On New Year’s Day at 9 a.m., Myles Roberson and Trevor Papsadora opened the doors to their then-6-month-old downtown SoMa restaurant, The Bagel Shop, to serve guests their first meals of 2024. On the menu: breakfast burritos with fluffy eggs, dry-aged bacon, sharp cheddar, tater tots, avocado ranch, house chipotle crema, peppers and onions. Papsadora and Roberson expected a quiet day, figuring the two of them together could handle the rush. But they drastically underestimated the siren song sung by the griddled tortilla on their Instagram announcement, and a line formed through the restaurant, snaking around the building on South Main Street. Papsadora, who’s typically in the kitchen, was pouring coffee and desperately writing down customer features like “glasses” or “sweater” on a paper bag to help identify them later. Roberson’s parents arrived to help. His dad worked the grill while his mother, wearing food-service gloves entirely too large for her fingers, made burritos.
“It was really cute,” Roberson said. “She was dancing the whole time. She loved it.”
The plan was to be open until noon, but after 45 minutes, all the burritos were gone.
Roberson and Papsadora are no strangers to long lines. Since debuting as a pop-up shop in July 2022, their bagels have been in high demand. Their first pop-up at Pink Olive, a boutique in SoMa, sold out. A few weeks later, they set up shop on a brutally hot Saturday at Eggshells Kitchen Co. in the Heights, and a line formed down the block on Kavanaugh Boulevard. The words “10 till sell out” became standard language on social media posts.
The brick and mortar opened in August 2023, and after an initial wave of grand opening bagel mania, Roberson and Papsadora experienced an ebb and flow more typical of restaurant life.
The Bagel Shop’s rapid ascension from pop-up shop to brick-and-mortar award winner seems like a dream scenario for any would-be business owner. Within six months of opening, the new eatery took home awards for Best New Restaurant; Best Breakfast: Best Deli/Gourmet To Go; Best Sandwich; and Best Bakery in the 2024 Arkansas Times Readers Choice poll.
We met up with Papsadora, Roberson and pastry chef Monica Chatterton to find out how they pulled it off, and how they plan to keep the momentum going.
None of the three is new to the industry. Roberson, a Little Rock native, moved to Maine — Papsadora’s home state — about 10 years ago. They started dating and worked together in many restaurants in the booming Portland, Maine, food scene while taking on a variety of creative side projects. Roberson made candles and sold them at markets. Papsadora sold vintage clothing and booked gigs performing drag.
“We’ve always taken a hobby and kind of turned it into something,” Papsadora said.
When Papsadora and Roberson moved to Little Rock together in 2020 and found bagels inexplicably absent from the Little Rock scene, Papsadora started making batches at home.
In April 2022 the pair launched a buzzworthy Instagram page, followed by a “Top Secret Bagel Society” email newsletter where 4,000 customers have opted in for sneak peeks at new menu items.
‘Like the pasta, babes’
In the beginning, they offered mainly bagels, schmears and coffee. Their bagels come plain, poppyseed, sesame, za’atar, everything, olive, salted chocolate chip or Cacio e Pepe (“Just like the pasta, babes. Shaved pecorino Romano, parm and some really good black pepper from Burlap & Barrel.”) Any can be paired with a cream cheese option — plain, scallion, veggie or vegan.
Skewing narrow with the pop-up launch menu allowed them to be meticulous. Papsadora, an avid cookbook collector, started a deep dive into bagel recipes.
“Myles was like, ‘I can’t do a single math equation’ so he made these magic equations of how we need to adapt the recipes,” Papsadora said, “and we had a full log and we’d change it daily.”
Contending with scale, they’d find, also meant simultaneously contending with Arkansas humidity. A dough attempt ahead of their first pop-up, they remember, left them with “this crazy blob that grew on the table, it was so insane,” Papsadora said. “We walked away and it became this huge thing that weighed 100 pounds.”
Now, they’ve found a consistent recipe they’re happy to claim as their own. The bagels are proofed for 24 hours, hand-rolled, boiled in malted water and baked fresh every day.
The comparison to bigger bagel scenes is inevitable, no doubt. But Papsadora said he relishes telling his team “these aren’t New York bagels. These are our bagels.”
“These are Little Rock bagels,” Roberson said with a laugh.
At the shop, customers wait in a line to order at the counter, or skip it to pick up orders they placed online. There are framed photographs of Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, The Incredible Hulk and Sigourney Weaver with Jonesy The Cat from “Alien” on the wall. And as a playful nod to fast-food culture, items like the popular egg-and-cheese bagel breakfast sandwich are served in foil wrappers on colorful rectangular lunch trays. Rather than having a phone for takeout orders ringing off the hook, they have a bagel hotline (501-295-4457) with information delivered by the Google Voice of a man with a cockney British accent.
