There’s a spirit in The Bagelry and Brew, the restaurant on Foothill Boulevard, that brings to mind that song from Cheers, Sometimes you wanna go…where everybody knows your name..
In the middle of the Covid pandemic, the iconic restaurant, Sal’s Bagelry, changed hands and two new owners brought a fresh sensibility to a favorite haunt for many of us in La Verne. Building on the community that existed at Sal’s Bagelry, Annie Seel and Colleen Lorack are bringing in fresh ideas and a fresh look to a renamed Bagelry and Brew.
Over the years, hiking and bicycling groups could frequently be seen on the sunny patio at The Bagelry, sipping morning coffee or tea, munching bagels or breakfast burritos.
For two decades and more, for example, the La Verne Trail Trekkers have concluded their Monday (and often Friday) hikes at the Bagelry for a cool down session of coffee and conversation, as the iconic snack shop transformed from The Bagelry to Sal’s Bagelry and now to The Bagelry and Brew.
But this latest change has come in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic when life as we knew it turned upside down.
When the pandemic struck, Marshall Canyon and most other hiking trails in Los Angeles County were closed and we scattered to whatever walking route appeared safe. Without the company of so many members on the trail, coffee at the Bagelry became an important gathering.
Then in the middle of the pandemic, Annie and Colleen became the newest owners to receive us on their patio. They were energetic and welcoming and I wondered how they remained so gracious as they embarked on a new enterprise in the middle of a pandemic.
“It was the hardest thing we had ever attempted…the difficulties exceeded anything we had ever had to do,” Annie Seel said.
But it was also “an adventure!” she declared.
Sal’s Bagelry was an iconic bagel shop that had grown into a family pizza restaurant in the evenings. But Sal Perotti died a number of years ago and the family wanted to sell the business. Annie had been a long time customer of Sal’s Bagelry and saw it as an opportunity.
But it was a challenge to take over an existing restaurant, impose their own vision of what it could be, design a strategic plan. And of course, to retain and honor the history of the Bagelry. All in the middle of the pandemic.
The pandemic had forced the city and county to create new rules and regulations as the situation changed almost daily, making planning and scheduling difficult. In addition, “Restaurants usually have patterns,” Seel said, “when they are busy, when not, when people come in. With the pandemic, all that is out the door.”
They did not have the luxury of closing The Bagelry (to our deep relief) when they took over, so changes have come gradually, starting with gentle redecorating in bathrooms and on walls. They added a picture of palm trees, flamingos and a wall of fern stencils, many plants. Over the months, Southern California and its connection to the past became a visual statement of Seel’s and Lorack’s determination to honor the past at the Bagelry and to add a refreshing touch to the decor.
The hardest challenge was also due to the pandemic, the difficulty of finding people to staff the Bagelry. And even when they were able to hire servers and cooks, the pandemic complicated things when quarantine requirements kept people at home. For a while, they were forced to close the Bagelry on Mondays until they found someone to staff the kitchen. But still, on a recent Monday, Seel could be seen manning the cash register while Lorack interviewed a job applicant.
The phenomenon was nicknamed the Great Resignation, when many people did not return to the work force. (Seel and Lorack themselves followed that pattern, leaving the work force to become business owners.) In one summer month in 2021, the number of people quitting their jobs rose to 4.3 million, outnumbering layoffs by employers, who cut 1.3 million jobs in August. Staffing remains their greatest challenge. “Staff is the most important thing,” Seel explained, “making sure they are well trained and that they are heard, treating them as family.”
They met and became friends while working at the upscale restaurant Ruth’s Chris Steak House, both uniquely qualified and extremely well equipped with experience and knowledge. Both grew up in families that owned restaurants in Southern California and in Hong Kong. From a young age, it was in their blood. Both started working in restaurants from the age of 15 and through the years of high school, college. Even in the midst of a career in financial management, Seel was always involved somehow with a restaurant.
There were other coincidences…both had attended the same high school and in college, both studied art history, Lorack as a major, Seel as a minor field. They agreed that communication of their vision had to be done visually.
That vision is to provide a space that is as comforting as a day at the beach, where friends can meet up and where families can happily bring their children. A comfortable space, good food and a series of family events are envisioned. Barring complications from the pandemic, there is a Family Game Night on tap for February 11. On that Friday, families are invited to bring their children and favorite games. There will be instruction to learn the games as well and in a future Music Bingo Night, a DJ to preside. They are considering a wine tasting event and even giving space to local artists or small businesses to showcase area talents.
They are at the seven month mark on this adventure and are grateful for the welcoming support they have received from the city and from customers. La Verne, for example, sponsors Eat La Verne, an event that features local restaurants. And when N95 face masks became a requirement in the restaurant, the La Verne Chamber of Commerce provided some 100 masks at a time when they were not that easy to acquire in large numbers.
“When you earn their trust,” Seel said of the city, “they have been supportive, so kind, so welcoming. We are getting encouraging feedback that tells us we are moving in the right direction.”
“The pandemic has reduced human contact but people still want to hang out,” Seel said, “and I want to bring back a place where people can come and stay for a while.”
“I want to thank everybody for being patient with us. We came into this with a dream but without a chance to do anything in advance. So all our changes and adjustments had to be made while we were in here. So I want to thank everybody in the neighborhood for continuing to be patient as we improve and update our menu to healthier and inclusive items.”
In the meantime, checkout their facebook page for updates and keep February 11 in mind for a Family Game Night from 6 to 9 pm at The Bagelry and Brew!