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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
Some Bagel Trivia
- First written mention of the bagel was in Krakow, Poland, in
- First union exclusively for bagel bakers was formed in New
York City in 1910.
- The bagel is the only bread product that is boiled before it
- Eating a bagel is equal to eating four slices of bread.
- The first bagel topped with cream cheese was in 1880 when this
cheese was invented.
- The first bagel-making machine was introduced in the 1960s.
- The nation's largest maker of frozen bagels is Lenders. Annual
sales $275 million.
- The largest bagel franchiser is the Einstein/Noah Co. with
* * *
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.
* * *
Books About Bagels
The Bagel Bible for Bagel Lovers
by Marilyn Bagel
Globe Pequot Press
The Bagels' Bagel Book
By Marilyn Bagel and Tom Bagel
Acropolis Books, Inc.
The Bagel Book
June Roth, Grace Shaw (edited by)
Putnam Publishing Group