March 03, 2020 News & Features » Cover Story

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Wheel of Fortune 

The addictive thrill of Nate’s Bagel roulette.

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Scott Elmquist/File

In the year and a half since Nate’s Bagels opened, I’ve become a regular, but there’s nothing regular about what I take home in the little brown bag. I owe Nate’s for introducing me to a brave new world of unexpected surprises when it comes to food ordering. Now all other dining experiences seem dully predictable by comparison.

Nate’s game of bagel roulette feels almost like a work of performance art. From the jazzy riffs on my order to the disorganized blending of register duties with coffee-making to the slow-motion bagel wrapping (Is the staff stoned or just extraordinarily mindful?) Nate’s invites me to enjoy a different kind of dining experience, one filled with risk and drama, a surreal journey down the rabbit hole of bagel wonderland.

Most Thursday mornings I stop by Nate’s with my workout buddies, a reward for burning calories on a fast 20-mile bike ride. As a creature of breakfast habit, I thought my standard order was pretty straightforward: Whole wheat everything bagel, toasted, with lox cream cheese.

Oh, but I was wrong, so staid and closed-minded. Nate’s was clearly frustrated with my pathetic predictability and wanted me to branch out. Thus began our ongoing game of bagel roulette. I order, and we spin the wheel. Sometimes it’s what I ask for. Almost half the time, it’s not.

Maybe I get a plain everything bagel instead of whole wheat. It might be toasted, or not. A few times it sent me home with a full-on lox bagel, including onions, capers and tomato. My husband’s Jersey Turnpike may come on a random new bagel flavor, or not toasted. A coffee-drinking member of the bike gang always asks for a cortado, but often receives a latte instead.

At first I thought this was just early glitching. My order on opening day wasn’t correct, nor was the second a week later, but I brushed it off. Most new restaurants need a grace period to settle into smooth operations, and I assumed Nate’s would work it out. I wrote a happy review for Style and waited for improvement.

But a few months later, Nate’s was still offering me a bewildering variety of options. So I got more serious about winning this game.

I thought I was losing at bagel roulette because I just wasn’t being clear. Maybe it wasn’t Nate’s, maybe it was me. But I am a smart person, I know food and I know restaurant operations. I could fix this.

I tried being more specific in my order: “Whole wheat everything bagel, not plain everything. And with just the lox cream cheese, not the full lox sandwich.” The irrelevant details seemed to confuse them even more.

Then I tried unwrapping the bagel and checking it before I left. This took time when I was often in a rush. Returning my bagel interrupted the ever-present lines. Not only did the staff seem sincerely heartbroken at the mistakes, which made us all sad, but they always dumped my problem bagel in the trash. Preventative action seemed less wasteful all around.

I shifted to asking the counter person to read my order back to me. Although the confirmation was usually spot-on, the wily bagel makers kept slipping me creative options anyway.

Then I had a flash of brilliance. I asked for the receipt, to double check that the register was sending the bagel makers the right details. The receipt said, simply, “bagel with schmear.”

That’s when I tried calling Nate directly to ask what I could do differently. We talked of sadness and lox-based menu changes. We delved into the nuances of toasting a New Jersey bagel, which should be an invisibly slight warming that can easily be mistaken for nontoasting. When the call ended I felt heard, but no closer to clarity.

The order-taking staff still abandons the lined-up customers to wander around making and handing out the wrong coffees and bagging the wrong bagels. The bagel-makers still wrap in slo-mo. It’s still hit or miss on what I get in the bag.

So now, I’m all-in on this game. The wheel spins on Thursday morning, and I wait to see where it lands. I keep score, because a gambler should always know their winning percentage. Happily, I’m on the upside, with about a 60% success rate.

Maybe this game is intentional. Or maybe Nate’s is just way better at bagel-making than operations or service. But one thing is clear, I’m never going to win.

Roulette is a game of chance, and somehow Nate’s has convinced me to keep playing.

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