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Step aside, New York City. Stand down, Montreal. There’s a new bagel in town, and it’s the boss – right here in San Antonio.
Brannon and Christie Soileau opened the doors to Boss Bagel and Coffee in Alamo Heights’ Sunset Ridge shopping center in August. Boss is an acronym for Bagels On Southern Soil. Since then, the husband-and-wife Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduates have lost a lot of sleep. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My alarm goes off at 12:30 in the morning, and I’m tired as hell,” Brannon said. “Then I walk in here and light that oven up, and I say, ‘Wow, I’m just in love again, honey. Here I go again.’ If it wasn’t for that oven, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Plans for the restaurant took shape four years ago. The Soileaus traveled to 30 different places, including the Big Apple, asking questions and looking at workflow. “Some of the cats in New York, they’d be like, ‘Why do you want to do this? Hand-rolled? You’re crazy. Why would you want to do a wood oven?’” he recalled.
The wood-fired cooking technique Brannon prefers comes from St-Viateur Bagel in Montreal, Canada, where bagels are thin, crispy, and boiled in honey water. In New York, bagels are traditionally more yeasty, puffy, boiled in malt water, and cooked in a rotating oven. Each city’s final product has its devotees.
Boss’ bagels are a hybrid of the two – hand-rolled before they’re boiled in honey water and baked in a Wood Stone-brand oven that’s on full display in the store.
“It’s a war,” Brannon said. “It’s tough to make a bagel. They are very labor intensive. The dough is one of the toughest around…. at least, to do them right. People take shortcuts … We make our own dough, we retard [proof] the dough overnight. The next morning, we roll them all by hand. Most places use extruders,” a machine in which a product produces its own friction and heat under pressure.
No other shop in Texas is rolling bagels by hand, he said, and Boss is one of only five wood-fired bagel restaurants in the country.
On the day Brannon agreed to speak with the Rivard Report, he emerged from a back-room kitchen wearing a black leather bib apron. Following an early morning rush, he had a few moments to breathe mid-morning before the lunchtime crowd descended.
He pulled up a chair beneath a chalkboard sign that reads, “You can’t buy love, but you can buy bagels,” explaining that he’d been cleaning the daily salmon shipment. Half the salmon will be smoked and the other half packed in a salt grave, for one of the dozens of sandwiches on the menu.
“It makes a huge difference. I’ve had people come in here, real salmon lovers from the East Coast, and say, ‘My god. I’ve been looking for this ever since I came to town,’” Brannon said. “I’m going through salmon like mad.”
Customers crave it, and Brannon takes pride in preparing the salmon himself, even though it takes more time and effort. “I can’t just buy it, I gotta do it.”
He also makes in-house the restaurant’s braised corned beef, tangy tuna, and specialty schmears (or spreads) – from chocolate and sun-dried cherry to basil pesto and white truffle Parmesan – plus six kinds of tofu schmears.
There are at least 16 varieties of bagels to choose from, all made daily, crusty, dense, and fresh from the wood-fired oven. They cook in about 10 to 12 minutes, much longer than a traditional wood-fired pizza, and they are just the way Inga Munsinger Cotton likes them. Cotton was one of the many customers in line on opening day.
“It smelled so good in the store. The coffee machine and the wood smoke, plus the smell of baking bread …,” Cotton said. “I like traditional bagels and toppings. It’s the chewy crust and tenderness on the inside … There is no shortcut for that process.”
Cotton’s appreciation for the bagel goes back to childhood. “When I was about 6 or 8 years old, we lived in Southern California, and there was a wonderful New York-style bagel shop. I can’t recall having a bagel like that in Texas, ever.”
Brannon was introduced to the kitchen as a boy growing up in Cajun country, Louisiana, helping his mother and grandmother “pick beans and glaze ham” while his father worked long hours coaching football. After pursuing athletics for a time, Brannon learned about the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., a place he said changed his life.
“A kitchen runs like a soccer team or a football team – there’s a head coach, assistant coaches, players,” Brannon said. “So I like that structure, and I had that in blood for years so it was very easy for me to slide into kitchens. School wasn’t really my thing.”
He met Christie at the CIA. After graduating in 1991, together they traveled the world working in hotels and restaurants before opening their first fine dining establishment in Lafayette, Ind., near Christie’s parents. There they won awards and accolades and opened two more restaurants during an 11-year-stay, before finally finding their way back to the CIA in New York, where Brannon taught for seven years.
Then, an opportunity to teach at the CIA’s San Antonio campus at the Pearl came open, and Brannon and Christie wasted no time moving south, away from snowy weather and closer to family. The two have been married 25 years.
Boss is their first bagel shop and their first establishment in San Antonio. “I felt the vibe of the city. The city is exploding, and I thought, ‘Wow. I’m turning 50 in September, and I sure would like one more shot at this,’” Brannon said. “But I’m not going to do it like I did before. I’m going to do it in a different way.”
So while he wanted to meet the same exacting standards for quality of his previous restaurants, plus give to the community and teach his employees a trade, he didn’t want the fancy white linen, “and all that mess.” The Soileaus also saw an opportunity in the lack of bagel restaurants in San Antonio.
A search of bagel shops in the city reveals a small handful: Bagel Factory, Chicago Bagel & Deli, and three Einstein Bros. Bagels outlets. The national franchise, Big Apple Bagels, closed its San Antonio store downtown several years ago.
“Why would I do tacos when there’s 38,000 of them?” he asked. “In a city this large, surely there were folks who enjoy bagels here.”
He was right. Opening day, they “got crushed.”
Though often bleary-eyed from the long hours and the challenge of working as a sole proprietor, Brannon laughs and shares stories like a favorite uncle. Christie doesn’t miss a beat running the front of the house, supervising customer service staff and overseeing orders. Both seem to relish the door-busting chaos and challenge of restaurant ownership.
“I wanted to bring something to the community that was exciting,” he said. “I wanted to challenge myself. I’m a professional cook. I like a challenge, and I like to educate the community as well. It’s more than just making money. I want my staff and community to grow.”
The couple plans to wholesale, provide catering services, and even open additional outlets in other Texas cities in the coming months and years. Brannon said he can see Boss Bagel going international because the concept is so unique. “When you have it right out of the oven, it’s hard to beat,” he said.
Those ventures will get going “when we get the opportunity to breathe, when we’re solid,” Brannon said. “I don’t want to just put stuff out there. I need to get my staff trained. This [kind of] cooking…There’s no book, there’s no school, no temperature gauge – you gotta feel it. It’s truly an education to teach someone how to cook in this environment. You gotta have a passion. If not, you’d be like, ‘Hell, this is too hard, I’m outta here.’”
That’s why his wood-fired oven is the centerpiece of the restaurant. “I want you to be able to walk in and talk to us, watch us, bring your kids in and see what it really looks like to step back in time,” Brannon said.
To view the bagel chef in action, visit the store before 10 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
“You ought to see kids when they come in with their parents,” he said. “Just the whole process of what’s going on back there is exciting to me.”