Rebelle Artisan Bagels
Milena Pagan is a chemical engineer with a vision for a new business in Providence: Rebelle Artisan Bagels. A Rhode Island resident since 2013, Milena never had formal training as a baker, though in early high school her love for cooking led her to consider culinary school. Under pressure to “study a ‘career,’” however, Milena left her native Puerto Rico for the Massachusetts Institute for Technology to pursue her undergraduate degree, and she has only recently come back around to her love for crafting food.
“I really, really like [handmade] bagels … and it’s something that was missing in Rhode Island,” Milena says. “I figured I could probably do it really well, and then when I did, that was, like, ‘OK! I’ll keep going.’”
Chatting with Milena over coffee on Benefit Street, I am struck by the Rebelle founder’s determination and passion for this emerging project. Milena taught herself to make bagels at home, managing to refine a recipe within three months (with a little help from her chemistry background). With the numbers put together and a recipe that worked, she quit her corporate job on November 7, 2016, to begin spreading the word about her ultimate Rhode Island bagels.
Milena’s first test group was at her local hair salon. Over bagels and pastries each morning, enthusiastic bagel eaters quickly connected Milena with local entrepreneurs from Borealis Coffee Roasters and Revival Brewing to PVDonuts.
Since November 2016, Milena has been moving at a “breakneck pace,” since January hosting regular pop-ups at the Hope Street Farmers’ Market, Stock Culinary Goods, Federal Hill Pizza and several other Providence food establishments. To make the bagels, Milena used kitchen space at the Hope & Main food business incubator in Warren. The support of the community has been overwhelming.
“When you’ve had ‘a real New York bagel,’ it forms a very clear memory in your head—and people are looking to replicate that experience.” When curious customers visit a Rebelle pop-up to test the goods, and what they taste matches their memory of a New York bagel, “they’re a little blown away,” says Milena.
Now, after eight months, plus a Kickstarter campaign (which exceeded its fundraising goal by almost $2,500), construction of a permanent storefront space for Rebelle is under way. With mostly cosmetic work left to transform a former East Side corner store on Camp Street into Rebelle Artisan Bagels, Milena says they are on track to open their doors in August.
This new store will allow Milena to bake more volume and offer a greater variety of products and sandwich combinations, as well as provide a physical location where customers can gather.
“I love the idea of building a spot where people just come to chill and make it a part of their day,” Milena says. Whether it’s just for breakfast, to host meetings or to study, she says, “We really want people to come every day.” Beyond bagel sandwiches (to be constructed with house-cured fishes, homemade salads and fresh cream cheeses) and space for socializing, Rebelle’s storefront will also boast a pastry case, coffee from Borealis and other to-go products like juices.
The day after Milena and I met, I was lucky enough to attend Rebelle’s first-ever tasting (different than a pop-up) at Stock Culinary Goods, partnered with Campus Fine Wines, and sample some bagels and spreads for myself. While Rhode Islanders coming to Rebelle often seek a quintessential New York bagel, Milena’s favorite bagels are actually Montreal bagels. Rebelle bagels are a magnificent meeting of New York and Montreal, with the crust and density that comes from New York–style boiling married with the skinnier size and easier chew of those at St. Viateur and Fairmount (two of Milena’s favorite Montreal bagel eateries).
Noshing on plain and rye bagels for dipping (along with bagel chips) and luxurious vegan cream cheese and egg salad, attendees alternated between catching up with their friends and gathering around the tasting table to listen and contribute to discussions about mayonnaise content, flavor profiles and the favorites of the various samples.
“What would you change about the chicken salad?” Milena prompted one of her seasoned regulars. “How is your [recipe] different?”
The room became giddy with excitement as Milena began to arrange piles of halvah chocolate cookies next to the rhubarb and cherry hamantaschen cookies. The halvah cookies were among the dreamiest confections I have ever tasted. I kept sneaking back to the table for just one more half of the thin, chewy, complexly sweet cookies with drizzled chocolate, oozing as they settled to room temperature. Milena tells me she hopes they might become the store’s signature cookie.
The event was a wild success, an outcome foretold by the sell-out within three hours of distribution to the Rebelle mailing list. As a result, Milena thinks Rebelle will try to continue doing tastings every Tuesday until the store opens. “It’s a really good way to stay engaged with the customers and make sure that they don’t forget about us. But it’s also really fun for me, and it’s lower pressure than doing a pop-up. We already have a lot of regulars, which is surprising because people have to go out of their way to find us. We know them by name. We know what they like, we know what they don’t like. It’s so fun!”
Milena says that she would describe Rebelle Artisan Bagels as creative, consistent and unexpected. Bagel-eaters will undoubtedly find excitement and new ideas in the confections and bagel sandwiches that Rebelle offers, yet they will also find a comfortable rhythm with this reliable, small-scale operation that cares so deeply about its customers and community.
In many ways, it’s Milena’s spirit and intuition that her business is beginning to embody. With a name like Rebelle (meaning “rebel” in French) it comes as no surprise that some spunk and wit are inherent to Milena’s bagels.
“I don’t like to do what people expect of me,” she observes, “and I take the same approach in the food.”
To find out more about Rebelle and when and where you can try one of their bagels, visit RebelleArtisanBagels.com. Top photo by Atomic Clock. Photos below from Rebelle’s first official tasting by Francesca Gallo.