It’s mid-morning on a Friday and you stroll in for a bagel and a chat with Denver’s newest bagel-shop proprietor. You find a spot in line—pretty far back, since the line stretches to the back door. Enjoying the savory, doughy smells and warm, neighborly vibe, you watch through kitchen windows as bagels and lox are prepared both quickly and with exquisite care.
Now Josh Pollack, owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, strolls up smiling, hand extended. He offers a slice of salmon, freshly shipped from Scotland. “How do you like it?” he asks. Samples get passed down the line. Everybody’s day has just taken a delicious turn for the better.
Now this, you think, is just like one of those real-deal delis in New York City.
“The purpose of the Business Plan Competition is to empower graduates by giving them the networks and the confidence to start their own new venture. The relationship doesn’t end there; we help our alums throughout their path to success and then hope they come back and mentor the next wave of students. Josh embodies this philosophy, and all that is great about the Business Plan Competition and the Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship. We are delighted to participate in his success and look forward to involving him as a role model and mentor to others.” — Madhavan Parthasarathay, PhD, director, Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship
Pollack begins to tell you the story of this place. He emphasizes that it took a coalescence of ingredients—family recipes, entrepreneurial drive, culinary passion and University of Colorado business programs—to bring about this standout deli. “Standout” is no understatement, considering Rosenberg’s opened six months ago and has already reaped praise from the New York Times, The Denver Post, 5280, Westword and Company Week. As if lines out the door, here in the heart of the historic Five Points neighborhood, aren’t statement enough.
Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, 725 E. 26th Ave., took off from day one. Pollack planned to hire eight employees in the first year. He’s already hired 24, and the staff keeps growing. “We almost skipped our first-year projected growth—right out of the gate,” he says. “It’s a good problem to have. … It’s a funny thing about business plans, they’re a living organism. They’re not chiseled in stone.”
Business School plays key role
Pollack’s business plan took shape in the Entrepreneur Program at the CU Denver Business School. Much like an authentic New York-style bagel when the right water and flour are combined, his plan gained substance and texture in the annual Jake Jabs Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition. Pollack finished second in the 2012 event (then known as the Bard Center for Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition), pocketing $2,500 toward his bagel-store ambition.
“It’s common that people talk about whether you’re a book-smart or street-smart person,” says Pollack. “When you’re a business person, you have to be both. That’s what the Entrepreneurship Program, in conjunction with the Business Plan Competition, really taught you. They drill you on the cocktail pitch and the elevator pitch, being able to pitch your business so people want to sit down with you.”
Pollack, who first earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration (finance emphasis) at CU Boulder, says he always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he planned to go into real estate or finance. His maternal grandfather had been a visionary—growing a successful real estate business in New York City. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, leaned toward blue-collar occupations and farming. “I like to say I got the best of both worlds,” says Pollack, who was born in New York and raised in New Jersey.
His first entrepreneurial venture was an event production company. The startup went well, but Pollack didn’t see a long-term future: it was a young man’s game with a lot of physical labor and out-of-town touring. With his 30s approaching, Pollack seized on his real passion: food. “Anytime I travel, I eat my way through a city,” he says.
That in mind, he set out to create an authentic New York deli, steeped in Jewish-inspired recipes, here in landlocked Colorado. “I knew I wanted the bagel to be the base—the star of the show,” he says, “but I also wanted to bring in high-end products and gourmet quality to the bagel fare.”
People regularly drive from Colorado Springs and beyond to enjoy Rosenberg’s fare. Hope Troup and Charles Mathews live nearby and are among the deli’s many regular customers. “I’m from the East Coast and the thing I missed most about coming to Colorado were the real bagels,” says Troup, holding fresh-made bagels and lox. “You see them working in the back—this is a handmade product,” Mathews adds, looking through the glass. “The artisan food scene is getting real good in Denver.”
In-kind contributions invaluable
In the Business Plan Competition at CU Denver, Pollack met Chris Onan, co-founder of the Denver-based startup incubator called Galvanize. Onan was a competition judge and liked what he saw in Pollack’s bagel presentation. Galvanize housed a cafe where Pollack was able to test out his 100-year-old family recipes on actual customers. “I was really fortunate to get my start there and iron out the kinks,” he says.
Also, as part of the Business Plan Competition, Pollack received in-kind contributions, including legal counsel and marketing. The counsel proved enormously helpful as Pollack learned the name he originally chose, Empire Bagels, was already trademarked in New York. Meanwhile, a branding and marketing expert steered him toward Rosenberg, his mother’s maiden name. “It sounds like a New York deli,” Pollack says. “I have some people say, ‘So where’s the one in Manhattan?’ I say this is the only one.”
Pollack explains that there are three keys to an authentic New York bagel: recipe (preferably passed down from generations), process (chain restaurants tend to cut out the Old World handmade process), and water (Catskill Mountains runoff preferred).
At considerable expense, Pollack installed a reverse-osmosis filtration device in his deli. The machine strips minerals out of Denver water and then adds them back—in precise parts-per-million ratios that mimic New York City water. The water, plus a high-moisture environment, strengthens the gluten, which, as Pollack tells you, is what any good bagel or pizza maker does.
‘Hugs every day’
“We did it in a natural way, creating a water that enhances the gluten,” he says. “Most people will try GMOs—processed, enriched and enhanced flours—to do the same thing.”
Pollack already has plans to grow and expand Rosenberg’s. Adding space to the kitchen, which would provide room to butcher fish as well as offer catering services, is a top priority. He says he feels “very fortunate and lucky” to have been so successful so quickly.
The best part of the bagel biz?
“I make people happy. I get hugs every day from people who have moved here, however many years ago, from New York and have been longing for this fresh, hot bagel here in Denver,” he says. “That was sort of the gist of the courses and competition (at CU Denver): to find something that Denver needed but didn’t have.”
Pollack hopes to return to CU Denver to be a visiting lecturer in entrepreneur classes. One thing he’s sure to impart: Pay attention and stockpile every experience—from your childhood to your personal observations to your classes—and apply those lessons to your business. Growing up, Pollack worked at various family members’ delis, but he’d never dreamed he’d be running his own shop.
“I have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” he says. For example, he knew from being around delis that worker burnout is common. “I paid attention to that, so I’ve hired good people to help me out.”
As he works his way through the line and back into the kitchen, Denver’s bagel man smiles and says, “I want to keep my hair and my back.”