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The Tale of the Japanese Bagel

The videos on YouTube keep making the rounds. The Japanese bagel is commonly known as an underground body modification style called the “bagel head” that involves saline injections to the forehead, with a thumb pressed firmly in the center for a round bagel shape. However, REAL bagels are now making the leap to Japan thanks to a brave entrepreneur!

36-year-old Chicagoan Lyle Fox was a struggling student Japanese language and culture, working at an English-language newspaper in 1979. After a failed restaurant venture, he began looking into bagels as a possible business. After years of attempting to acquire the right visa and status to operate a business, he finally was in the position to start his own company, and did so with his new Japanese bride in 1982.

Today, Fox is Japan’s top selling bagelier. While a few Japanese companies had started making and selling bagels, the food had never really caught on. Fox popularized the bagel, and hopes to ride the wave to the top, saying he sees even more potential in Japan than in the States. “I make a good bagel,” says Fox. “That’s my main strength!”

Fox found that the young women were most likely to try something new. ”Japanese associate it with New York, and they associate New York with fashion. A lot of our customers are these young women who consider the bagel as sort of another accessory.”

Now Fox sells a variety of bagels from a counter in the Seibu department store just off the Ginza, as well as from several other locations (he also supplies several local coffee shops.) He produces 6,000 bagels a day: plain, whole-wheat, onion, garlic, poppy, sesame seed and the reigning favorite (and despair of bagel purists everywhere): cinnamon-raisin!

The bagels are inexpensive compared to “American” standards. Fox sells his for 50 cents a bagel, and makes a nice profit on more expensive items such as several cream cheese spreads, including one with soy sauce and dried bonito shavings. The bagels themselves are small, soft and uniform, in contrast to the outsized, crunchy varieties commonly sold in the US.

Fox claims his primary goal is to make bagels so popular that he can expand even more – and be entrenched enough to withstand the onslaught form commercial manufacturers that would undoubtedly come in to the business if he succeeds in making bagels a primary food staple in Japan. He and his wife are hopeful – but even if bagels never take off in Japan, they have a thriving business.