Going the Extra Mile for Nostalgia: Adam Hirsh & Priscilla Andrade of Exodus Bagels
Interview by L. Valena; Photography by Canyon Twin.
Adam Hirsh and Priscilla Andrade are the amazing couple behind Exodus Bagels. Exodus started in Jamaica Plain, MA as a pop-up concept at farmers markets and other spots in 2015. Their lovely retail location in Jamaica Plain opened in 2018. We spoke in their large production space in Roslindale, MA.
Tell me the story. How did this get started?
Priscilla Andrade: The genesis of Exodus. Wow, we're getting really biblical here. It's actually not meant to be biblical. I guess from my seat, part of it was we're both community members. We live in Jamaica Plain. We're connected to people in the community, through jobs, projects and other endeavors. Probably because we've built a family, there's a sense of urgency for us about building something that was our own, that we could create for ourselves, and bring all of these different threads of our lives and skills together.
Then it became more of an exploratory project. We started learning more and more about the history of Roxbury, and this exodus, or movement, of people, specifically from the Jewish community in that area. This is kind of the story of Boston- people moving, sometimes because they've been displaced or sometimes by choice. Moving around, and creating community and creating culture. That's where communities thrive- they're not localized by a zipcode, they're held together with relationships and communities of people. It was really driven by Adam's interest in creating something, and bagels were that thing. It started in our kitchen, and batch one was...
Adam Hirsh: ... terrible. It was one of those things. Actually the concept of bagels came after the exploration of other neighborhoods because it was really more about looking at what we could afford. The first concept was really a breakfast all-day place in Jamaica Plain, which felt very needed, particularly prior to five years ago. I have a background in hospitality, and I kept thinking what do you go the extra mile for? That's when the exploration for a specific thing started. We had great coffee, and a lot of other great things, but great bagels are just something this part of Boston was missing. I'm from LA, so it's not like I was spoiled growing up...
PA: I didn't know anything about bagels.
AH: It wasn't anything that was standing out, there were things that were fine. It's gotten better, but for a long time I found 'just fine' to be a common description of most food establishments in Boston- especially in Jamaica Plain. For a long time, things were just good enough.
We couldn't really afford the concepts that we were thinking of, so that's where the name 'Exodus' came from. It was about being displaced, and the history and current environment of displacement. And being part of that. We're doing our best to provide a product that everyone can afford. A bagel and cheese (and it's a four ounce bagel with a really healthy schmear of cheese) is three bucks. We feel like that's affordable enough to be an everyday experience, which was something else we really wanted. You owned a coffee shop- you understand the desire to become part of someone's day to day life. I want people in every form they come in- they're having a good day, they're having a bad day. You can really get to know someone that way.
PA: The Egleston Market was a really perfect manifestation of that. We were on this weekly cycle of showing up every Saturday and seeing regulars coming to a space. They were either regulars to the market, or they were regulars of Exodus, and that's what made the corner spot [in Jamaica Plain] possible. We had this foundational relationship with people who were coming to get their bagels. It was very road-show. There were five or six of us at any given time.
AH: It was really more like a rock band.
PA: Yeah. Packing up the trailer, making all this food. That was a really significant way of building relationships in the neighborhood. Having a child was a way of doing that. You bring your kid to preschool , and that's how we started to connect with some of the people who lived on our street, or were around the area. The Saturday market was where I personally started to develop more consistent relationships with people in the neighborhood- with the names behind you- they would come every Saturday and see some type of sandwich that was different, or some special. This is the music we're listening to this week. And this was really representative to me of why I wanted to become what it is. It's so we can have an opportunity to be building relationships with people, in the context of a city that is booming in terms of development, and changes of the neighborhood landscape. Condos left and right. JP has held on to this mom and pop identity for a really long time. I really feel strongly about being part of that, and maintaining that identity in some way, and stay connected with people. I'm not trying to trash talk other neighborhoods- that's just why I love JP.
