SOUTH LOOP — A former fine dining pastry chef is on a mission to move the city up the bagel ranks with the first “Chicago-style bagels.”
Baker Hannah Tillett has seen success with her pop-ups and ghost kitchen, which specializes in bagels. Now she and her fiancé, Mike Banaszak, are opening Tilly Bagel Shop in late July or early August at 34 E. Balbo Drive, on the ground floor of a Columbia College student building.
The pandemic-boredom-born Instagram business has had runaway success with its sourdough bagels, which “have a good crust on the outside of them, aren’t too dense on the inside and are a little fluffier with a good chew,” Tillett said.
“The No. 1 thing with our bagels is that we’re not trying to be New York,” Tillett said. “This is our own version because Chicago deserves its own good bagels.”
Tilly Bagel Shop’s has traditional plain, everything, sesame seed, poppyseed and garlic rosemary varieties, Tillett said. But it also has designer flavors: There’s a cacio e pepe bagel rolled from black pepper sourdough and baked with parmesan cheese, a cheddar bagel and a pizza bagel featuring mozzarella, pepperoni and a sun-dried tomato dough, Tillett said.
The shop will also have its own cream cheeses — including caramelized onion and jalapeño flavors — and customers can complete their orders with staples like lox or bacon, egg and cheese, Tillett said.
Regular bagels start at $3.50 each, and speciality bagels are $4, Tillett said. A half-dozen runs $17, and a dozen will be $27.
Tillett — who has worked as a pastry chef in acclaimed restaurants Girl & The Goat, Marisol and Boka — has her own theories for why Chicago bagels don’t seem to rise above the rest.
“I don’t want to knock anyone, and there are great places in Chicago, but generally there’s more of a focus on the bagel sandwich than the bagel itself,” Tillett said. “On the East Coast, there’s bagel places everywhere. They originated there; that helps.”
But Tillett’s Chicago-style bagels have a unique shaping process, with the sourdough rolled into balls before being stretched back out into bagels, she said. For those still skeptical: The shop will feature an open-concept design where patrons can watch a team of bakers roll fresh bagels each morning, Tillett said.
The bagels rise before being boiled, topped and baked, Tillett said.
Tillett, who is from Florida, said she grew up enjoying a brown bag of bagels with family every Sunday in the Sunshine State, which “has a lot of people from the East Coast who bring their bagels with them.”
After finishing her culinary degree, Tillett moved through top Chicago kitchens, but she was furloughed during the pandemic. The baker started rolling bagels at home because “it was almost like meditation,” she said.
Passing the bagels out to family and friends soon led Tillett to “selling them through Instagram DMs” and at local farmers markets, she said.
“I would bake them at the home in South Loop and bike around town delivering,” Tillett said. “It all started as a pandemic hobby.”
Tillett soon moved into a ghost kitchen and has now partnered with Banaszak, an architect, to design their shop from scratch.
The shop will also sell coffee from local provider Sparrow Coffee Roastery, Tillett said.
Tillett said she’s most looking forward to hiring a staff and teaching them her secret bagel recipe.
“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-wrecking, but I’m ready. I want to make this a place where aspiring bakers can have a career,” Tillett said. “And whenever people from the East Coast try the bagels and tell me they love them, that’s the best compliment.”
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: