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Ruby’s, Allie Boy’s and the birth of the Milwaukee-style bagel

What makes a Milwaukee-style bagel? We asked two of the city's best, Allie Boy's (left) and Ruby's, to find an answer.
Allie Boy's, Ruby's Bagels; Facebook
What makes a Milwaukee-style bagel? We asked two of the city's best, Allie Boy's (left) and Ruby's, to find an answer.

Milwaukee has created distinctive versions of many popular dishes. Plenty of discourse already exists, for example, over the beloved Milwaukee-style tavern pizza popularized by the Caradaro (now Calderone) Club. Then there’s the Milwaukee-style bagel.

Perhaps you didn’t know this was a thing. Perhaps you’re one of the Milwaukee residents living in a metaphorical bagel cave, chewing through a crumbly and possibly once-frozen item or resorting to a nearby Panera for a fix. But maybe you’ve seen the light and are frolicking in the sweet sunshine of freshly baked bagel enlightenment provided by local businesses like Ruby’s Bagels and Allie Boy’s.

Cities such as New York City and Montreal have distinguished themselves as bagel powerhouses, each claiming to have the best iteration. That’s usually where the debate ends, with everyone else — including the Midwest — caught in the crossfire. But I refused to stop there, which is why I talked to the two Milwaukee bagel mavens to answer the boiling (or wood-fired if you prefer Montreal-style) question:

What is the Milwaukee-style bagel?

Ruby Varela (center) and the team from Ruby's Bagels.
Ruby's Bagels; Facebook
Ruby Varela (center) and the team from Ruby's Bagels.

In the lab and from the coast

Daniela Ruby Varela, owner of Ruby’s Bagels in Zócalo Food Park, reached bagel enlightenment in 2017. While passing through Ohio with her partner, they stopped at the Cleveland Bagel Company, a local business that makes hand-rolled bagels. The first bite resulted in speechless shock, she said, followed by her asking, “Is this what a bagel is supposed to taste like?”

“We both had a little lightbulb moment: ‘I think I could learn how to make bagels. I’ll teach myself and we’ll see,’” recalled Varela, who at the time was a microbiology student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and decided to treat bagel-making as a science experiment.

In her mother's kitchen, she assessed all the variables — humidity, time and gluten development — that could influence the final product. It took until 2019 for Varela’s bagel to elicit “you need to sell these” statements from friends and family, after which she held pop-ups at local coffee shops and artist markets.

Eventually, she was offered a food truck at Zócalo, marking a turning point as thoughts of going full steam on her bagel career started to solidify in her mind. “This idea is right now, so why would I wait?” Varela said. So, with a farewell to school, she rolled out Ruby’s Bagels.

In 2018, around the same time that Varela started her bagel journey, Staci Lopez and Ben Nerenhausen of Allie Boy’s Bagelry and Luncheonette returned to Nerenhausen’s midwestern roots after living on both coasts and noticed a lack of bagels in the city.

“Every weekend was a struggle,” Lopez said, leading to thoughts of opening up a business of their own. Once they started to adjust to the city and assessed the bagel-barren terrain, the idea stuck.

The duo developed their recipe, started doing pop-ups and created something special: a space where East Coast transplants and Jewish deli lovers found a taste of nostalgia while newcomers experienced bagel enlightenment. To put it another (punny) way, they created a hole-y space where they could build community on a foundation of carbohydrate conversion.

The Allie Boy's team.
Allie Boy's; Facebook
The Allie Boy's team.

Something in the water

Ruby’s and Allie Boy’s both nod in the direction of the New York method by hand-rolling and boiling, but neither one claims the “New York-style” label.

“You’re going to have the flavor and the essence of where that bagel is being made,” Nerenhausen said as he emphasized the quality of Milwaukee water. That was something both businesses noted, so I decided to dive in and speak with Michelle Natarajan, water quality manager at Milwaukee Water Works, who provided her expertise on the matter.

She pointed out that Milwaukee water is considered medium hard, the elements of hard water being calcium and magnesium. “Yeast needs a certain amount of magnesium to flourish, so some hardness should be good for bread/bagel making. Too much hardness will lead the bread or bagels to become too tough, but not enough could result in too wet of dough,” Natarajan continued.

The differences in water between Milwaukee and New York City lie in its minerality, source and filtration. NYC’s water is significantly softer and has less minerality, which is the alleged secret to the New York-style bagel. Milwaukee water has an average of 133 mg/L total hardness compared with NYC’s average of 26 mg/L in 2023. NYC water hails from watersheds upstate and Delaware, whereas Milwaukee water is drawn from our very own Lake Michigan.

But the key distinction might just be that NYC water is permissible to treat without filtration. “This is a big difference between our water and New York’s, and it is very unusual since filtration is one of the key steps that gets water clean and makes it safer,” Natarajan noted.

In addition to the water, Varela’s bagels have less of the New York extreme — hard and crunchy on the outside and extra chewy inside. Her bagels allow the customer to bite without a fight and have a more pleasant eating experience.

Staci and Ben use their ever-changing flavor combinations as a vessel to highlight local products, using blueberries from local farmers and Wisconsin-milled flour for their pumpernickel and whole-wheat bagels.

Taste the love

The uniting factor that makes the bagels special is the city itself and the love the business owners have for Milwaukee. As local patronage and word of mouth spread, it became clear that Milwaukee loves them back.

When a fire in 2022 damaged one of Varela’s kitchens, the community rose to the occasion to help her find a new space and raise funds for the lost equipment. “Without the community, we would not be who we are now,” she said.

Staci and Ben had their fair share of hurdles — from fires to floods and even a car barreling into the foundation of their building. They’ve not only recovered, but are opening another location on North Farwell Avenue in addition to their original National Avenue storefront. “The only reason we are opening a second spot is because people have been so supportive and patronizing our little shop,” they said.

Like the businesses themselves, the Milwaukee-style bagel co-exists and evolves alongside the community. While the demand for hand-rolled bagels is big, the city being on the smaller side — as metro areas go — allows word to spread quickly. “I love my city, so I feel like we deserve our own bagel,” said Varela, who has called her customers “bagel babes” from day one.

With affection, both businesses feed Milwaukeans in more ways than one. They satiate seasoned noshers and newbies alike, but they also give local businesses and farmers a platform to showcase their product. It’s a place to take mom on the weekend or grab breakfast with an old friend. It’s a spot to take folks from out of town to show them Milwaukee isn’t just beer and bratwursts.

Local businesses like these are a source of pride for all of us to say, “Look at the amazing food in my city.” And that community support has ushered in a summer of schmear, allowing Allie Boy’s to open their second location and Ruby’s Bagels to roll out its first brick-and-mortar store on North Avenue.

For Varela, it’s a big step on a path full of twists and turns. “Not a lot of people believed in me,” she said. But whether you’re at Ruby’s or Allie Boy’s, becoming a believer only takes one bite of — yes — a Milwaukee-style bagel straight from the heart of the Cream (Cheese) City.

Part-time writer and environmental studies student Dara Carneol dabbles in everything from radio to filmmaking to crocheting with plastic bags to wondering how she killed the tomato plants in her garden. She is a full time enjoyer of puns, hypothetical questions and narrating the life of her dog, Chase.