Meet the bagel shop owner who had to give up gluten
Danny Gejerman is the Sam Malone of the bakery world. But instead of a bartender who can’t drink beer, like Ted Danson’s character on “Cheers,” Gejerman is a bagel-shop owner who can’t eat bread. He has celiac disease.
“It’s kind of ironic, me having a bagel store and not being able to eat gluten,” says the 43-year-old as he doles out cups of coffee and slices everything bagels behind the counter at Bagel Boss, his kosher shop on First Avenue near 15th Street. “I have to be very careful.”
Celiac disease is a genetic digestive disorder that causes damage to the small intestine when sufferers eat gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. That means the Bagel Boss owner can’t indulge in many of the bagels, pizzas and cookies that his store peddles.
“[I] used to grab a slice of pizza right as it was coming out of the oven,” says Gejerman, an easygoing redhead with a thick New York accent who lives in Holliswood, Queens. “I miss doing that.”
When Gejerman first opened Bagel Boss in 2008, he was blissfully unaware of his condition. But two years ago, while at the hospital for an unrelated health issue, an endoscopy revealed some irregularities that pointed to celiac disease.
“I was surprised,” says Gejerman, who, as the son of a Jewish grocer, pretty much grew up on bagels and challah. He hadn’t heard of anyone in his family not being able to eat gluten, and — like nearly two-thirds of adults with the disease — he hadn’t experienced any telltale symptoms, such as bloating or abdominal pain. Neither had his 11-year-old son, Jordan, who is the only one of Gejerman’s three kids to have inherited the disorder. “His favorite food is pizza,” says Gejerman. “He was devastated!”
Two years ago, Gejerman was diagnosed with celiac disease. His son Jordan was diagnosed soon after.
Yet despite the lack of any short-term discomfort from eating a slice of bread, the long-term effects of steady gluten consumption on the intestines can be severe, increasing the risk of thyroid disease, diabetes and even intestinal cancer.
The diagnosis has changed the way Gejerman now works. While he can touch the bagels, if even a microscopic amount of gluten ends up in his stomach, it could cause damage to his intestines. So when handling food, he dons a special pair of gloves, and every time he uses a utensil that may have brushed a glutenous crumb, he has to wash it thoroughly in scalding water. If he wants to use the toaster for himself, he needs to wrap his food in a special high-temperature wax seal, to avoid cross-contamination. And he can’t let anything he’ll later put in his mouth touch the counter.
But Gejerman’s disease has brought some unexpected benefits. A year ago, he began selling gluten-free bagels and pizzas. And though they aren’t a huge part of his business — about two dozen will last the week — they do satisfy a niche among the young, health-conscious NYU students who take advantage of Bagel Boss’ 24-hour menu.
Unlike Bagel Boss’ house-made traditional offerings, the faux ones are shipped in, because the bakery lacks the space and the demand to justify installing special gluten-free equipment.
While he admits that the crumbly imitations currently on offer “don’t taste as good as the real thing,” the gluten-free pizza dough, he says, is tops.
“My son loves it,” says Gejerman. “I bring the dough pre-made, and he preheats the oven and puts the sauce and cheese and makes it himself. He even has his own little personal pan that no one else can use.” And for father and son, going through the disease together has helped bring them closer.
“If Jordan didn’t have it, I would never follow [the diet] on my own,” Gejerman says, adding that he’s become famous among Jordan’s Little League team for his gluten-free pies. “It’s all because of him.”
By Raquel Laneri