Hardly Strictly Bagels: Free bagels for the people from S.F. baker-educator

We’ve been reading a lot of stories about new bagel-makers in recent months, but did you hear the one about the guy in San Francisco who gives away his bagels for free?

This is not a setup for a joke. He has been doing it for nearly three years.

The baker is Danny Gabriner, and he is the proprietor of Sour Flour, a four-person artisan bakery that operates under some pretty interesting principles. For example, Gabriner is a major proponent of free time, so work schedules are kind of choppy. He’s also not consumed by turning big profits, and though his sourdough loaves are sold on a small scale, Sour Flour is more about building community and education.

To that end, Gabriner will be at the three-day Eat Real Festival at Jack London Square in Oakland on Sept. 21 to lead three workshops: dough-mixing, how to make sourdough starter and pizza-making. (Sour Flour also runs bagel workshops, though none at this event.)

Oh, and as for the main point of this column: Gabriner holds Bagel Monday every week at La Victoria bakery and coffee shop in the Mission District. Starting at 9 a.m., he puts a variety of bagels on a plank on a table, and anyone can come inside and take one. Free of charge. Until he runs out.

“That’s usually about 10:30 or 11,” says Gabriner, who generally makes about 80 bagels. “Come at 9,” he advises.

The process begins on Sunday afternoon at La Victoria, when he mixes up a batch of dough that includes some sourdough starter — and unlike most bagel-bakers, he does it by hand. After resting, the bagels are hand-rolled at night. After fermenting, they are boiled and baked in the morning, resulting bagel that’s flavorful and chewy.

Then it’s giveaway time, one per person (usually). Some people are regulars, others see notices on Twitter, many live in the neighborhood. Sometimes a homeless person might amble by and get one.

And why exactly is he doing this?

Danny Gabriner of Sour Flour

“A lot of what we do [at Sour Flour] is give away free bread, and bagels are kind of extension of that,” says Gabriner, 27, who is Jewish. “There are three places bread can go after it’s baked: sold for revenue, given away for free as a nice thing to do and to make a connection, or given to someone who is truly hungry and needs it. We try to disperse our products through all three of those ways.

“Plus, we’re still not at a profitable state,” he adds. “That’s part of the reason. Even if we weren’t giving away bagels, we’d still be losing just about the same amount of money.”

Gabriner grew up in San Francisco, attended Lowell High School and lives in the Mission District. He was raised on Lender’s bagels, graduated to Noah’s as a teen, then went to college at NYU and discovered a whole new bagel world. Before launching Sour Flour in 2009, he worked as an analyst for CNET and ran a gourmet food blog.

His career path changed on a vacation to Costa Rica, when, somehow or another (I’m still not exactly sure how), he ended up spending much of his trip baking bread at a bakery. He brought back some sourdough starter, in two water bottles, which U.S. Customs agents questioned but admitted; the starter he uses today is a descendent of that batch.

Finding Sour Flour loaves in San Francisco isn’t easy; only a few cafés and markets have them; sometimes he sells to the Old World Food Truck. But the bagels are even more scarce, available only at Bagel Monday.

Not surprisingly, many fans have told Gabriner to make a bigger push with his bagels.

“We’ve been tempted many times over, and we’ve talked about it,” he says. “But bagels are kind of a fun thing that we do on the side. Also, handmade bagels cost too much to make a bagel business work. It requires a lot of volume. Right now, it’s not our focus.”

Sour Flour

Bagel Monday at La Victoria Bakery,

2937 24th St. at Alabama Street, San Francisco

www.sourflour.org; @SourFlour on Twitter;

Sour Flour on Facebook

(415) 509-3380 or danny@sourflour.org




BIG GETS BIGGER: I find this hard to believe, but the menu at Miller’s East Coast Deli in San Rafael is actually getting bigger. Owner Robby Morgenstern is rolling out the expanded, newly printed version over the next few weeks.

Part of the impetus, he said, was that people were “clamoring for more dinner items.” So there will now be kishke, kreplach and kasha varnishkes, among other things. Another offering will be egg barley mushroom, “an old East Coast thing,” Morgenstern said, that includes a small pasta sautéed with mushrooms and some brisket gravy.

The expanded options are designed to “satisfy a more suburban clientele.” On one hand, that means more Jewish items like those above, but it also means new sections on the menu, such as one with gluten-free items and one called “Sandwiches as big as your head.”

“Really humungous,” said Howard Cummins, the operations manager in San Rafael. “Even if they didn’t order one, we want people to walk away talking about them.”

Cummins came on board not long after the deli’s January opening in San Rafael. The restaurant didn’t get off to a rousing start, with lines out the door, long waits, bad service and an ill-informed wait staff. People grumbled. But Cummins has helped shore things up. I’ve been twice in recent months, and aside from the staff not knowing what “rye ends” are, the service and food has been top notch, and it’s a great deli atmosphere. “Tons of regulars,” Morgenstern said.

After finding out about the expanded menu, I asked Morgenstern what’s going to become of the cool, huge wall menu near the front of the restaurant. He said it’s going to be covered over, and then it will replaced by a bank of four 60-inch screens that will display the menu, allowing for the easy posting of new offerings and daily specials.

“A digital wall menu,” Morgenstern beamed. “It’s the future of all quick-service restaurants.”

By the way, the menu at the San Francisco location has been larger than that of the San Rafael location and will remain the same.

Miller’s East Coast Deli

421 3rd St., San Rafael. Daily 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

www.millerseastcoastdeli.com; @MillersECDeli on Twitter;

www.facebook.com/millersdelisf (415) 453-DELI (3354)

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.