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Doughnut vs. bagel: a hole different game

Sam Harden (left) and James Grimes run Better Bagels pop-ups.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Rebecca Roth Gullo believes she may have mastered the art of the doughnut. The owner of Blackbird Doughnuts in the South End just opened her second storefront in the Fenway, and says that after years spent running sit-down restaurants, she’s grown to love the crazy hours of the baking business and its accompanying acclaim. (It helps that Adele is a fan.) But when asked if she’d ever fold bagels into the mix, she balks.

“We thought about doing bagels but the economics don’t work,” she said. “From boiling to baking to proofing, it’s unbelievably difficult to make great bagels.”

What’s more, she says, they don’t garner the profit one can make with a chocolate glazed.

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Bagels and doughnuts are clearly the fraternal twins of the breakfast table — round dough, hole (usually) in the middle. But while they share the same DNA, the business models behind them are vastly different, according to a cluster of Boston-area entrepreneurs who are pushing these workaday treats upscale.

Running a high-end bagel or doughnut shop means convincing your customers to cough up more dough for an artisanal, hand-rolled product. But doughnuts are done once they are glazed; they don’t require any additional effort aside from boxing. Bagels can be upsold with a schmear or as a sandwich, but that’s more labor, and more time for customers to spend in line. Yet as a batch of new upscale bagel shops are set to open around town, they are hoping to capitalize on the success of their doughnut brethren and teach folks that paying more for a gourmet bagel is worthwhile.

Doughnuts seem to have an edge in the city, for now at least. Convincing the world that they are appropriate as both breakfast and dessert was quite a coup. And with their status as a sweet indulgence, doughnuts were poised to ride the coattails of the couture-cupcake craze, and to adopt a similarly high price point.

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But Gullo quickly draws a line in the flour. “People say doughnuts are the next cupcake, and they’re not. There’s no comparison between the two,” she said. “There is great artistry to cupcakes, and this is not a slight on cupcakes, but doughnuts take 20 hours to make.”

Josh Danoff says his customers had to clear an initial psychological hurdle when he began selling his Union Square Donuts in 2013. “Doughnuts are timeless. People have been frying dough everywhere in the world forever,” he said. But making brioche doughnuts using ingredients like real vanilla beans wasn’t cheap, and his prices reflected that.

“If I got to the point where we felt like we have to come up with reasons to justify what we’re charging, then we’re probably charging too much,” he said. But today it’s no longer novel to see a pricey $3 or $4 doughnut in town, or to need to break $40 to take home a fancy dozen.

The same can’t yet be said for the bagel.

“We say all the time, a good doughnut in the city is $3 or $4. We wholesale our bagel for $2 and people will get fairly upset,” said James Grimes, who has been selling his Better Bagels as a pop-up around the city, and will soon open a retail space in the Seaport.

Grimes grew up making bagels in his family’s shop on the Jersey Shore, and says the gripes come from customers looking back at the glory days when bagels were 50 cents each.

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“We try to remind people, now it’s 25 years later,” he said. “We give price comparisons for doughnuts or other chain bagel places. For what we’re doing, it isn’t expensive at all.”

Adam Hirsh, the founder of Exodus Bagels, wagers that the stakes are just higher for bagel makers, and not only because of the small margins at play when you’re selling baked goods.

“I think there is more adventure involved in eating a doughnut, rather than the nostalgia and expectation involved in eating a bagel,” he said. He has also been hosting bagel pop-ups around the city to fund the launch of a brick-and-mortar store in Roslindale this fall. He stresses that the storefront will not be a bagel shop, but a “restaurant that makes bagels,” with a full deli operation where meat will be butchered, brined, and cured.

Yes, sandwiches make the bagel business more complicated, but that’s also what makes it great, he argues. “The doughnut has one use. Give me a dozen and I want to please everyone at the office. But a bagel is expansive,” he said.

Bagel shop owners say there are some economic factors that give them a bit of an advantage. Sure, they have to account for the overhead involved in stocking ingredients for deli sandwiches, said Grimes, but that results in a brisk lunch business, where he can charge $15 for a sandwich. And not having to cater to late-night sugar cravings means they can stay open shorter hours, cutting down on labor costs.

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One thing both kinds of bakery share: an affinity for caffeine. Serving great coffee can be a boon for both businesses, tacking on an additional revenue stream.

Ultimately, bagel and doughnut shop owners are kindred spirits. Gullo says she’s such a bagel fan that it prompted the “Everything Doughnut,” a whipped cream cheese-filled round topped with toasted garlic, onion, sesame, and poppy seeds.

And Grimes says that he definitely sees himself stretching beyond the savory. “Not a hybrid product like a cronut, but we have a couple ideas for a sweeter-style bagel,” he said, “one that can satisfy a sweet tooth, as much as a bagel can.”

Doughnut shop owners say they hope that bagel entrepreneurs will soon be able to command comparable prices, as it’s essential for survival. Many point to the success of Bagelsaurus, which opened in 2014 in Porter Square and now commands $25 for a baker’s dozen. “It’s getting people more in line with price that’s realistic,” said Danoff.

Gullo agrees. “I think that bagels and doughnuts should receive equal love and appreciation,” she said.


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.