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The Real Honest Story Behind Montreal's St-Viateur Bagel Shop

What you never knew about the iconic bakery.
The Real Honest Story Behind Montreal's St-Viateur Bagel Shop

Few foods are quite as synonymous with Montreal as the mighty bagel. In fact, the city and its baked round of doughy perfection are often said in the same breath, with "Montreal bagel" existing as a culinary term all its own.

To be a Montrealer means a love for the city's iconic bagels, along with a fiery passion to defend our brand of bagel any time someone claims the NYC-version to be superior. Bagels are simply a fact of life in Montreal, and it's been that way for nearly a century.

Intertwined with the evolution of Montreal, bagels have a unique history all their own. A symbol of the influence of Jewish communities upon the whole of Montreal, delving into the origins of Montreal bagels requires one to look back on the story of the city's two most famous bagel bakeries: Fairmount and St-Viateur.

While everyone seems to have a preference as to whether Fairmount or St-Viateur bakes the better bagel, no one can argue that St-Viateur is more popular. Or, at the least, is more widespread across the island.

With three bakers and three "Bagel & Cafés," St-Viateur overtakes Fairmont in terms of sheer accessibility, likely a reason why it is deemed the "superior" bakery.

But regardless of your preferences, the narrative of St-Viateur is actually weaved into the history of Fairmount. To tell the saga of St-Viateur requires one to relate the beginnings of Fairmount, as the former would likely not exist without the latter.

With that, in telling the real story behind St-Viateur Bagel, lets take a look back into the origins of the bagel in Montreal itself.

Before Fairmount or St-Viateur: The Montreal Bagel Bakery

Varying historical accounts conflict as to who exactly first introduced the bagel in Montreal. There are, however, some oft-cited individuals who, at the least, played an integral role in laying the foundation for the modern popularity of the bagel.

Montreal history Joe King names Hyman Seligman as the city's original bagel purveyor, who emigrated from Russia to Montreal around 1900. Using a recipe from his hometown of Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia), Seligman began selling bagels in Lachine, until he set up shop right next to Schwartz's on Saint Laurent, opening what some believe to be the original Montreal Bagel Bakery, as it was called.

Despite having a physical location, Seligman took the time to make everyone aware of the deliciousness that were his bagels, actively delivering bagels to the Jewish community (The Main was originally the epicentre of Montreal's original Jewish neighbourhood) by wagon.

No official records exist for Seligman's Montreal Bagel Bakery, nor his initial bagel-tours of Lachine. This is probably because Seligman didn't have a fixed location when first selling bagels, and he might not have registered his bakery when it opened.

But there was another Montreal Bagel Bakery, one with official historical records citing its location and ownership. Some theorize that Seligman actually worked for this establishment in the mid 20th century, owned by Jacob Drapkin and Isadore Shlafman, the latter being the founder of Fairmount Bagels.

Erwin Shlafman, grandson to Isadore Shlafman, explains to the BBC how his grandfather arrived in Montreal in 1910, and after finding a distinct lack of bagel bakeries in Montreal, decided to open his own. Located at 3835 Saint Laurent, Shlafman's Montreal Bagel Bakery opened in 1919, serving the wood-fire made bagels we know today.

Since there's no historical documentation of Seligman's Montreal Bagel Bakery, and there's somewhat substantial records stating he worked for a business by the same name in the 1940s (and perhaps as early as the 1930s), we can assume that Shlafman and Drapkin were the first folks to introduce bagels to Montreal.

Still, the Seligman, Shlafman, and Drapkin were all involved with the Montreal bagel business in its infancy, and helped establish the culinary tradition within the city's Jewish communities and beyond.

But the trio would eventually split, leading to the founding of Montreal's two most famous bagel bakeries.

The Great Bagel Schism: The Founding Of Fairmount & St-Viateur

For exact reasons unknown, Isadore Shlafman decided to open up his own bagel shop in the late 1940s. Perhaps Shlafman simply wanted his own business to run, or he and Drapkin had some sort of falling out.

Regardless, Shlafman would migrate from Saint Laurent to Fairmount street, converting a small cottage house into the now-infamous bakery. Joined with this son Jack, Shlafman opened the The Original Fairmount Bagel Bakery in 1949.

Drapkin would continue to run the Montreal Bagel Bakery, with Seligman staying on board. The two were then joined by Holocaust survivor Myer Lewkowicz in 1953. Under Seligman's tutelage, Lewkowicz learned all-things bagels, and the seeds of St-Viateur Bakery were first planted.

The Montreal Bagel Bakery would eventually close its doors in 1956, leaving Seligman and Lewkowicz without a venue to bake amazing bagels. But the break wouldn't last long, with the two joining forces to open up their own bakery on Saint Viateur street in 1957.

Interestingly, Jack Shlafman, son of the elder Shlafman/founder of Fairmount Bagel, is cited as an initial business partner of Seligman and Lewkowicz's bakery. According to the Musuem of Jewish Montreal, the store was actually first named "Fairmount Bagel" even though it was on Saint Viateur.

The partnership wouldn't last long, however, as the business partnership ended in the 1960s, with the lack of profit gained from bagels (which had yet to achieve it's future popularity) cited as the reason. At this point, the bakery officially became known as St-Viateur Bagel, and the legend was born.

St-Viateur Bagel: From Then 'Til Now

During St-Viateur's burgeoning years, Joe Morena would join the team in 1962 at the age of 15. Of Italian descent, Morena was able to fit to fully grasp the Jewish tradition of bagel-making, and even knew a fair amount of Yiddish, gaining him the nickname "Yosef."

Morena's ability with the bagel was recognized by Lewkowicz, and in 1972 he became part-owner of the business. Lewkowicz and Morena would work together to sling out bagels for another two decades, eventually opening up a second location in 1984.

At this point, St-Viateur had began holding the title the best bagel bakery "the best in the world," a recognition endowed by the Washington Post, also in 1984. If a foreign news outlet like the Washington Post thought so highly of St-Viateur, no doubt Montrealers felt the same.

But tragedy would strike a year later, as a fire devastated the original location in 1985. Despite the building itself being damaged (here's a visual) and many photos and historical documents lost, the bakery's wood-burning oven (cited as the last of its kind in Montreal) remained entirely intact.

Only a few months later, the original St-Viateur bagel would re-open, to the delight of the city.

About ten years later, St-Viateur would experience another time of hardship when Lewkowicz died in 1994. Morena, now partnering with Marco Sbalno, would keep the tradition going, and the two still head the operations of St-Viateur bagel today.

With recent events like the bogus-but-telling Twitter bagel war, it's easy to see how St-Viateur has overtaken Fairmount in terms of popularity. Again, everyone has their bagel-preference, but St-Viateur is definitely seen more throughout Montreal, likely due to the business savvy of Morena and Sbalno.

But while some may overlook Fairmount Bagel for St-Viateur, the success of the latter is arguably due to the latter. Without Shlafman, who knows if Seligman would have ever perfected the art of bagels and be able to teach Lewkowicz, then Morena.

So keep in mind the next time you're enjoying a St-Viateur bagel, that without Fairmount, St-Viateur may never have come to be.

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