Hole Story

Hole Story

Yesterday, the nation celebrated a major icon on his day of remembrance—and, understandably, forgot about another. But we here in New Haven have special reason to acknowledge National Bagel Day: the local family that almost singlehandedly made the ring-shaped breadstuff a staple of dining tables and takeout bags from coast to coast.

The story of the Lenders begins with Harry Lender, a Jewish baker from Lublin, Poland, who immigrated to these shores in 1927 toward a better future and away from the rising tide of antisemitism in Europe. After a brief stint working in a New Jersey bakery, he learned of a New Haven bakery on Oak Street that was up for sale for $600. He branded it the New York Bagel Bakery, one of the first established outside New York City, and by the end of 1929 had made enough money to bring the rest of his family stateside. Five years later, Harry moved the operation to Baldwin Street, on the site of Regna’s Italian bread bakery in a multiethnic neighborhood, where he learned that his bagels appealed just as much to his Irish and Italian neighbors as his Jewish peers.

Conventional bagel-making was a grueling process, involving hand-rolling and boiling each bagel, and because bagels stayed fresh for hours, not days, production was a slave to demand—until 1954, when Harry decided to take a chance on buying a freezer. This way, he could spread the labor over a four- to five-day work week and supply his product to a greater range of customers.

According to Maria Balinska’s 2008 book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, the bakery’s first important client receiving frozen bagels was The Concord Resort Hotel, located in the Borscht Belt of the Catskills, which routinely served as many as 3,000 diners a day and welcomed reliable inventory. Without disclosing the process, the Lenders—it was by now a family business—would send these bagels defrosted in polyethylene bags, extending their shelf life with a mold inhibitor. This gambit nearly became a deal-killer when, on one occasion, they sent the Concord still-frozen bagels by mistake, until hotel management realized the bagels were just as good after defrosting.

Supermarkets became the next frontier, as frozen foods started gaining traction among America’s convenience-loving consumers. By 1959, supermarkets accounted for half of the Lenders’ sales. After Harry passed away in 1960, his sons Murray, who started as sales manager and eventually became CEO, and Marvin, who moved from bakery manager to president, leaped into the breach. Murray, in particular, became intent upon what he called “the bagelising of America.” His early strategies included creating bagel flavors that people would associate with other sweet breakfast breads, such as cinnamon raisin. He recruited other members of the family to offer samples of bagels with a cream cheese schmear in supermarket bakeries. Murray also created a green bagel for St. Patrick’s Day and oval bagels for photo ops with President Lyndon B. Johnson in his office.

He set his sights on the New York City market, one that has always been fiercely insistent that it is the home of the true American bagel, one that should always be freshly handmade. The story goes that Murray convinced Jules Rose, head of the Sloan’s supermarket chain, to stock the Lenders’ frozen bagels by jumping on Rose’s desk, dropping his pants to reveal underwear emblazoned with “Buy Bagels” and dancing while chanting “Frozen bagels.”

Other strategies were more grounded. When consumers complained that defrosted bagels were slippery and hard to slice, the Lenders began pre-slicing them before freezing. Another masterstroke was placing a prominent “No Preservatives” message on bagel bags, which worked in their favor when the frozen food boom led to a late-’60s preoccupation with the potential dangers of food additives.

Meanwhile, technical innovations, reportedly spearheaded by Marvin, were afoot. In 1963, the business began to revolutionize bagel production by leasing a machine invented by science teacher Daniel Thompson, also the son of a bagel baker, that could shape the dough automatically. Two years later, the company moved from Baldwin Street to a 12,000-square-foot factory in West Haven and was renamed Lender’s Bagel Bakery.

Though Lender’s sales reached $2.25 million by 1971, bagels were still little known beyond the East Coast. Murray decided that their identity as “Jewish food” needed changing once and for all. He embarked on a variety of cross-promotions designed to link his company’s bagels to “all-American” products like Dannon yogurt, Maxwell House coffee, Minute Maid orange juice and Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese. Lender’s started attaching coupons for those products to their bagel bags, and in turn their own discount coupons appeared on some already well-trusted brands.

