A Legacy of Old Jewish Newark: The Once-Famous "Watson Bagel"

by Nat Bodian


One of the enduring legacies of Newark's once-thriving Jewish Community, which peaked at 75,000 in the mid-1930s, was an Eastern European Jewish food favorite which prospered in Newark for more than a quarter of a century, the "Watson Bagel."

In today's world, the bagel has evolved as a widely popular American breakfast staple in a wide range of varieties, and available in virtually every type of eating establishment from Dunkin Donuts to MacDonalds1.

In the Newark of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the bagel appealed to a more ethnic audience. Jewish Newarkers thronged to Watson Bagel -- first on Watson Avenue where it was started in 1940, and later, for many years on 280 Clinton Place -- to satisfy their yearnings for this delectable hand-rolled crusty baked specialty.

As Leo Bauman was identified with the Weequahic Diner and Sam Teiger with the Tavern Restaurant, the one individual closely identified with the Watson Bagel throughout most of its existence was Sonny Amster -- a native of Newark's old Third Ward, and a South Side High School graduate.

Sonny Amster was, and has been identified with bagels his entire life. He is the son of a Newark bagel-maker, who had worked in an earlier Newark bagel operation on Belmont Avenue. Sonny Amster had apprenticed in bagel-making at his father's side2.

In 1957, Amster became a partner in Watson Bagel with Joseph Pearlman, a New York City bagel-maker, who had earlier bought the Watson operation. By then it was well established at 280 Clinton Place.

280 Clinton Place Location

I recall, during my many visits to the Clinton Place location, the bagels were brought to the store front retail operation from the brick ovens located in the back. They were hauled in from the back in large wicker baskets pulled along the wooden floor and slid down a sloping wooden ramp.

The bagel store and the two ovens in the back operated 24 hours a day as Watson Bagel had a substantial walk-in trade from mostly Jewish area residents who knew that at any hour of the day or night, at Watson Bagel they could always walk in and get steaming hot bagels fresh from the ovens.

At 280 Clinton Place, they were made in only two varieties -- plain and salt.

In addition to its retail trade, Watson Bagel also had a thriving wholesale business3. They supplied all the area supermarket chains, as well as neighborhood grocery stores, and diners and eating places that catered to the breakfast trade. The Weequahic Diner was a good customer.

Reason for the Wooden Ramp

The reason for the wooden ramp to the retail store was that the ovens had been located in a building in the rear behind a cleaning store in the front. Access to the bagel operation in the back was through the driveway of the adjacent building. When the driveway owner bricked up the driveway, Watson Bagel took over the front store for a sales room and linked it to the existing rear building which was on a higher elevation with the wooden ramp.

A Watson Bagel Ramp Recollection

I recall, on a Saturday night in 1960, driving to Watson Bagel from my home in Hillside with my younger son, Les, then five years old. The store manage, Walter Tomachek, whom I had known since early childhood, treated my youngster to a wicker basket ride from the over premises, down the ramp, to the front of the store.

In his adult years, as a Federal Government employee in Washington-- in occasional visits to our current home in Cranford -- son Les always made a stopover at Watson Bagels to buy up a take-home supply.

In recent years, since Watson ceased operations, Les stops at Elmora Bagels in Elizabeth, owned by the former Watson Bagel proprietor, and loads up with what he calls "Watson-Cousin Bagels."

What Made Newark-Made Watson Bagels Taste So Good?

Amster says the Watson Bagels made at 280 Clinton Place were better tasting than bagels at any other location because they were the only bagels made in brick ovens with brick and sand bottoms. The high quality of Newark water helped, too.

When Watson Bagel later moved, the brick ovens were replaced by revolving stainless steel ovens with slate shelves4.

Ingredients and Manufacturing Procedures

Throughout its existence, the formula and ingredients remained the same: Precise amounts of high-gluten flour, salt, malt, and yeast.

The bagels were hand-rolled into donut shapes, allowed to stand for one to three hours until their yeast content had caused them to rise to the right proportions. The bagels were then put into a vat of boiling water for one minute to be cooked.

(The boiling water treatment is supposed to gelatinize the gluten in the bagel dough, seal the outer bagel surface which becomes the crust, and ensure retention of the full flavor and goodness of the bagel's inner contents).

The bagels were then placed in the oven on wooden boards and baked until brown -- usually 10 to 15 minutes. When the bagel baker sees that they have reached the right degree of doneness, they are removed from the oven.

My Addiction to Watson Bagels

My first exposure to Newark-made Watson Bagels was in 1947. Shortly after I was married, we found an apartment on Chancellor Avenue over a store that carried Watson bagels and sold them for three cents each.

