“There are no good bagels in California.” Those were the words David Ustin needed to hear before packing up and heading west to solve the problem. The son of a Russian immigrant, Bronx-born-and-raised Ustin had been working in a bagel factory from the time he was nine, going full-time by the age of 13. With that kind of expertise—his dad has also been a bagel baker while studying to be a rabbi—the young man and his wife made the move to Los Angeles to open Western Bagel, which is believed to be the city’s first bagel bakery.
“He thought he’d bring his bakery recipe out to Los Angeles, get the better weather in California, and start making bagels for people,” says Greg Linzner, the sales and marketing manager of Western Bagel.
The company, which currently has 11 locations and is still family owned and operated, will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year. For reference, Brooklyn Bagel started up in 1953. While most Western Bagel stores are in the San Fernando Valley, the small chain has grown into a multi-pronged business that supplies bagels to numerous delis in Los Angeles as well as a huge list of grocery stores both domestic and international.
Western Bagel’s first location was on Pico Boulevard, between Grand Avenue and Olive Street. The opening was a success—legend has it that they sold close to 5,000 bagels on their first day—and the location stayed put until the late 1950s when they moved the shop to Van Nuys. That second shop still exists, though it looks a lot different now as the mid-century modern details have given way to a boxier, more streamlined design. However, it’s still where you’ll find Danny, who’s been the manager of the shop for 46 years. Some of the employees at the corporate office have been working for the company since the 1980s.
Nowadays, Western Bagel has two production facilities to meet its wholesale demand, which now makes up the the bulk of its business. While they only sold water, salt, and egg bagels back in 1947, they’ve gone way beyond those initial flavors, now offering about 30 different varieties. Perhaps to the chagrin of bagel purists, they also introduced a reduced-carb line in 2002 called The Alternative Bagel—they say it’s been a big hit. But, thankfully they still boil the bagels traditionally, keeping them high above some of the chain bagel riff-raff we have to deal with in this city.
“Our bagel is described as a New York-style bagel with a West Coast twist, definitely not quite as dense and heavy as a New York bagel, but we do full-kettle boil on all of our products,” says Linzner. “We never would do a bagel without a full-kettle boil.”
Every store still gets a delivery of fresh dough everyday, which they boil and dip with toppings before they’re thrown on the hearth to be baked for about 10 minutes. “At all our stores around the L.A. area, we bake the bagels fresh daily, more like hourly,” Linzner says.
Western Bagel has resisted the pressure to grow rapidly, though they’re always open to the possibilities opening new stores. “It’s just one of those things where [we] don’t want to franchise, trusting someone else to make the bagels that we like to make and make them. It’s a big deal for us, so franchising doesn’t seem like an attractive alternative for us at this point in the game.”
Western Bagel has numerous locations. Check out their website for the one closest to you.