Flavors: Laughter Gives Rise to The Sourdough Bagel
Planning and laughter gave rise to The Sourdough Bagel during the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 15, 2020, owner and baker Bonny Perkins expanded her business into a storefront in downtown Billings to sell her handcrafted sourdough bagels. On that day, Governor Steve Bullock had just allowed food businesses in Montana to reopen to 50% capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening a physical space was the “next logical step” for her business. “We had the storefront and everything ready to go, approved to open March 10th, only to have everything shut down due to COVID. Of course, I hunkered down with everyone else. We couldn’t open the shop. I couldn’t even get flour,” she said. “Thank goodness I wasn’t open. That would have been disastrous.”
In 2017, Perkins started making bagels in a friend’s commercial kitchen on Montana Avenue. She sold her wares through custom orders, and at the Yellowstone Farmers Market, mostly relying on social media to communicate with customers, announcing specials and features.
Her husband built her a cart that she could pull with a bicycle. “I knew I was just going to deliveries and a Subaru was not cool enough. I needed something better than a Subaru to deliver to people’s houses to deliver their bagels,” she shared jokingly. The cart is “way better than I would have ever imagined.” It now acts as the coffee stand in the shop.
After Grand Bagels closed, Perkins wanted to fill the void. “We didn’t have an option for traditional, real bagels, and my family and I loved Grand Bagels. We’d go there on our way out of town, for every road trip, just to get lunch or breakfast. I missed that. Somebody had better open a bagel shop,” she thought.
She went to the library and checked out every book she could find that was “related to bread, bagels, or European baking.” At that point, she was not anticipating a storefront, wanting something different, “a place where people could come to for more than just bagels.” She recalled a recent customer that came in on a snowy morning who said she was having a bad morning, and how glad she was that the shop was here, and how good that made her feel. She keeps tabs on her regular customers and saves empty plastic containers so she can offer them to children as bath toys.
For eight months she tested recipes, making a dozen bagels each day. “I had some pretty generous guinea pig friends. I tried to do it scientifically with labels, and mystery bags and they would tell me what they thought,” utilizing her education as a researcher and data analyst. Also, having lived in New York for ten years, gave her insight into what a good bagel should taste like.
“I couldn’t anticipate what the response to our bagels would be. We opened our business about two weeks before our farmer’s market. I think the first day we sold out in 45 minutes,” realizing she needed to make more, soon hitting her maximum capacity at 500 bagels, “We would sell out in two or three hours, and there would be a line of people before we opened. It was so flattering.” The community support has presented Perkins the challenge of keeping up with customer demand.
Perkins continues to use the starter she developed three years ago. Unfortunately, the starter she had inherited from her great grandmother had expired. Her great grandparents had opened an A &W in Worland, Wyoming. When her great grandmother heard that Perkins was opening a bakery, her advice was to put a cot in back for naps.
The Sourdough Bagel is open from 7:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. “I usually get here, unless I have a huge order, between 5:30 and 6:00. The mornings are really easy because all I have to do is bake and boil. All the bagels are already done,” she said. Perkins makes between 250 and 500 bagels each day.
Making a bagel is a three-day process that involves growing the starter on day one, followed by shaping and rising the dough the next day, and finishing with boiling and baking on the third day. “All of our bagels start off as plain dough, and we add flavors to that.” She combines sourdough starter, flour, Pink Himalayan sea salt, barley malt and water, forming a dough that rises in the refrigerator overnight. “You can see on the crust all the teeny bubbles and that’s from cold fermentation.” The slow ferment results in a more flavorful bagel - crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside.
Nikki Tetrault is obviously a valued employee and friend. During the interview, Perkins credited Tetrault for doing much of the work at the bakery – posting on social media, making the spreads, and attending to customers. Tetrault shared, “The best part of working here is working with Bonny. She’s a phenomenal human being, and I am extremely grateful that she asked me to work with her. Our days are really fun and we laugh a lot.” The two knew each other casually in high school, later becoming good friends as team members on the Magic City Rollers. Being on the derby team has helped them work as an effective team.
Three Little Figs is Tetrault’s favorite sandwich “It’s ooey-gooey and melty but it’s every finger lickin’ bit of it,” she said of the bagel sandwich made with smoked ham, rosemary-honey cream cheese, Dalmatia fig spread and melted Asiago cheese. The number one best seller is the Great Salmon Caper with your choice of bagel with smoked salmon, onion and chive cream cheese spread.
Roland Newrones drove in from the West End of Billings for his weekly “treat” of a breakfast sandwich. He said, “I like their breakfast sandwiches but they also have a really good pretzel bagel with mustard butter, but I tend to mix it up.” Newrones loves the sourdough bagels, and “the people who make them.”
On this day, our spirits and appetites have been leavened with not only a holy bagel but with the giggles and laughter from The Sourdough Bagel even during this COVID-19 pandemic.