty quickly after opening that our instincts were right… We opened up in the shoulder season, and we’re selling out of bagels and that just speaks to how much this town was waiting for something like this,” Jeff Kaplan said.
While the reception has been incredible, opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic was terrifying.
The business didn’t qualify for any federal aid since they were new and there was a significant delay in getting building permits and materials.
“So there was a moment there when we weren’t sure if we just dug ourselves into a huge hole that we could never get out of,” Jeff Kaplan said.
They had intended sit-in dining to be a large part of the restaurant but they quickly switched gears, adding in a take-out window at the last minute. The great thing about bagels is that they can easily be consumed on the go, so while one day they hope to provide an in restaurant experience, they were easily able to adjust to the changing times.
Despite changing to fast casual, they still use their years of fine dining experience as a touchstone.
“I tell all of my staff from the front of the house to the back of the house to have a sense of ownership on your guest experience. I know we’re only selling $7 sandwiches, we’re not selling $60 steaks, but that person is still going to eat it and have a positive or a negative experience,” Jeff said.
Jeff says he’s always running around making sure all the customers are happy.
“It’s my baby and I just care so much about a person’s experience, even if they’re only spending $3 on a toasted bagel with cream cheese,” he said.
While the experience is reflective of their years in fine dining, their menu reflects their family history, like the “lily’s vegetable cream cheese,” which is named after their grandmother.
“You know, you could say it kinda was in our blood,” Jeff Kaplan said. “We inherited that, you know, they were an old school Jewish New York family, and that’s what we brought out here not. I would never say that our menus are kosher by any means, but it’s definitely got elements of our grandmother’s recipes and just more standard because my grandma was definitely not selling bacon, egg and cheese.”
The brothers do hope to add more traditional items down the line, like matzo ball soup.
To learn more, or place an online order, visit http://www.tahoebagelco.com.
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