I became enamored over the chewy, crusty breakfast treats with their yeasty, malty, and deliciously flavorful soft insides.

However, much as I enjoyed them, I also recall, that when the store raised the price to four cents each, I had remarked to my new wife that bagels were getting too expensive. (Today, the price of a bagel is 50 cents).

Since my retirement in 1988, after decades as a New York City commuter, I resumed my Watson bagel breakfast habit with purchases at Watson Bagels in Irvington while it was till open. Later, I switched to a Watson Bagel "sister" store in Elizabeth.

I follow an unwavering routine of a bagel for breakfast every morning of the year.

The End of Watson in Newark

The Watson Bagel operation in Newark continued until the 1967 riots, when, whatever Jewish population still remained in Newark, abruptly left the city.

Following the departure from Newark of most of its primary clientele, Watson in 1967 transferred its operations to a wide glass-fronted location at 675 Chancellor Avenue in Irvington.

The new location was one-half mile up the street from Newark's Weequahic neighborhood which, a decade earlier, had been the most thickly populated Jewish neighborhood in Newark.

Watson Bagels continued at its Irvington location with the Amster-Pearlman partnership still intact until the mid-1980s, when Pearlman died. Amster then became the sole owner of Watson Bagels.

By 1998, the primary clientele of Watson Bagels had moved out of the changing Irvington-Chancellor Avenue Newark area, and as business declined at that location, the Watson Bagel store was closed on June 11, 1998.

After 38 years of operation, the "Watson Bagel" name ceased to exist at any bagel-making location.

How The Watson Tradition Continues

While the Watson Bagel name is no longer in use, the crusty Watson Bagel formula continues to be widely used in Amster-owned or Amster-related operations.

Using the same ingredients and baking procedures, Amster had opened two other solely-owned bagel-making operations earlier: Elmora Bagels at 183 Elmora Avenue in the heart of Elizabeth's Jewish residential district -- opened in 1970, and Sonny's Bagels at 123 South Orange Avenue in South Orange -- opened in 1971. Both of these Amster-owned operations are currently in operation.

In addition, Amster took over the Wigler Bakery on 1933 Vauxhall Road in the Millburn Mall, near Millburn Avenue, in 1982. He converted it into Sonny Amster's Bakery, a traditional Jewish bake shop, but also included Watson-style bagels which are made on the premises.

Amster continues a hands-on operation of the bakery, where he is often seen chatting with the customers.

A third generation of the Amster family also is in the bagel business in a big way. Sonny Amster's son Harlan, the oldest of his four children, who had learned the bagel business working for his father at Watson Bagel, now owns and operates fifteen "Bagels-4-U" stores in various suburban locations. They, too, are in the Watson Bagel style.

In a conversation with Sonny Amster before writing this "Memory," he told me "I still own the Watson Bagel name, but I am not using it at present, although the bagels in my operations are made the same way, with the same ingredients.

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Some Bagel Trivia

  1. First written mention of the bagel was in Krakow, Poland, in 1610.

  2. First union exclusively for bagel bakers was formed in New York City in 1910.

  3. The bagel is the only bread product that is boiled before it is baked.

  4. Eating a bagel is equal to eating four slices of bread.

  5. The first bagel topped with cream cheese was in 1880 when this cheese was invented.

  6. The first bagel-making machine was introduced in the 1960s.

  7. The nation's largest maker of frozen bagels is Lenders. Annual sales $275 million.

  8. The largest bagel franchiser is the Einstein/Noah Co. with 465 stores.
* * *

Some Bagel History:

The boiled and baked roll with the hole dates possibly from Roman times. Eventually, the bread specialty worked its way to Poland and Russia, where it became a food favorite.

Although other Eastern European bakers may have made bagels at one time, Jewish bakers became specialists, often using leftover morning roll dough for the evening and bagel snacks.

Fortunately, bagel bakers were among the mass of Eastern European immigrants who came to New York in 1880. Also in that same group were many with a craving for bagels.

The immigrant bagel bakers began practicing their bagel business in New York. Their bagels were sold on the streets of the lower East Side by street vendors, who carried them on long sticks with the bagels threaded over them.

As popularity of bagels spread to Jewish communities in other parts of the country, the term "New York Bagel" was often used to imply that they were bagels made the original way.

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Books About Bagels

The Bagel Bible for Bagel Lovers
by Marilyn Bagel
1995, paperbound.
Globe Pequot Press

The Bagels' Bagel Book
By Marilyn Bagel and Tom Bagel
1985, paperbound.
Acropolis Books, Inc.

The Bagel Book
June Roth, Grace Shaw (edited by)
1978, paperbound.
Putnam Publishing Group

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