The Unlikely Bagel Star of North Carolina
After the recession in 2008, a former banker set out to give Charlotte, NC bagels as good as New York's.
In Charlotte, Ron Rippner is something of a celebrity. "It's the Poppy's guy!" people usually say when they see him. Rippner is the owner of Poppy's Bagels, in Charlotte. If you find it unusual that a bagel shop owner would rank as high as, say, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the famous person-sighting-enthusiasm scale, that's understandable. Perhaps that's because no other bagels in Charlotte have created the buzz and following that Poppy's has. To see Rippner at work, keeping up with the frenetic pace, interacting with customers, ringing up orders, and working with food, you would think he has always been in the business, but bagels were not originally part of his life plan.
For 15 years, Rippner was an art dealer at a prestigious art gallery in New York City. In the early 2000s, he moved into the banking industry, and made a healthy living in mortgages. But in 2008, Lower cost of living and warmer weather lured Rippner and his wife to North Carolina. Since Charlotte is a banking city, "I figured there would be tons of jobs there." For a time, Rippner found work in mortgage lending. Then the banking crisis hit and the company he worked for closed. Rippner was then in his early 40s and had grown tired of working for other people.
Along with most New Yorkers, Rippner was always seeking a good bagel. There's no shortage of bagel shops in Charlotte, but nothing came close to comparing to what he'd known in New York.
"I kept wishing there was a good bagel here," Rippner says. "So, I thought I could figure out how to make good bagels, and I also thought it would be a good business. People said it was a northern thing, but I thought there were enough transplants to make it work. I also thought southerners would like them." With his wife's support, he took a leap of faith and invested his life savings to start Poppy's. He found a great location and signed a lease, but hadn't yet learned how to make the bagels.
After learning all he could watching bagel-making videos on the Internet, he made a trip up north, to New York and New Jersey. Rippner went to a variety of bagel shops until he found his favorite. "I asked the owner if I could pay him to teach me," and he spent a week learning every aspect of bagel making.
When he returned to Charlotte, he knew he would use quality ingredients and make the bagels the authentic way, boasting a crusty exterior and a slightly chewy inside.
Contrary to popular belief, New York water is not the key to great bagels. Rippner says any city water will do. It's the process that determines the end product. Poppy's makes fresh dough daily. Other places use frozen. Poppy's does the all important two step process of boiling and baking. Some competitors skip the boiling.
The dough is made by mixing 100 pounds of flour, with salt, yeast, and malt. The dough is spread out on a large table and cut into strips. Machines then portion out weighted, bagel-sized pieces, and then shape the bagels into their distinctive round form.
Next, it's onto boards which go into covered rack stand to proof, and then into the cooler to stop the rising process. After at least 24 hours of cooling, they head into a boiling water kettle.
Finally, the bagels are put on boards that go into a 500-degree oven. After baking for several minutes, the boards are flipped and the bagels cook directly on hot stone shelves. The final product is arguably equal to or better than New York bagel royalty, like H & H or Ess-a-Bagel.
Since opening in 2010, Poppy's has been a hit with locals. "We were lucky that we were always able to pay our bills," say Rippner. "People were excited and word got around." Poppy's became a family business, drawing its name from Rippner's kids' nickname for their grandfather. His mom Georgeana, with whom he was extremely close, worked at the store. Sadly, Georgeana passed away last year, which was an enormous loss for Rippner, as well as the customers who had grown to love her. But their joint passion for the business is reflected in the close community Poppy's has created.
Regulars recognize each other. There's a sort of kindred spirit among those who love Poppy's. The lines can be very long, but customers are more than willing to wait. In order to keep up with demand, bagels are made several times a day.
Although Rippner now has trusted employees who make bagels for Poppy's, he's in his store often, doing whatever needs to be done.
Poppy's is so popular, that he's considering a second location "when the time is right." For now, "It's just so nice to be part of a community the way we are."