The store first opened in 2000 in Williamsburg, and then expanded to a few different locations around the borough over the years. The Bedford Avenue store blew up in 2015 after owner Scot Rossillo introduced his signature Rainbow Bagels to the public. These multicolored carbohydrate concoctions took off on social media — thanks in part to a multitude of vibrant bagel photos on Instagram — turning the store into a viral sensation.
“I really look at it as an art form, I love what I make," Rossillo told Gothamist in 2015. "It's really a passion of love, not a passion of profit."
Hundreds of people would regularly line up outside the store waiting to try the Rainbow Bagel. The frenzy grew so intense that the Bedford Avenue location actually temporarily shut down. In 2016, the Washington Post deemed it Brooklyn's "most controversial bagel."
In its wake, the Rainbow Bagel inspired a glut of imitators all across the city, as well as other attempts by bagel connoisseurs to manufacture its virality through their own Franken-carb creations.
Although The Bagel Store and its swirl-colored bagels remained popular, the store was seized by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance in 2019 over unpaid taxes. It reopened in 2020 at 69 Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. But Rossillo wrote on Instagram this week that the store was closing "due to health concerns."
At this point, the Rainbow Bagel feels like a perfect encapsulation of a very specific, slightly more innocent time in NYC history. How were so many hardened locals convinced to willingly stand in line for hours for a sugary, unnatural-looking bagel that didn't really taste like a bagel?
Gothamist spoke to local bagel expert Sam Silverman, who runs Brooklyn Bagel Blog and is about to launch the third annual NYC Bagel Fest, about the end of an era for NYC's bagel scene, the Rainbow Bagel's legacy, the perils of virality and more.
So first off, what was the fever dream that was the Rainbow Bagel? Wow, the fever dream that was the Rainbow Bagel. It was just like a brand new take on a food that has been around for over a century. And it was really the perfect food for the time and age that we're in with social media. Because it is so photogenic and fun, and pops out on your feed, it was just the perfect bagel for the Instagram era that we're in today.
Were there any other bagels you can think of that had gone viral like this before the Rainbow Bagel? No, I don't think so. I think this was the very first viral bagel. There were other bagel innovations before this, like the everything bagel that came along in the '80s. But that was long before social media. There was nothing like this. The timing matched up with social media and this food and it took off. And from my understanding, Scot had actually invented the Rainbow Bagel long before 2015. It was just in 2015 that it happened to get noticed and catch fire and go viral.
So for people who did not get a chance to try it, did it taste like a normal bagel? Was there any difference in texture or in flavor? Depends on the shop. I would say Scot's were a little bit sweeter. Like there's a hint of vanilla to it. And obviously you have to pair it with a fun cream cheese like funfetti, birthday cake, something like that. So it's a very sweet bagel. You're basically eating cake. But the bagel on its own, you could eat it normal...but what's the point of doing that?
Did it feel like a special occasion bagel? As opposed to a regular Monday morning bagel? Definitely, yeah. I would frequently get them for friends for their birthdays. It's like one of those types of things.
My recollection is that when it first blew up, there were lines out the door on weekends. And he had to shut down the store at one point because it was so popular. Did you visit The Bagel Store in the midst of all that frenzy? It took me a while to get there and talk to him, because he was so busy. It was insane for a while. He was shipping all over the country. He had lines out the door — not just on the weekends, but during the weekdays too. It became a huge tourist destination. People flocked from all over because at the time, he was the only person doing it. Nowadays you can find a Rainbow Bagel in pretty much any New York City bagel shop.
It took a couple years, but at some point the copycats became ubiquitous as well. The novelty wore off a bit. So this is a more philosophical question: do you think that The Bagel Store sacrificed some New York City cred because it became this tourist destination? Yes and no. Yes, on the individual basis, they probably sacrificed some credibility amongst the bagel community in New York. But I'll say their sacrifice was for the greater good, because overall it really helped elevate the stature of the bagel in the broader culture, and has really been a boon, I would say, for the entire industry over the past five, six years since it came about.
The Rainbow Bagel really spawned all these other attempts at innovating the bagel, right? Yes, like the Cragel. Scot did one that was like a bacon, egg and cheese-infused bagel — it was all within the bagel itself. There's constant innovation in the bagel space, but nothing has really captured people's attention quite as much as the Rainbow Bagel. I say this all the time: the thing that I love about bagels is that it's a canvas that has unlimited creativity. People can do whatever they want to the toppings, to the flavors — you can really have infinite variations of it. And so there's always something fresh and interesting happening.
Knowing all these other bagel store owners in the city, were they annoyed by the virality of the Rainbow Bagel? Were they annoyed that they suddenly had to cater to the Instagram crowd? Did they point their noses up at this, or did they welcome it as a chance for new business? There was definitely a phase where people were annoyed, and probably jealous, by how much attention The Bagel Store was getting for this. And there was definitely a lot of bagel purism, like, 'We don't do that type of thing.' But after a couple of years, and the sensationalism of it died down, and the demand for it started going up, shops were hearing requests for Rainbow Bagels all the time. They kind of have to cater to it. And I think they found out that for the most part, it's fun. It's awesome to give people what they want.
I was just talking to Chris [Pugliese], the owner of Tompkins Square Bagels, last week. And he said, 'I'm not in the bagel business. I'm in the happiness business.' And if you can give a Rainbow Bagel to a tourist or a kid, and that makes their day, why not do that?