When I moved to the Washington Street side it was huge. As a Puerto Rican woman, to hear Spanish and see Lanitx people in the community- it just felt like it had an identity more than other parts of the city. Being able to be part of that is a really big part of the drive for me. The Egleston Square market was a big part of that, the Roslindale farmer's market was a big part of that. We were in Commonwealth Kitchen in order to do that, which from the side lines taught us a lot about what we wanted in terms of kitchen space, and taught us what we could do. I have to credit them with giving us a lot of consistent insight about how to go, and how to do things well. Where we are now, at 2 McGraw in Roslindale, this space is really a dream factory as well as a bagel factory.
AH: What's the difference?
PA: They're kind of the same. The bagel is the vehicle to the dream, but the kitchen is wonderful- a huge facility which allows us to make these bagels, which in a lot of other instances bagel companies use a machine. I like to think that we also use a machine, but our machine is eight people. It's an assembly line, but it's all by hand, from the very beginning. So that's almost it's own little microcosm of community in the kitchen. Everything between the bagels also happens in the kitchen, but this space will ultimately become that breakfast all day opportunity. As we progress and build into it, there's always the next step that we're going towards, or building up into.
AH: I think if you pick up the story from the displacement, this is where we were displaced to. We landed pretty well, but nonetheless it was really about what we could afford that's out there? This really large facility came up- it had been used by a catering company which had been closed for like a year and a half. It was bare bones- it had two walk-in boxes that didn't work, and then a 40-foot hood which was pretty new. It was set for our production- it had everything we need. So we had this kickstarter where we said that the only way we could open a store in JP is if we go somewhere else and open something over there. So the idea was to come over here and turn this into our first store, and that's really what the public raise was about. We learned that we were naive about that.
You have to be!
PA: Right- let's be honest. If you knew, you'd never do it. That's right.
AH: And then you hear other people out there making excuses for you. “The city's giving them a hard time, there's a permitting thing.” It was really just that we weren't financially strong enough to make that leap. And for better or worse, we chose a certain tempo for our own growth, and a lot of that was so that we could stay real. It's ours to fuck up at this point. At least we have recognition, and the customers are there for us if we can keep it going. So we still have to look at how we keep this going. As a business owner, you know that just because it's moving, doesn't mean it's churning up cash and all that stuff. Externally, people have a lot of ideas about that.
PA: It was a really big step to go from a once or twice a week rock band or anywhere from 2-8 people who were just functioning on that weekly project, to being open 7 days a week and having over twenty people on payroll. Oftentimes people ask how we're doing it, and it's a complicated question to answer. Generally the common thread is that as we get better, we are presented with more challenges. As we grow, we now have more responsibilities and accountability.
AH: But sometimes that opportunity comes in a way that is not right. You know that short-term it might put out some fires, but man you just can't do it. Like I was saying, as we got more popular, we were small enough that we could be approached and low-balled. We were offered spaces in other neighborhoods where they would have done the build-out. And when you're sitting there asking yourself, how the eff are we going to do any of this? You have to consider it, but you can't do it.
She referenced these names on the wall behind us- they're all the people who backed us on kickstarter. We think about it all the time- we know we have to sustain ourselves to fulfill a promise that we made, because we want to, but we also have to sustain ourselves in good life. We've always tried to. The markets- that's a lot of work! They don't understand that you're bringing an entire bagel shop to them. When people ask if we want to come to the market, that's really what they want. They want you to show up, flow out the trailer, get four people around it, two people taking orders and making sandwiches on the spot. What they don't see, is the day before, making the dough. No big deal- you gotta make the food, but it's also loading the van, unloading the van, setting it up, breaking it down, bringing it back, washing it.
And god help you if you forgot something.
PA: And that happens all the time!
