Andrew Rubinstein burst onto Seattle’s bagel scene in 2019 with a tagline that seemed to reference the then-sorry state of the city’s bagels: “These are the bagels you’ve been looking for.” Chewy and with a hint of sourdough, the jawns at Rubinstein Bagels were widely praised in Seattle and even landed on a best-in-the-country list. Through a partnership with restaurant empire-builder Ethan Stowell, Rubinstein opened his first brick-and-mortar location in late 2020 in South Lake Union, expanded into Capitol Hill the following year, and planned to open a third location in Redmond in 2023. Rubinstein Bagels was officially a mini-chain, and Rubinstein the baker had become an entrepreneur.
Then in May, before the opening of the Redmond shop, Seattle Met reported that Rubinstein (the man, not the store) had had what from the outside looked like a sudden change of heart. He had sold his half of his namesake business to Stowell and was launching a new project from scratch called Hey Bagel.
Rubinstein was going back to what he had been doing years ago: baking bagels in his kitchen by himself, doing R&D, experimenting with the formula, searching again for his ideal bagel. “I’ve changed some of the hydration, I’ve changed my fermentation times and my processes of rolling and shaping them,” he tells Eater Seattle. When he was a painter, he kept his latest work-in-progress as his phone screensaver so he could constantly look at it; since he got into the bagel business (or bagel art) he has spent a similar amount of time thinking about bagels.
That’s part of the reason he left Rubinstein Bagels behind. As he went from running a pop-up to a rapidly expanding enterprise with multiple locations, he found himself in charge of almost 40 employees. (“I wasn’t a great manager,” he admits.) He also had to codify his process in order to make sure that the bagels that came out of all the Rubinstein locations were consistently good. In other words, the formula was set. The tinkering stage that he had loved so much was over. “There was a tension between me trying to chase this dragon in this dream of this bagel that I want versus, ‘Hey, this is great. Everybody loves it. Stick with it,’” he says. “I really just missed the small hands-on craft thing that I started out with.”
The other part of the reason is that one of his children became seriously sick and the hours required to run multiple locations were too demanding. He decided he needed to “take steps backwards to get to where I want to be on my daily life.”
The split with Stowell was amicable, he says, and both parties have ownership of the Rubinstein Bagels recipe. But Rubinstein doesn’t want to make Rubinstein Bagels. “What I want is more craft,” he says. More blisters, more cracks, “more bizarre-looking bagels at times.”
The bagels he’s making under the Hey Bagel moniker aren’t yet available for sale. He’s been giving away his test batches on Instagram, telling people to drive out to his home in Sammamish to get them, which given his reputation they are happy to do. (Occasionally, he leaves them in his mailbox.) On Saturday, July 22, he’s doing his first pop-up at the Salish Lodge (of Twin Peaks fame) at 9 a.m.
Rubinstein is looking for a new permanent home for his bagels — somewhere close to his actual home — and he’s moving a little more slowly and deliberately this time. With Rubinstein Bagels, his attitude was, “let’s put tentpoles all over, wherever we can,” he says. “I’m trying to be a little less like that this time. I’m trying to see the lifestyle balance more than just being a big name.”
What does that mean? “I’m not going to look at scaling up to a second shop maybe ever, certainly not for the first two years,” he says. “I would like a small staff. I’d like to learn how to be a better manager when that happens.”
He also wants to focus on making sure all the bagels are hot when customers get them. “My plan is, my team is not going to come in at one o’clock in the morning and bake, we’re gonna come in between five and six,” he says. That will mean fewer bagels on the shelves at opening, but they’ll be baking throughout the day so even if you show up at noon you’ll be able to get a fresh one. “I would love it if I don’t even have to buy a toaster.”
While he perfects his bagels and his work-life balance, the chain he gave his name to is going to keep growing. Rubinstein Bagels has a life of its own. “Ethan and team, they’re assassins,” Rubinstein says. “They’ll likely blow up Rubinstein Bagels, and I’ll look from the outside, hopefully from my little shop, and be like, ‘Alright, well, I started that. I’m proud of that.’”
Update, Wednesday, July 19, 10:45 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Hey Bagel’s first pop-up is on Saturday, July 22