Now for some good news: Schlok’s bagels, the wildly popular pop-up that’s been guest starring on weekends at the Snug, will be sticking around after the pandemic is over. Partners Zack Schwab and James Lok are old industry friends who have worked at star restaurants across the Bay Area, but during the pandemic, they took a break from upscale dining and started to obsess over old-school bagels, which have been selling out ever since. And now, as first reported by the SF Chronicle, they’re making it official and setting up shop: Schlok’s has found a permanent home in NoPa, and plans to open this summer, hopefully before Labor Day.
“We’re really happy to finally lock something down … ” says Schwab. “The plan is a takeout counter situation. We’re really just trying to keep it as simple as possible. Bagels are highly complex in their simplicity, and … we want to have a small menu, and do the things we do really really well.”
The bagels in question are oversized, dense, and chewy. Schlok’s relies on old-school methods, rolling by hand, proofing overnight, boiling, and baking off on boards, for a flip halfway through. Bagel critics take note: In the NYC style, these are made with conventional yeast, rather than SF sourdough starter, and they also incorporate barley malt for big malty aroma and flavor. Even Mr. Schwab — that would be Zack’s father, a former New Yorker — approves. The flavors are no frills, covering the classics with plain, sesame, poppyseed, onion, salt, and everything, and come with schmears, lox, and smoked trout roe. They only got a little fancy on the plating, piping the schmear into an artful squiggle, with feathery scallions and dots of roe on top.
Schlok’s might add a few new items, most importantly coffee, but they’re not dramatically expanding the menu — the big difference between the pop-up bakery versus a permanent bakery is going to be volume. With the pop-up, which was first sharing fridges at the Snug, and then working out of a commissary kitchen, with a lot of schlepping to the Snug, they could only manage 450 bagels a round, which sold out within minutes online. Schlok’s is moving into a former laundromat at 1263 Fell Street, which is part of the same complex as Nopalito. Schwab says it’s a simple storefront, which won’t require a major renovation, they’re just adding a counter and ovens. The plan is straightforward takeout, with boxes of bagels and a few bagel sandwiches, to keep the line moving.
Schlok’s is in good company with the many pop-ups and hustles from out-of-work industry folks that have proliferated during the pandemic. Schwab and Lok are old friends who have worked together over the years at several acclaimed restaurants, including Benu, Meadowood, and Jardiniere. Schwab, who comes from front of house, had been mulling on bagels in the back of his mind for many years, even while busy opening the Snug, where he’s a part owner. Lok is the chef, who was grinding out long hard hours in fine dining, until the pandemic hit, and he was suddenly available. With access to the Snug in the mornings, when the bar wasn’t in use, and a fine-dining chef to obsess over the details, they went all in on bagel R&D.
“Forever, everybody thought the bagels here were inferior, and there have been various theories as to why … ” says Schwab. “I started to get the sense that maybe some of those things were a factor, but that also there wasn’t necessarily a bagel culture here, that was driving people to put in the time and effort to work on a really good bagel. Everybody had accepted mediocrity … we really got sucked into how complex bagels are in their simplicity.”
But of those many pandemic-inspired pop-ups, this is notably one of the first to go permanent as a brick-and-mortar business, at least as reported to Eater SF. As restrictions are easing and restaurants are reopening across the Bay Area, restaurants are desperately scrambling to hire back staff, so Lok could have gone back into a fine dining job, but instead decided to keep baking bagels. Schwab points out that hourly wages are just as low, fine dining work is just as challenging, and going back into understaffed restaurants, who are currently training new staff, may be a daunting proposition for cooks, even if they are safely vaccinated. It will be interesting to see if other pandemic pop-ups fold as their chefs go back to restaurant jobs, choose to continue in pop-up form, or go permanent as brick-and-mortar.
And of course, of all the pandemic pop-ups to stick around, it had to be bagels. Eater SF called the trend last fall, but it’s still true: It’s been a dense year for bagels in the Bay, with pop-ups such as Poppy Bagels, rolling New York 90’s kid nostalgia, and Midnite Bagel, with its California sourdough and freshly milled flours, joining Boichik, Wise Sons, Daily Driver, and more. The pandemic bagel hype even went so far that the NYTimes felt the need to stir up ancient rivalries, but pretty much old news at this point. For San Francisco, is exciting that there are so many compelling bagel options these days. And it’s promising that at least one hardworking duo, who hustled through the pandemic, are still on a roll.