As to the economics of virality: how come virality doesn't ensure a place can stay afloat? Do you have any impression of what happened financially with The Bagel Store to cause its closure now? I don't know how much I can speak to that about The Bagel Store. My limited understanding is that his location in Williamsburg was seized by the state tax authority because of unpaid taxes. So I don't know how much of that had to do with the economics of the shop itself versus just the accounting. And then this recent store, it sounds like it was due to health concerns and maybe not an economic pressure that led to the closing. I've reached out to Scot a couple of times this week, but haven't been able to get in contact with him yet. And I know him, I've talked to him [a lot] throughout the past five years and visited him a few times. I hope everything's okay with him.
One of the unique things about Scot is he's one of the few owners in the city that was still hand-rolling and baking every batch of bagels himself, when many shops have large teams of rollers, bakers, etc. And so him doing everything himself seven days a week for as many years as he did it takes a toll on anybody. He was fulfilling orders from all over the country. He was doing domestic shipping of the Rainbow Bagel. So it was a lot.
Do you think he regrets what he created at all? Or is he very proud that he created this thing that really resonated with people?I think he's really proud of it. I think, if anything, he wishes that people could see the other amazing things that he's created that didn't get quite as much attention. When I first met him, he told me, 'I'm not a baker, I'm an artist.' And so the Rainbow Bagel was probably his most famous creation of all of the art pieces that he created. But he did a whole bunch of other really cool and innovative things. And I think at the end of the day, he can, should and is proud of the impact that he's left on this industry.
You had said in your post the other day that the Rainbow Bagel left "an indelible impact on the bagel industry." What did you mean by that? So you can point to a few times in the history of the bagel — which has been around since the 16th century in Poland, and made its way to America with the emigration of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century — there have been a few key inflection points in terms of the history of the bagel. One of them was the Bagel Bakers Union 338, back in the early 20th century. A second one was Murray Lender's invention of the bagel rolling machine, and Murray Lender's utilization of that to turn them from an ethnic food into a breakfast food that has mass appeal across the country, in the 1960s. And I would say the invention of the Rainbow Bagel is up there in terms of very notable developments and innovations in the history of the bagel that has led it to have the cultural significance that it has today.
Is there anything else you want to add about the impact of the Rainbow Bagel? I would say that it really has shaped my opinion of bagels as a whole. I was very much in the purist camp when I first heard about it. I was like, 'Hey, this isn't a bagel.' But over time, it's really opened my mind to understanding that what makes bagels great is that there's a perfect one for everybody out there, like I was talking about earlier with the infinite combinations. That really is the case. As long as the threshold of quality is there, whatever people's tastes are is what their tastes are. If someone wants a Rainbow Bagel and that's what makes them happy, then they should knock themselves out and go for it. And that's true with any other bagel combination. I think it's been a pretty remarkable development. It's opened my mind, and I think it's done the same for many, many others.
How many bagels do you think you eat a week on average? I probably eat four or five a week. I've had thousands of bagels over the past five years. It's been a lot. And when I go to a shop, I want to try all of their best stuff. So this past weekend I was in Philly, I went to 12 bagel shops in three days and had about 20 bagels. So when in Rome, you gotta go for it.
What is your go to bagel order right now? Everything bagel, scallion cream cheese, not toasted. That's the litmus test that I get at every shop. I think that can tell you a lot about the overall quality of the product that the shop is making.
What are a couple of your favorite bagel places right now in the city? Tompkins Square Bagels. Ess-a-Bagels is a longtime favorite. I live in Greenpoint, and Bagel Point is right down the street here. Utopia Bagels, I just went out there. I do New York City bagel tours as well, and I just took a group out there and had an incredible experience. They made this giant bacon, egg and cheese for us. It was massive, it was huge. They're doing awesome stuff out there as well.
Is the blog and the Bagel Fest your full-time job at this point, or more of a side project? It's still a side project; hopefully it becomes a full-time thing. The main thing is Bagel Fest. Last year was the second one we did, it took place at City Point in Downtown Brooklyn. We had 30 vendors, over 1,400 people. Letitia James presented the award for the best bagel to the shop that all the attendees voted for. The third one is happening this fall, September 17th and 18th, again at City Point. Hopefully we'll have around 40-50 vendors and 3,000 people throughout the weekend. That's the goal.
The first Bagel Fest that I did, I picked the location as close as possible to The Bagel Store, because I really wanted Scot and the Rainbow Bagel to be there. I thought it was such an exciting [development] that was bringing new shine to the bagel.
There's an awesome bagel community. This is something that I didn't really expect when I was first starting the blog. But people feel extremely passionate about this food — and not just in New York City, but all over the country and all over the world. Over the past 5-10 years we've seen a bagel revolution, where there are awesome bagels popping up lots of places outside of New York City.
Historically, New York, Montreal, New Jersey and maybe a few other places have been the center of the bagel universe. But there are people all over the world who are making amazing products now. I think that's partially due to social media, partially due to the ubiquity of information nowadays — it's easier than ever to look up a YouTube video and figure out, oh, well this is how you make a bagel. But it's awesome. There's a great community out there. I'm looking to galvanize and unite the bagel community and celebrate it in every way we can.