September 26, 2019

The smell of baked dough wafts around the rehabbed stark white gas station whose entrance is hardly visible due to the people who surround it. They’re all waiting for a treat from the North in the charming South, a mouthwatering experience in the heart of a beautiful city where strangers become friends and bellies become full. Big Bon Bodega, Savannah’s newest bagel shop, boasts its unique menu and drink selection and has perfected the art of drawing a crowd day in and day out.

The shop’s owner, Kay Heritage, wholeheartedly believes in food as the universal love language. Born and raised in South Korea, or as she calls it, “the other South,” she was taught that there are two important things in life: food and family. Luckily for Savannah, she found them both here. Before Big Bon was known for one iconic New York City delicacy, it started with another, offering up fresh-baked pizzas from a trailer that travels the Lowcountry.

Big Bon Pizza trailer started as a fun idea to fi ll a need that Kay realized Savannah had and wound up being the most effective means to collaborate with local businesses and the community. The trailer has traveled thousands of miles and has picked up some loyal followers along the way. Mama Kay’s famous pizza made a name for itself by using only the freshest ingredients in the wood-fi red oven, from locally sourced produce to red oak straight off the Heritage family property. However, it’s not just about what Big Bon Pizza puts out, but also what they teach within. Kay prides herself on coaching her team on both business and life skills.

Cue the Bodega. Mixing a little bit of insanity and a lot of support, Kay created a home base for her team, a playground to train and learn. By recruiting her husband, three of her four children, and a dozen “work children,” she was able to not only set up shop, but also continue to give her employees the tools to one day start their own businesses. Kay owes the inspiration for the Bodega to her friend and Savannah local Donna, who sent her a text joking that she should open a wood-fired bagel shop. Kay ran with it. The leap from wood-fired pizza to wood-fired bagels wasn’t the hard part. That came from developing a bagel recipe that didn’t exist yet.

Anything that is good is not easy or cheap and doesn’t happen overnight. After many trials, Kay and her team created a bagel experience that can’t be found anywhere else. Beginning with two types of flour and a splash of malt powder, the dough is hand-formed and boiled in local honey and molasses. The bagels are then placed on a large wooden paddle and shuffled into a wood-fired oven burning red oak.

As it happens, bagels are one of my guilty pleasures, so the Bodega was at the top of my “Places to Try” list. My mom, who used to live in New York City, loves to brag about the fresh bagels she once had at her fingertips. Determined to show her that good bagels exist outside of NYC, we loaded up my car and made the short drive to Savannah. Pulling up to the Bodega, you are captivated by the white building surrounded by historical homes. The exterior displays two garage-style doors that off er visitors a glimpse inside before entering. The unique round edges of the building exude an almost art deco feel with a modern twist. Just like a cherry on top, the word “Bodega” outlined in red completes the look.

The interior is nothing short of minimalist perfection. Vibrant green succulents hanging from a light brown peg board wrap around the perimeter. The famed wood-fired oven sits in plain sight, with large pieces of red oak lying nearby so customers can see the freshness that’s creating their breakfast. Two open-air drink coolers stuffed with libations from near and far sit next to a nook reserved for those “convenience store necessities” that justify the Bodega name. Korean and American snacks, toothbrushes, Advil, and ketchup make up just a small part of the stock. The smell of their special dark roast Bodega blend of coffee floats around the room, and the star of the show is within our grasp: the bagels.

Baskets of toroid-shaped dough cover a wall and two of them had our names on them. As I carried the “912” and “Donna” bagels back to our table, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. The 912, whose name comes from Savannah’s area code, was anything but simple. The crispiness of the bagel’s crust yielded a soft doughy inside with hints of local honey sweetness. Thick slabs of bacon cut a savory line through a buttery-soft, fried egg layered with melted cheese. The only word to describe the experience is fresh. Each ingredient was handpicked for its freshness, and it shows. The Donna bagel, whose name pays homage to the friend with the original Bodega idea, shows off the Bodega’s take on an “everything” bagel. Oats, sesame, and poppy seeds coat the outer crust on the top and bottom. The look of the bagel isn’t even the best part. In between, smoked deli style turkey bursts with moisture, crispy bacon creates a crunch that is countered by the soft avocado beneath, and watercress greens lend a delicate texture and lightness. Both sandwiches were quickly devoured and left my mom and me deciding there was no way to choose the better of the two. With full bellies and smiling faces, we headed home, vowing to return soon.

Kay and her team have not only created a blooming business, but also an experience that makes even my mom believe that good bagels exist outside of the five boroughs. Next time you’re in the mood for a bagel, head down Bull Street to meet Kay, and try not to order the whole menu.

Written by Megan Shannahan & Barry Kaufman

Culture