Once Jacob Cohen, 32, starts talking about Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, it’s tough to get him to stop. The quality of the flour that is produced, the couple that owns the mill, the size of the orders that he’s making from there — it all comes out in an excited rush.
Yet before March of this year, he’d never heard of it.
Cohen and his wife, Alexandra, 29, began the pandemic as, respectively, a real estate agent and an advertising salesperson. Today, they’re professional bakers, producing close to 2,000 bagels every week under the banner of Kismet Bagels, described as New York on the inside, Montreal on the outside. They’re on the menu at Memphis Taproom, baked fresh for Di Bruno Bros. on Chestnut Street on the weekends and available for pick-up in Ardmore. Two people who didn’t really know how to bake this time last year would like to put a hot bagel (or 12) in your hands, soon.
The couple batted around lots of names when the venture grew to the point that such a discussion was necessary, and there were some strong contenders. But when Alexandra suggested Kismet, it was over. It didn’t just describe the bagels, they felt; it described their lives together.
“When I said that name, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s it,’” Alexandra said.
Jacob and Alexandra met as small children at the shore through their grandparents, who had been friends since the 1960s. Though the two lost touch for many years, pursuing careers on different coasts, kismet — and a well-timed run-in with Alexandra’s grandmother — eventually brought them back together.
“It’s not an arranged marriage, but it is might well be,” Jacob laughed. In March, the pair were working jobs that were utterly devoid of bagels. With more free time than ever, and with worries about the food supply chain, they decided to get in on a trend, and try out baking.
Jacob’s mother and grandmother are both “absolutely phenomenal” bakers, he said, but the gene had not made its way to his hands, and Alexandra was similarly bereft. Naturally, they bought 40 pounds of flour and eight pounds of yeast to start with.
When Alexandra woke up one day craving a bagel, both qua bagel and as a little slice of normalcy, Jacob — “naively and arrogantly,” by his own admission — decided to give it a shot. Though neither of them had ever baked, they’d followed instructions before, and it paid off: The bagels turned out wonderfully. Before long, they were dropping off batches for family members, wondering what’d taken them so long to start.
It was Alexandra who decided that the bagels should function as more than breakfast. Writing on their neighborhood Facebook group’s page, Alexandra asked if there was a way to donate bagels to hospital workers. They were guided instead to sell the bagels and donate the proceeds. Thirty orders later, the Cohens had dough all over their home.
One week later, the Northern Liberties Business Improvement District asked them if they’d like to try out a pop-up store, working out of a professional kitchen. Jacob was hesitant — this was just supposed to be a fun little thing, and it had already grown beyond that, at seven dozen per day — but they decided to give it a shot. There was a steeper learning curve than they realized, and a lot of assistance from a professional baker at Urban Village Brewing Company, but the pop-up was a success, and they raised $1,200 for Project Home.
It was around then that the Cohens realized they had something more than everything seasoning and homemade schmear on their hands. They’d always talked about running a business together, and though bagels had not topped the list of possibilities, other ideas they’d discussed never really stuck. Within days of the pop-up, Kismet Bagels was born, with an Instagram page to match.
Over the summer, the offers kept coming, and the Cohens put on pop-ups all over Philadelphia, and even back where it all started, at Steve and Cookie’s in Margate. They raised money for Black Lives Matter Philly and the PPE Fund for Sanitation Workers, and even as they made the decision to become a full-fledged business, charity remained a central ingredient.
This month, they’ll move into Maken Studios in Kensington, where they’ll call a commercial baking facility their own. Right now, they’re baking 140 dozen bagels per week, but they expect that number to jump.
Eight months ago, the Cohens panic-ordered more flour than they knew what to do with. Now, they want to be “the wholesale bagel brand of Philadelphia and beyond,” Jacob said.
“This is it,” he said.