Around 9 a.m. on a recent weekday morning, I met a friend in the parking lot of the Dundee Theater on a secret mission: collecting a dozen bagels from the Omaha Bagel Co.
The cottage bagel bakery, which has been around for almost a year, only accepts orders via text message until farmers market season begins, and I wanted to try my first bites in anonymity, hence the secret part of this baked good mission.
The secret, though, is about to be out: Omaha Bagel Co. is making some damn good bagels. Tinged with the flavor of sourdough, the inside has the right amount of chew, and the exterior has an impressively bubbly, crisp crust.
They’re pretty, too: softly rounded with a hint of shine, they look handmade because they are. There’s plain, yes, but also many appealing flavors, like asiago cheese, crusty French toast and rosemary sea salt. They’re the kind of baked good that, once I lay eyes on, I simply am not able to resist.
The second time I picked up bagels, I did it under my own name, and drove to co-owner Henry Shields’ home to pick them up; he told me while standing in his driveway that Omaha Bagel Co. is a family operation, and a side gig: Both Henry and his wife, Michelle, have full-time day jobs — he at ConAgra and she as a nurse — and their three young children are involved in the business, too.
I left with round two of bagels, and curiosity about how the Shields family does it all. (More on that later.)
The texture of the bagels is spot-on. I grew up devoted to West Omaha’s Bagel Bin; these bagels have the same chew as the interior of those bagels, but where they’re different is the exterior: the outside almost pops with crispness as you cut into one, and the bubbled finish is thanks to that active sourdough starter the Shields use in their recipe, which Henry developed.
There’s several savory choices and a handful of sweet ones. Among my favorites: A deeply savory asiago cheese bagel, its outside coated in a layer of browned cheese that has a rich, nutty flavor. A sophisticated sea salt and rosemary combination, where the chunky flakes of salt add to the bagel’s crispy exterior in a pleasant way.
I made one of the sesame bagels into a sandwich one day for lunch, and I highly recommend toasting one and topping it like I did, with a layer of tuna salad and some pieces of butter lettuce. Also good: the classic everything, studded with poppyseeds, sesame seeds, salt, garlic and dried onions, among other spices. The two seedy bagels were among my favorites because again, just great texture. Highly recommend smearing one with a bit of the shop’s thick homemade cream cheese.
I could eat one of the French toast bagels daily if I didn’t care at all about my pant size. A better version of a Panera cinnamon crunch bagel, the Omaha Bagel Co. version is coated almost all the way around in a thin layer of sweet, brittle-like cinnamon crispy bits. The bottom, coated in more buttery cinnamon, approaches a sticky bun. It’s absolutely delicious.
The two other sweet flavors I tried — cinnamon raisin and chocolate chip — are good, too. Butter or cream cheese compliments both, but I’ll admit to ripping several bites off the bagels in my box and eating them with nothing at all.
Henry Shields said he got the idea of becoming a bagel baker during Covid. He’d drive past a location of Bruegger’s daily on his way to the gym and wonder: “Why are there so many cars in line there?”
He wondered: Is there a gap in Omaha’s locally made, quality bagel scene? He decided to find out, even though, as Michelle pointed out, he had never made a bagel in his life.
He started scanning online auctions, and found a commercial mixer for sale in Hebron, Nebraska, about three hours outside of Omaha, and bought it, planning to pick it up the following weekend. But instead, the seller said he had to be there that day, so he took the afternoon off work, drove to Hebron and stuffed the giant machine into the back of his Honda CRV.
“Then begins,” he said, “the whole thing of ‘How do I make a bagel?’”
He spent a ton of time tweaking different recipes. He got a sourdough starter from a friend, Andrea, named the starter after her and learned how to feed it and keep it alive. He called baker Ellie Pegler, who used to run Omaha’s Farine + Four, asked her for advice, and she taught him the method. He also applied for city permits and a license to make and sell bagels and cream cheese.
Michelle started social media accounts for the bagel business, and through their partner, No More Empty Pots, they got a booth at the Aksarben Farmers Market last summer. That first week, Henry made 120 bagels.
“I had no idea if we would sell them or if we would come home with all these bagels,” he said.
The lot was gone in the first half hour of the market. Omaha Bagel Co. was born.
Now, the family, including Will, 7; Jack, 5; and Maddie, 3; start baking on Thursday night, when Henry gets home from work. Michelle is in charge of dough now, and focuses on things like the temperature of the room where she makes it, the activeness of the starter and other sciencey baking stuff. The shaped, unbaked bagels get stored in a big commercial fridge in the family garage overnight, and then, the next morning, are baked for a short time at high heat; Henry said the family has several convection ovens throughout the house.
Local deliveries and pickups start Friday morning and continue through Saturday, and the company sells about 500 bagels a week. They’ll make 700 for the Sunday farmers markets, which they’ll be back at again this spring.
Henry said that a brick-and-mortar store for Omaha Bagel Co. is his dream, and he envisions a spot where entrepreneurs like himself could meet over a bagel and talk about their own business dream.
“The vision of a little shop where people come and talk about so much more than bagels is the ultimate success, in my mind,” he said.
Bagel flavors are listed each week on Instagram/FB. Friday and Saturday are the typical baking days, but an effort is always made to accommodate mid-week requests, when possible. Orders must be made before noon on Thursday for pickup or delivery on Friday. Saturday orders follow the same timeline of noon the day prior. Delivery is available within five miles of 96th and Center from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m., and pickup is from 9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. The address will be provided to pick up orders upon confirmation. A dozen bagels is $24, and plain cream cheese is $4. For more information, or to order, DM via Instagram, text or call 402-706-2529