Murray also doubled down on flamboyance, by bringing a number of splashy presentations to annual gatherings of national food brokers. These included a drag show and a ballet piece, Dance of the Bagels, under the direction of Connecticut Ballet. He was also behind the development of “Bagel Heads,” varnished mini-bagels with the likenesses of company heads painted on.

In the mid-1970s, Lender’s scored its first national breakthrough food service contract with Howard Johnson’s, and in 1977, Lender’s began a tongue-in-cheek national TV ad campaign that debuted during The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Murray eventually made a personal appearance on the show, presenting Carson with a “Bagel Finagle”—a frieze of bagel faces resembling Carson and some of his guests—and his own personal bagel head. Around this time, the company established its first restaurant in Orange, a precursor to contemporary bagelries, under the moniker H. Lender and Sons. A second opened in Hamden in 1980.

By 1984, Lender’s was at the top of its game, with a fully automated West Haven bakery more than double its original size and four factories producing more than 750 million bagels and $65 million in revenue per year, making the company the world’s largest bagel producer. That year, the Lender family sold its business to Kraft Foods, home of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, celebrating the transaction with a publicity stunt held in Florida called “The Wedding of the Century.” Len, an 8-foot-tall bagel, was marched down the aisle by Murray and Marvin to conjoin with Kraft’s Phyl, a two-legged tub of cream cheese, as an audience of food brokers and their spouses looked on.

Despite these developments, Balinska reports that in 1984, 80 percent of Americans still had not tasted a bagel. This brought about Murray and Marvin’s last big stratagem. In 1986, the company opened its first (and only) Midwestern factory in Mattoon, Illinois. The Lender brothers, whom Kraft had hired on a two-year contract to run its bagel division, concocted the ideal promotion to educate Mattooners about this unfamiliar treat: The World’s Biggest Bagel Breakfast. Thousands came to enjoy coffee and a bagel with a cream cheese schmear. Knowing a great tourism opportunity when they saw it, town leaders established an annual summer BagelFest, now in its 39th year. Currently the sole surviving Lender’s factory, the Mattoon site remains the largest bagel factory in the world, capable of producing 3 million bagels a day.

The business profile of Lender’s has seemed a little shaky in the 21st century thanks to multiple ownership changes, but as of 2012, its annual sales revenue had actually climbed, to $70 million. In May of that year, Consumer Reports received howls of media criticism by rating Lender’s Original one of the best bagels sold by supermarkets and fast food chains, based on the argument that only fresh bagels should be considered “real bagels.” Nonetheless, Lender’s continues to prevail. In 2022, current parent company Bimbo Bakeries USA undertook a reboot of the brand, now available in fresh and frozen options, creating new recipes, flavors and packaging—and, reportedly, its first social media ad campaign.

After their retirements, Murray and Marvin devoted themselves to significant charitable endeavors, chronicled in Jews in New Haven (ninth edition, 2009). Author Andy Horowitz credits the brothers as “crucial supporters of the state of Israel,” noting that Marvin served as national president and chairman of the United Jewish Appeal from 1990 to 1992 and headed “Operation Exodus,” raising nearly one billion dollars toward the resettlement of half a million Soviet and Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Murray’s accomplishments struck closer to home: He worked tirelessly to reforge the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, helping to raise $18 million to acquire its current 50-acre site in Woodbridge. In the late ’80s, he and Marvin also collaborated with Yale professor Geoffrey Hartman in the development of the Holocaust Prejudice Reduction Education Program, offering teacher training on building tolerance in the classroom and educating students about the Holocaust.

Upon Murray Lender’s death at 81 in 2012, he was buried in New Haven’s B’nai Jacob Memorial Park, with a headstone reading, simply, “Beloved Husband-Father-Grandfather-Brother.” The New York Times did one better, titling its obituary with language Murray might have seen fit to put on underwear: “Murray Lender, Who Gave All America a Taste of Bagels…”

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, featuring Lender’s branding today, sourced from lendersbagels.com. Image 2, featuring frozen Lender’s Bagels at Stop & Shop, photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 3, featuring Murray Lender, photographed by Carl Lender. Image 4, featuring Murray during the World’s Biggest Bagel Breakfast event in Mattoon, photographed by Doug Lawhead for the Mattoon Journal Gazette.

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