Maybe it’s because the founders are Jewish, but more likely just because we all love to eat bagels, that we start every week at Custom Logos with Bagel Monday. It’s been a tradition for 23 years for our company to provide fresh bagels and assorted cream cheese for all of our staff as well as anyone else that happens by. It’s a great way to start the week and is our own special version of the “watercooler meetings” that go on every day around the world. As such, we thought it only proper to share the following article memorializing Murray Lender, a man who helped to “bagelize” America.
Murray Lender boasted of “bagelizing” America.
Mr. Lender, who died Wednesday at age 81, was chief executive of Lender’s Bagel Bakery, which began as a family business that in the 1950s started selling frozen bagels to hotels, restaurants and supermarkets.
By the 1970s, Lender’s had transformed the bagel, once a nosh found in Jewish enclaves, into a staple of the American diet.
The story begins in 1927, when Harry Lender, a Polish immigrant, opened an 800-square-foot bakery in New Haven, Conn. The business prospered, and his sons, including Murray, helped roll, boil, bake and distribute the product.
The bagel was mainly a weekend treat in those days. “All hell broke loose from Saturday morning until Sunday morning,” Mr. Lender told Maria Balinska in her 2008 book “The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread.” The family would sell thousands each weekend.
In part to get some downtime after a busy weekend of baking, the Lenders began freezing their bagels and then defrosting them for delivery to stores and restaurants. “We held our breath, waiting to see what the customers would say,” Mr. Lender said. It turned out customers didn’t mind, and in fact some preferred buying them frozen. A new era in bagels dawned.
A series of innovations modified bagels for a mass market. The recipe was modified to soften the bagels, sometimes described by comedians as “Jewish jawbreakers.” When customers complained of cutting their fingers while slicing half-defrosted bagels for toasting, Lender’s started preslicing them. The company introduced bagels in flavors that gentile customers associated with breakfast baked goods, such as cinnamon-and-raisin. Blueberry bagels lay far in the future.
Laborious hand-rolling of bagels was phased out in the mid-1960s when the company acquired some of the first bagel machines, which could churn out nearly 5,000 bagels an hour.
Though New Yorkers today sometimes look askance at frozen bagels, many might be surprised to learn that the city’s supermarkets were some of the first outside New Haven to offer Lender’s bagels.
As Lender’s grew, the gregarious Mr. Lender took on responsibilities for marketing and became the company’s public face, appearing in TV ads touting bagels to the uninitiated. “It’s not so easy telling people that after all those years of eating toast for breakfast, now there’s something better,” he said in one spot.
Mr. Lender liked publicity stunts. He once commissioned the creative director of the Connecticut Ballet to choreograph “The Dance of the Bagels,” which company executives performed in tutus. In 1984, Mr. Lender helped turn March into Frozen Food Month. He toured the country dressed as a penguin, visiting supermarkets and making presentations.
For a 1983 economic summit in Williamsburg, Va., he furnished bagel caricatures of world leaders in attendance. Margaret Thatcher’s had pearl earrings and red lipstick, the bagel hole where her mouth would be.By the time the Lenders sold their business to Kraft in 1984, frozen bagels generated $70 million in annual sales nationwide and Lender’s had 90% of the market, Mr. Lender said. He stayed on as spokesman for the brand.
In 1995, he went on a publicity tour, wearing a Roaring ’20s outfit of knickers and a motoring cap, visiting supermarkets on the East Coast in a 1927 Model A Ford, to commemorate the year his dad founded Lender’s.
“I never saw a person who didn’t like a bagel,” Mr. Lender told the Miami Herald. “What’s not to like?”