n 2012, Julia Keister and Hannah Lowen met in New York City, where they were both living at the time. When Lowen got a job as the general manager of New Riff distillery in Newport, Ky., they started a long-distance relationship until Keister decided to follow Lowen to her new home in Covington. When Keister arrived, she asked Lowen where the good bagels were — a staple food of her previous East Coast lifestyle.“On a Sunday morning there isn’t anywhere really that close to get a good bagel,” Keister says, “so we just started making them.”
It took the duo six months to perfect their New York-style bagel recipe, which is made from Weisenberger Mill flour from Midway, Ky., water, yeast, salt and malt syrup from Listermann Brewing Company; no preservatives, no weird fillers.Their New York friends approved of the recipe. Employees of The Point, a Northern Kentucky organization that provides opportunities to those with special needs, eventually convinced Keister, a career coach and social communication specialist for the nonprofit, to sell them at their just-opened coffee shop, The Point Perk, which provides paid vocational training to those with disabilities. They officially founded Lil’s in January.“We keep saying it’s a good bagel, and that’s because every time we meet someone who knows bagels, they always say, ‘Whoa, that’s a good bagel,’ ” Lowen says. Now, people in Covington and Cincinnati can have their big-city weekend bagel fix. Currently, Lil’s sells bagel flavors like everything, onion, salt, chocolate chip, cinnamon raisin, plain and garlic. The Point Perk, Dean’s Mediterranean at Findlay Market and Mama C’s in Bellevue are wholesale customers, and Lil’s recently started selling bagels at the Covington farmers’ market — but they sell out fast.
Keister and Lowen also do pop-ups. On Mother’s Day, Lil’s hosted a build-your-own bagel station at Braxton Brewing Company, complete with hand-whipped spreads, like pesto, strawberry and graham cracker and bacon and bourbon cream cheese.Lil’s also cures their own lox and home-makes tuna and egg salad, sourcing ingredients from Findlay Market and eggs from the hens at Orchard Park in Covington.
“We’re trying to be as community-based and as locally sourced as possible,” Keister says.
Their approach to bagels is “tradition made modern.” The name “Lil’s” derives from Keister’s grandmother and Lowen’s great aunt, who both happened to be named Lil. “We were trying to bring a common family tie into it,” Keister says. “My grandmother was very specific about bagels and was the person who introduced my mom to bagels and me to bagels. She was not a cook, but she was a bagel connoisseur.”Keister and Lowen are Jewish, but they say bagels are a tradition all along the East Coast.
“It’s such a routine part of life previous to here,” Lowen says. “You wake up, it’s the weekend; you get bagels. The same way people are with donuts.”
“In my family, we had bagels every single Sunday,” says Keister, who grew up in the D.C. area. Whenever there is an event, like the day after a wedding or a death, you bring bagels.
Since they launched, demand has consistently increased. “Every week it’s like, I don’t know, I guess I’ll try to make that many,” Keister says.One week Keister baked 300 bagels, hand-rolling every single one herself. She bakes out of New Riff’s kitchen, and her week starts on Wednesday, when she puts together the “sponge,” a starter consisting of flour, yeast and water, which is what makes the bagel chewy. She boils and bakes the bagels on Fridays and Saturdays, waking up at 4 a.m. “I love teaching and I still teach now, but there’s many days I would wake up at 5:30 a.m. and be like, ‘Oh, I can’t get up,’ ” she says. “But with the bagels, every time I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ Cooking has always been my relaxing thing. It kind of feels like a vacation.” Point Perk sells the freshly made bagels on Friday and Saturday mornings, and businesses get them delivered on Fridays. Keister has already had to upgrade her mixer to a larger size, and she plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in June to raise money for an even bigger mixer and for funds to open a deli in Covington next year — the end goal. “I have no desire to go back to New York,” Keister says. “I really love it here. I love the community of Covington. I love the size. I love how exciting it is that you can just do this. You can start any project here and have a lot of support, have a lot of creative energy surrounding you. It’s not like the dog-eat-dog world.” Once the deli is up and running, Keister hopes she will be able to bake and vend bagels full time, but Lowen will stick with her bourbon gig at New Riff. “We’re hoping to have bourbon in our lives for a very long time and bagels in our lives for a very long time,” Lowen says. “But at night and on the weekends, my heart is for bagels.”
To inquire about ordering LIL’S BAGELS or for more info, visit facebook.com/lilsbagels.