May 2018

Island Bagel & Deli: New York meets Laid-Back

Author: Linda S. Hopkins | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

It’s not often that you hear the words New York and laid-back in the same sentence, but you might say that Island Bagel & Deli has found the perfect way of combining the two. On the surface, owner Mark Stone may come across as a good old boy from the South. And he is. But that doesn’t mean he can’t turn out the best bagel to be found outside the five boroughs. Serving 14 varieties of authentic New York-style boiled bagels, made from scratch and baked fresh daily on the premises, he invites you to relax and enjoy the tastes and textures of the Northern specialty along with a heapin’ helping of Southern hospitality.

Leaving an 18-year technical career at CNN, Stone was determined to be his own boss. As a single guy, he could go anywhere he wanted to go; he just needed to find a business he could sink his teeth into. Having vacationed on Hilton Head Island as a child in the 1960s, he always wanted to live at the beach. So, in 2012, when he found Island Bagel listed for sale with locations on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, he made the purchase and made his way to the Lowcountry.

Born and raised in the metropolitan Atlanta area, with a good head for business and years of prior restaurant management under his belt (pre-CNN), he was confident in his ability to run the restaurant. But this Southern boy, who grew up on biscuits, didn’t know much about bagels. “Before I left CNN, bagels came in a bag from Lender’s. I never understood the big deal about New York bagels—until I tasted one. Now I get it. I see the difference in a real bagel and rolls with holes,” he said.

The mark of a great bagel, according to Stone, is rich flavor, a soft interior and a chewy crust. “That comes from treating the bagel properly,” he explained. “Any baker will tell you that a loaf of bread is a living thing. Bagels are too, but the process is not the same as bread. The big thing about a bagel is the texture. That’s the difference in ‘real’ bagels and some commercially available bagels in the store. The flavors are fine, but they don’t taste like a bagel, because they don’t chew like a bagel.”

Fortunately, for Stone, baker Antonio Avila has been on the job for 20 years, remaining faithful through several ownership transitions and name changes. “He’s the one who is in at 2 a.m. making bagels,” Stone said. “According to my New York customers, they taste like New York bagels. I never claim they are as good, but they are as close as you will find outside of New York.”

On a Wednesday in early April, at the Hilton Head Island restaurant alone, Stone and his crew sold over 800 bagels. “We easily go through 2,000 pounds of flour a week. It’s flour in and bagels out,” he said. “We are 90 percent bagels and 90 percent breakfast. But we also have a full lunch menu with specialty breads and deli meats. Sandwiches are made with real turkey breasts that we roast ourselves and the highest quality ham and roast beef I can get. All the salads—chicken, tuna and egg—are handmade. They are traditional. Everybody and their brother makes something fancy. I think we are the only ones on the island that offer the good, old-fashioned version of these salads.”

Besides the best bagels in town and the wide variety of cream cheese flavors, tasty breakfast sandwiches, quality coffee and fresh deli items he serves, Stone prides himself on the culture and environment he has created. “It’s breakfast and lunch—happy food, at the beach. I want it to be an upbeat, positive experience,” he said. “I want people to be in a good mood when they leave.”

When he is on the premises, Stone is most often behind the cash register where he has an opportunity to greet and interact with his customers. “It’s not hard to run a business if your focus is on the customer,” he said. “Trying to run a restaurant with your focus on the bottom line is a guaranteed failure, in my opinion. I want my customers to feel they are getting value for their money. That has been my goal since I got here.”

While new customers are sometimes surprised (and always delighted) by the authenticity and freshness of the bagels, Stone said his regulars and repeat customers know exactly what to expect. “A lot of our regulars are so regular that we know what they order; we start making it when we see them walk in the door.”

Besides pleasing his customers, apparently Stone is quite skilled at keeping his employees happy, too. “Once you get good staff, you treat them with respect, pay them well and do what it takes to keep them,” he said. “In a business like this, without the people, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Yes, I get stressed out when I’ve got a line out the door for an hour and a half, but my staff is top-notch; we take care of our customers and each other.”

Most challenging for Stone is judging the volume from day to day, because it is a fresh product, handmade, he said. “I can’t just run back there and make more [bagels], because it’s a long procedure—a two-day process, minimum. If we have them ready to go and I have the personnel on hand, I can go back and make more in about half an hour.”

Any bagels leftover at the end of the day are either made into bagel chips and sold as a delicious snack (perfect for dipping), or they are donated to Second Helpings, a local non-profit food rescue and distribution organization.

Start your day with a smile at Island Bagel & Deli, where New York meets laid-back. Stop off for breakfast or lunch, or order some goodies to go. Dine inside or out. You are sure to discover a new happy place.

Island Bagel & Deli has two locations for your convenience: 841 William Hilton Parkway (South Island Square), Hilton Head Island and 17 Sherington Dr. (Sheridan Park), Bluffton. Both restaurants are open daily 7 a.m.-2 p.m. For full menu options and more information, please visit islandbagelanddeli.com.

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