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Around the Jewish World in Costa Rica, Bagel Entrepreneurs Offer Their Products to a New Market

February 18, 2005
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It used to be that Costa Ricans didn’t have many choices for breakfast: They would almost always start the day with gallo pinto, a hearty combination of leftover black beans and rice, with fresh cilantro thrown in for flavor. Now the Central American country has another option — bagels.

About 4,000 bagels are made here each day — in a country of about four million — and three companies are competing for the morning nosh market. Two other bagel companies have closed.

It’s not an outright bagel war, exactly, but Costa Rica still is an unlikely venue for the occasional bagel battle.

The two biggest bagel bakeries are owned by Americans who suffered bagel deprivation when they moved here. Boston Bagel, which opened in 1997, is owned by sesame-bagel aficionado David Feingold.

Bagelman’s, which opened in 2001, is owned by a husband-and-wife team, Malcolm and Isabel Mathison. He likes his bagel topped with poppyseeds; her favorite is whole wheat.

“We lived in Connecticut for seven years, right on the border with New York, and basically when we came back down here as a family we started saying ‘Oh, there are no bagels here,’ ” Isabel Mathison said.

Feingold said he “sort of missed bagels” when his wife’s job with the World Bank brought them to Costa Rica from Washington in 1996. The bagel business was booming in the United States, so Feingold figured he’d find a market in Costa Rica, which tries to emulate many American trends.

He also was encouraged by the fact that some 3,000 Jews and 15,000 expatriate U.S. citizens live in Costa Rica, creating a potential market.

Travel writer Elliot Greenspan, a native New Yorker who loves everything bagels, has lived in Costa Rica for 13 years, four of them before the first bagel store opened.

Until then, he would bring bagels back from his trips to the United States, carrying “as big a bag as you can get stuffed in an overhead compartment,” he said.

But they wouldn’t last long: Friends would descend on Greenspan’s house and polish them off.

Boston Bagel, Feingold’s first entrepreneurial venture, filled that void.

“When we first opened, people walked into the shop and yelled ‘Bagels in Costa Rica! Wow!’ ” Feingold said.

A former official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Feingold heads a local Reform synagogue, B’Nai Israel, which has about 250 members. He learned bagel-baking at a store in his native Boston..

Isabel Mathison is Costa Rican and her husband is English; neither is Jewish. They learned to make bagels at a Chicago-based chain also called Bagelman’s, though they tweaked the formula for the Costa Rican market.

Malcolm Mathison has a long business history in Central America, not all of it glorious.

In the late 1990s he formed the Central American Coffee Company through mergers and acquisitions, claiming it was the region’s largest coffee grower and exporter.

But with the global coffee market tanking, the company failed in early 1999, leaving millions of dollars in debts. Allegations of fraud swirled, and top officials in Guatemala and Honduras were indicted.

Top executives in the region’s coffee industry are still bitter about Mathison, who they believe damaged the industry’s credibility. Mathison denies any wrongdoing, though he admits he never gave authorities in Guatemala and Honduras the opportunity to question him.

Feingold started with a traditional bagel store where he sold bagels, accessories and little else. Last year, he sold the store to a caterer — who belongs to the local Orthodox shul of 2,500-members — and now focuses on baking.

Most of his business, though, is making dough for a local pizza chain. Making the business work, he conceded, “has been rough.” The first Costa Rican bagel store, an Israeli-owned enterprise called DeliMundo, didn’t even last two years, he noted.

The Mathisons offer their bagels in full-service restaurants, five at last count. Soups and salads are as much an attraction as the bagel sandwiches, including some with bacon or ham.

The bagels are different, too: Feingold’s are small, hard and chewy, while the Mathisons’ are larger, softer and lighter. Greenspan says both are adequate substitutes for the bagels he ate growing up in New York.

A Guatemalan chain, Bagel Factory, recently opened three sandwich shops in Costa Rica, though it contracts out its bagel making. That shows that at least some people think the Costa Rican bagel market has room for growth.

Neither Feingold nor the Mathisons, however, think there’s room for more competition.

Now that bagels are available, Greenspan says life in the tropics is easier than before — but not yet perfect.

“You still can’t get a good knish, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

But he reproached himself for wanting too much, too soon.

“Baby steps, baby steps,” he reminded himself.

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