Early concepts of the layout included a full pastry case. Enter Chatterton, who’d built a following of her own with her popular cottage bakery Flake Baby Pastry, selling variety boxes of her signature flakes (like the best Pop-Tart/Toaster Strudel imaginable), cookies and cakes at farmers markets and out of her carport in North Little Rock.
“We loved what Monica did so much,” Papsadora said. “We followed her on Instagram before we even lived here.”
Roberson said that while living in Maine, they got to see collaborative efforts in restaurants “where people are brought in and celebrated for what they do and the sum is greater than the parts individually.”
Chatterton was skeptical at first.
Years spent in restaurant work had acclimated her to “being taken advantage of in the industry,” she said. “I wanted to have a healthy amount of ‘It’s too good to be true.'”
But at the same time, Chatterton saw burnout approaching in her solo venture. Operating alone out of her home kitchen required her to tackle all the emails, dishes, baking, social media posts and shopping herself. It was isolating, she said, and sometimes she’d stay up all night baking so her pastries would be fresh for farmers markets the next morning.
“I truly felt like a gremlin person half the time,” she said. “It’s been really nice to have the stability, have the schedule and know what I’m going to bake.”
The best Buffalo tot you’ve ever had in your life
A lot of food that gets made at The Bagel Shop doesn’t make it past the window, Roberson said. “Something Trevor loves to say in the kitchen is, ‘Is it hot? Does it look good? Are you proud to serve it?’ ”
“It’s from a meme,” Papsadora clarified.
Similarly, Roberson likes to ask everyone working in the kitchen if whatever they’re making is going to be the best version of it the customer is ever going to have. “Myles is constantly saying that to everybody,” Papsadora said. “I’ll walk in and he’ll be like, ‘Is that the best Buffalo tot that person’s ever gonna have?’ Everyone’s like, ‘Yes it is!'”
“It’s the best feeling, though, when you do hear those things,” Chatterton said. She told a story of a pregnant woman who came into the shop and was brought to tears by a chocolate chip cookie.
“That’s the best compliment you can get — if someone has an emotional reaction to something you made. That’s kind of the goal,” she said. The Bagel Shop’s food is meant to reach the customer quickly, but it’s not fast food. Many menu items take days to prepare. Ingredients like smoked trout and certain schmears are special-ordered from the East Coast.
The Roast Beef Dipper sandwich, for one, took about five months to develop. The beef is dry-cured in house and slow braised for 12 hours. The finished result is “Italian beef sandwich meets a Mississippi pot roast kind of mom dinner,” Papsadora said, with shredded Italian beef, melted provolone cheese, banana peppers, house ranch sauce and au jus, piled on a bagel.
Papsadora said one of the most frustrating pieces of criticism he’s received was, “I wish they used real eggs,” which he overheard while he was painstakingly cracking 240 eggs for sandwiches. Undoubtedly, the critique arose because The Bagel Shop’s eggs are unusual, transformed into a delicate patty by way of a Japanese steaming technique. First, the eggs are slowly tempered with steamed milk and poured into buttered molds. Then they go into a steam-filled oven and are baked gently at just over 100 degrees. The process is intensive, and it took a long time to get it just right. To understand why it’s worth the fuss, add the shop’s bacon, egg and cheese sandwich to your 2024 breakfast goals and bear witness to the impossibly fluffy egg patty, topped with dry-aged bacon and a thick slice of melty Cooper sharp cheddar that cascades down the bagel bun.
“I wasn’t willing to change it because it’s so delicious,” Papsadora said.
That kind of attention to detail, Chatterton said, is something she can relate to. That chocolate chip cookie recipe — which in this writer’s opinion was already perfect — got a tweak which somehow made them better.
“There’s just kind of that feeling around here that we can always be making [things] better. It feels good,” she said.
All three are quick to recognize the wider crew at The Bagel Shop.
“I love our team,” Chatterton said. “We have a really solid crew right now, and I don’t think we could do it with any less.” Before Christmas, they were playing Cher’s “Christmas” album in the kitchen every day, and a team member said they couldn’t wait until next year to play that album again.
“It was just this moment of like, ‘Wow, we’re really building a team of people that see what we do, and they want to do it with us and they’re planning to be with us next year.’ It’s just really special,” Papsadora said.
Aspirations are high. In February, The Bagel Shop will debut a monthly Sunday supper club ticketed dinner party called “‘Fancy Place,’ a dining establishment” featuring Italian and American bistro-style menus reflective of what Papsadora cooks at home. Chatterton will be offering a dessert menu, there will be a wine element and, ever inventive with nods to pop restaurant culture, tables will feature “white table cloths with paper on them like Macaroni Grill,” Papsadora said.