AH: We've shown up with no knives! But when it did for us, is when we started going into more of the pop-up realm, we could go into any space and figure it out. So that's why when we came into this space, it just felt like this incredible opportunity. The whole idea about this place, is we could really produce enough bagels for three stores, maybe more. But I know we could do three, if this is one of them. For over a year, we were in here with just a couple people. Me and chef, and then some people would show up to ball dough. It was a very small team. It seemed a little ridiculous that we would be here, in this submarine of a building. But this is the dreams, right here.
I think there's also something special about working in a space that you're growing into.
PA: That was the thing that was the immediate plug-in for this place. The size, the capacity of the kitchen. A lot of places we were looking at were just retail and didn't have a hood.
AH: Or they were maybe just big enough to produce bagels for that store. And you would think that's good, right? No man, not in this town- you gotta set yourself up to grow. The JP storefront was a pivot that we made. It just seemed too right to be wrong, even though there's been criticism of the choice, because this was the promise.
Tell me more about your place in JP.
PA: Like a lot of things, it's definitely a lot of blood sweat and tears, and serendipity. I will say that for me the energy to commit to that choice. Canto 6 was a place we used to go all the time, and we were sad when it closed, and it felt like a moment of faith that it would be available. And it was almost too good to be true.
AH: The timing of it, was that they left right when we took the lease here. But a year later, when there was still a ‘For Lease’ sign in the window, I called Ed [the landlord]. We spent about six months negotiating the lease. But in the end, it all came down to one thing that happened. Chef and I were doing all the pop-ups, and somehow one day we both forgot to lock the front door. It's a big place, and you're all focused on loading, that's something that can happen. So I get this call when we were packing up after the pop-up. It was Ed. He said, "Adam, I'm in your kitchen! You left the door unlocked!" And I was like “Oh my god, I'm so sorry!” But the thing is: our kitchen is immaculate, and it smells delicious. That showed him that we meant business. So he said "Let's figure this out- we can figure this out." And he took the leap with us. He has since passed away, so part of me wonders if he knew that. There's something about being on the other side of the counter in that space. It never gets old opening the grate, and feeling like I never could have seen this coming. And in reality, it was the dream from long before.
PA: I'm just so grateful to our customers, and to our team. Our team has been ride or die from the beginning, and that can be rare. I'm confident that we've been able to build that level of camaraderie and trust with our customers and staff. These relationships are priceless.
AH: Bagels are for everyone. Even thinking about the nub program- Nub Nation. We have this platter of little half-size bagels that kids know they get for free, and they don't have to wait in line. Their parents know that they can pacify them with this little thing, and that just came from knowing people.
The thing that makes people go the extra mile is the nostalgia. They want to bite into something and close their eyes about it. That's what the goal is- and the way to ensure that is to plant a seed into a child. From cradle to grave. You can't argue with anyone about their taste in whatever it is, if it's based in something from their childhood. Those are the things you chase for the rest of your life. It's all about how close they are to your earliest memories- so the things that take you there the easiest (usually music and food) are highly specific. People come in saying that they grew up in New York and that it reminds them of their favorite places growing up. These kids will someday be able to come to Exodus and say "This is the bagel I grew up with."
PA: There are kids we know now who are like 60% bagel! They've been coming since they were infants. And our customers have seen our own son grow up.
I love remembering the days when you guys were like running around JP with bags of your test bagels.
AH: There was that thrill of discovery- right? That's what the markets were all about too. People would line up before the market opened, and it was just amazing. We had created this Saturday morning thing.
PA: It became part of people's ritual. And that first opening day of the JP shop, it was pouring rain, and we just had freebie bagels. It was Sunday morning, and we put out the word for everyone to come and get a free bagel and cheese. And it was outstanding to me that people were waiting in line with an umbrella around the corner and down the block. That's not something that's easy to generate, and it certainly doesn't happen by just putting out a sign. That was years in the making.
Exodus Bagels is located at 3346 Washington Street in Jamaica Plain, MA.