From Tattoo Parlor to Punk Bar to Bagel Shop
Schlomo’s Bagels isn’t your typical deli. To start with, its mere existence is something of an anomaly in Berlin, where finding a real-deal bagel is a rare thing.
The Lox Deluxe at Schlomo's. All photos by Andreas Huber.
"I learned this little architectural trick from building squats," Nick Kater tells me as we climb up to a raised platform in the back of the shop. On top, there's a faded vintage couch and a few black-and-white framed photos leaning against the wall. It's not quite a second story, but it's close, with a similar platform across the room performing the same function. How long did he live in Berlin squats exactly? "Oh, about a decade."
With his full-sleeve tattoos, Kater doesn't look like your typical deli co-owner, but then, Schlomo's Bagels isn't your typical deli. To start with, its mere existence in Berlin is something of an anomaly. Though a number of local bakeries have started carrying "bagels" in the last few years, they're usually more of an afterthought than a serious endeavor, a novelty item for homesick Brooklynites and little more. Until the arrival of Mogg & Melzer—now just Mogg after the original partners went their separate ways—this wasn't a city renowned for traditional Ashkenazi Jewish deli food, for obvious reasons. Bagels may have originated in neighboring Poland, but until recently, they had little traction in Berlin. As the city's dining scene grows ever more cosmopolitan, though, there's an emerging hunger for other cuisines and, thanks to their ubiquity in the States, bagels now count as sufficiently exotic to warrant renewed interest.
While Kater's enthusiasm for the humble bagel has its roots in New York, Schlomo's owes as much to Berlin as it does to the Big Apple. Throughout his colorful past in the city, Kater has helped launch a hippie-bus-group on a mission to Transylvania called Team Wolf, worked at a subterranean bar in a coal cellar, and run one of the city's most famous tattoo parlors. It's fitting, then, that although he and his team have done their homework at delis in the States, they've called on some of Berlin's best small-time artisanal producers for everything from their Vietnamese iced coffee to their slow-cured pastrami.
I sat down with him for a conversation about searching for the Platonic ideal of bagels, the last authentic punk bar in Berlin, and why you can never have enough schmear.
MUNCHIES: How did this start?
Nick Kater: Well, I am half-New Yorker. I grew up partially in the States and every time we'd go visit our relatives in New York, it was bagels all the time.
So you actually know what a bagel is supposed to be like. It's not just a round bread. That's what you get in Berlin, right? I don't think most people even boil it. It's just a round, baked bread that tastes like nothing. I was at one of the hipster cafes in another German city and they served bagels. For 6.80 euros, you get this. [Shows a picture.]
Oh, look, there's some filling in there. Let's start. This is a bread, not a bagel—you can tell by the crumb. The cream cheese is that cheap shit from Aldi or whatever. And there's so little of it. You should always have more schmear than bread! It's just a small thing, so they put some arugula on it to make it look bigger. It's on a fucking plate. There's no paper, so how are you supposed to eat it?
What'd you do to make sure yours would be better? Our lox is, like, a buck more, but it's triple the size and it's fucking good. Our cream cheese is Philly. Our bagels are from Fine Bagels. We want to make an open bakery, so that when we start making our own bagels, you can actually see how we do it. We've been experimenting already with making them ourselves, just small batches, and they're pretty good. Before we opened this I went to New York with a friend for ten days and we ate at three bagel places each day—gained about two pounds a day.
Three a day? Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were on a quest. We wanted to find out what a good bagel is made of and how places make them good. We wanted to know what combinations people put on their bagels, which schmears they used. We wanted to do that from a scientific point of view, so to speak. I made notes of every shop, what I liked, what I disliked. I took photos of all of them. Did some espionage. This is the result of everything I thought was good.
Were you working in restaurants before this? Not at all. I own a tattoo shop called Bläckfisk. I started with being a tattooer myself. I did it from my home. Now, I've got some more guys working with me and I'm more of the boss.
When did you get the idea for this place? I wanted to open up a bar, but I think I'm too young for that. I'd be my own best customer and just age really quick and die from liver shit. And I always wanted to have a bagel place in Germany. We're kind of doing some pioneer's work, showing Germans what they're supposed to be like.
So you've lived in Berlin squats for ten years, had a tattoo shop… I also sold beer for 1 euro at our punk bar.
You had a punk bar? In one of our squats from 2001 to 2006. It was an old coal cellar and you entered through a trapdoor. It was literally just a hole in the floor and that was the only entrance or exit. I think we bought the bottles for 40 cents and had to give 30 cents to the house. We kept the rest for us and that's how we made a living. It was called "Kontrollpunkt," ("control point," from Checkpoint Charlie) but everyone just called it "Kellerloch" ("cellar hole"). It was famous. I got really good at Kicker—you guys call it Foosball—because we had a rule that if you won six to zero against someone, they had to buy you a beer. So we got really good.
Seriously, how did you survive on this? For rent, we just paid electricity more or less. It was like a hundred bucks for everything, so we could live off of that. And the shop was full every night because apparently somebody wrote us up in the Lonely Planet as the "last authentic punk bar in Berlin." So we were kinda set until the house got burned down by the owner.
As in arson? As in arson. He had tried to buy us out all the time, but there were 50 people living there. There was an investigation later and they found, like, 12 places where they set fire. They just burned the house down while there were 40 people sleeping inside. It's a miracle no one got killed.
So this was the eviction notice. Well, the house had to be renovated and if you renovate it, you can raise the rent and everything. So at that point, we were like, "OK, give us our money." After that, I started tattooing.
And now you've got a bagel deli where pretty much everything is sourced from Berlin producers. We didn't settle with anything. We make the coffee-marinated lox ourselves and tried, like, 50 different types of salmon to find the right one. It had to be organic—that was important. We did blind tastings and we just took the best. We didn't even look at the price or shit. And we did that with everything. We've got craft beer from Superfreunde, pastrami from Kumpel & Keule, produce from Markthalle Neun, and coffee from Röststätte Berlin.
Surely it'd be easier or cheaper to make a few compromises. When we opened up, a lot of people came here from big companies and breweries. The guys from Anheuser-Busch, Nescafé, and Coca-Cola were all here. We said no to all of them, because we just want to concentrate on small, local brands. We don't stock them at all. Of course, it'd be cheaper for us and we'd have a bigger margin, but I'm not just doing this for money. There are way easier ways to make money than tattooing and bagels.
Thanks for speaking with me.