TOM THUMB ADDS BAGEL UNIT WITH NEW YORK ACCENT

DALLAS -- Tom Thumb here has added a highly visible "bagel factory" that produces New York-style bagels deep in the heart of Texas. The scratch operation is in a new store in Plano, Texas, the second of the chain's fresh-oriented New Generation stores. The 800-square-foot production area is in front of the in-store bakery. Customers watching the bagel-making process are separated from equipment and

DALLAS -- Tom Thumb here has added a highly visible "bagel factory" that produces New York-style bagels deep in the heart of Texas. The scratch operation is in a new store in Plano, Texas, the second of the chain's fresh-oriented New Generation stores. The 800-square-foot production area is in front of the in-store bakery. Customers watching the bagel-making process are separated from equipment and employees only by a row of self-service bagel bins.

This in-store production is meant to underscore the freshness of the product as well as to produce a top-quality bagel, said Alex Sakhel, director of bakery merchandising at the 55-unit chain.

"People can watch every step, from dough-mixing right up to the hot bagels being taken from the oven," he said.

Sakhel added that the operation includes the entire process that's necessary to turn out a New York-style bagel, including overnight proofing and then boiling before baking. "What makes a New York-style bagel New York-style is the boiling process for one thing. It seals in the flavor and moisture," he said.

Other Tom Thumb stores bake their own bagels, but don't go through the entire process necessary to make a New York bagel, nor do they bake them out in the open. Those bagels, which aren't boiled, have a "cakier" texture and a sweeter flavor than the new bagels.

Sakhel said Tom Thumb believes that bagels will continue to be popular and that the bagel factory is a way to differentiate the chain from competitors. "This is the only store around that's making bagels in front of customers," he said.

In the few weeks since the store opened, the bagel factory's success has spurred plans to add the concept to other stores. The locations haven't yet been chosen, Sakhel said last week.

Mac Wettey, bakery manager at the new, 70,000-square-foot store, provided some tips to SN on making New York-style bagels that grew out of a two-week experimentation process before the store opened last month. "We tried different oven temperatures and length of boiling in order to get just the right texture and flavor," he added.

The bagel dough is mixed late in the day in a spiral mixer, put on a board and left for about 10 minutes. Then it's cut in long strips and fed through a bagel cutter. The raw bagels are proofed overnight in a refrigerator. The next morning, they are boiled for about a minute and then put into the oven on a wooden board for a little less than two minutes.

The next step is tipping them off the board onto the oven racks for a 10- to 12-minute baking. "They have to be baked on the board long enough to dry them slightly," said Wettey. If they were taken from the boiling vat and put directly onto the oven racks they would stick to the rack because their surfaces would be wet, he said.

Open from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., the bagel operation, called The Bagel Shoppe, offers 16 to 18 flavors of bagels each day. While plain bagels are the top sellers, they're rivaled in popularity by cinnamon-raisin and blueberry bagels. And some unusual flavors, such as pumpkin and cherry, have done surprisingly well, Sakhel said. Overall sales have more than met expectations, he said, but declined to offer any more details. Tom Thumb has introduced the bagels at a special price of three for $1. The nearest comparable bagels in town, at a New York-style deli, sell for 45 cents each, Sakhel said.

He declined to say what the regular price of the bagels will be, or when the special price will be discontinued. He also refused to comment on margin or make any predictions on the bagel equipment's return on investment.

He did say the success of the operation confirms that Texans appreciate a New York-style bagel.

"People had had a hard time finding a New York-style bagel they like here," said Sakhel. A Dallas consumer told SN the same thing.

"Nobody here was making what I'd call a real New York bagel," she said. Now she's buying Tom Thumb's bagels by the dozen and freezing them. She drives a roundtrip of 46 miles, through three toll stations, to get to the store, she said.

No other supermarket in the market area is making bagels from scratch, in-store, Wettey said. Most source their bagels fully baked and frozen, or buy them from a local bakery. But even if they're brought in fresh from a local bakery, "They're apt to be sweeter and drier than a New York bagel. That may be because there's a step left out such as overnight proofing or the boiling. Those are the steps that do something to the fermentation to give the bagels the right flavor," he said.