The Cult on 108th
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
At Absolute Bagels, you get what you get.
By Amogh Dimri
If you keep an eye out you will start to see them everywhere: navy blue baseball caps embroidered with “Absolute Bagels NYC” in thin red lettering; in the center lies a golden, halo-shaped bagel. The caps burst onto the scene last spring when the family-run business released them for a fairly priced $10 as a thank you to their student patrons. The marketing tactic worked—now, students flock to the store to grab a bagel and their own wearable Morningside Heights memento. Despite being sucked into this retail scheme—I, too, bought a cap—the success of this secondary product revealed something that I had not realized: Absolute Bagels boasts a cult of devoted bagel buyers.
I must admit that I have unknowingly been part of said cult. On most weekend mornings I, accompanied by the odd suitemate who didn’t sleep in, make the pilgrimage down to 108th and Broadway to wait in the infamously long line for a toasted everything bagel with scallion cream cheese. The sleepy stroll down Broadway has become a ritual of mine: the brisk morning air, the book salesmen playing chess, the congregations of aproned employees smoking on the curb as they open shop.
Daniel Kim, CC ’24, has been a regular at Absolute since freshman year. During the turbulent pandemic era, the bagel shop offered stability via routine: Kim would listen to “My Way” by Frank Sinatra during his stroll downtown, grab a bagel before the resurgence of post-pandemic lines, and walk to the mansion on 106th and Riverside Drive to admire the architecture and dog-watch.
Sam Thongkrieng opened Absolute Bagels in 1990 following a stint at Ess-A-Bagel, a popular haunt in Midtown. An immigrant from Bangkok, his bagel shop is probably the only in the city where customers regularly walk out with a Thai iced tea instead of an iced coffee. The shop’s line, which is not for the faint of heart, is testament to Thongkrieng’s success: From the hours of 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on a recent Saturday, many saw it and fled. One man in a T-shirt reading “Beer is Beautiful” immediately pulled an 180° turn after seeing the crowd. Another student, presumably dragged out of bed by her roommates, remarked, “I’m not waiting in this. I’ll see you at home.” Morningside Heights resident Carlos Cardinales saw me sizing up the bagel line and asked me if there was some sort of sweepstakes or giveaway going on. When I answered that this particular crowd was just crazy for these particular bagels, he remarked aloud, “I’m absolutely dumbfounded … who would think that the public would go absolutely nuts for Absolute Bagels?” More bizarrely, people ate while waiting in line: A couple in their thirties devoured halal gyros while edging closer towards their Absolute Bagel, while others threw back munchkins from the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. The bagel was not a mere means of sustenance, but a reward.
Put simply: Those who get it, get it. For every New Yorker who recorded the atrociously long line on their phone, there were 10 more locals and students lined up, unfazed by the 45-minute obstacle ahead, purses stocked with snacks and coffee to fuel their 150-foot trudge. Seemingly, what the cult admires about Absolute Bagels is their unapologetic commitment to do things their own way. Absolute Bagels embodies the mindset: ‘If you don’t like it, don’t come. We have a B in sanitation? Doesn’t bother me. The line is too long for you? Sucks to suck.’
While the bagels are well-above average, they are not phenomenal. They are chewy and warm. The cream cheese is flavorful and lathered on thick. The Thai iced tea is delectable. While the bagel is good, the line is why I return. It is here that the community finds itself. Each week I chat with fellow students, often hungover from the previous evening, or old couples with puppies in tow, some who have been bagel patrons for three generations of dogs. I leave my AirPods in my room—I would rather overhear friends debate whose professors are the hottest or attempt to answer tough questions like whether buying gently used underwear from Facebook Marketplace is a viable solution when the mailroom loses your package. The ubiquitous hat is my claim to be part of this community, not just of bagel-eaters, but those inquisitive minds who can romanticize 40 minutes standing in the cold.
During our conversation, Kim paused and ran to his room to show me his baseball cap. He pointed to the awkwardly long spacing between the “E” and “L” of “BAGELS.” “There’s not really attention to detail. And I love that about the hat.” To Kim, the essence of Absolute Bagels is encapsulated in the cap: “No frills. You get what you get.”