The Schmear Campaign

SIR ISAAC NEWTON WAS SITTING under an apple tree when inspiration struck, and Larry Baras was sitting in his car trying to juggle a bagel, a plastic knife and a packet of cream cheese. "I thought, how hard could it be to make a bagel with cream cheese in it?" he says. That was a year ago. Today Baras is the proud father of a bagel with the cream cheese baked right into it--and no hole, a second innovation made necessary by the technological requirements of the first. His brainchild, the UnHoley Bagel, made its debut last October at BJ's Wholesale Clubs, a chain of 82 warehouse-type stores; the bagels are also sold at Cumberland Farms, and soon they'll show up at Stop & Shop, Kroger's, 7-Eleven, Amtrak and Disney World. Baras says he's negotiating with an airline, the folks from McDonald's have been to see him three times and he's making arrangements to put UnHoley Bagels in vending machines. Like the visionaries who first dreamed of "whitener" for coffee and injections of vegetable oil for "self-basting" turkeys, Baras saw the future in a product the rest of us were just plain eating. His invention--call it an UnBagel--may turn out to be the mass-market bagel for the 21st century.

Only a decade ago, bagels were practically unknown outside a few cities with traditional Jewish bakeries; now they constitute a $2.6 billion business (chart). Frozen bagels led the way in the bagelization of America, but more and more people are discovering the pleasure of a fresh bagel, thanks to the rapidly proliferating chains of retail bagel shops. "Bagels are portable, they're nutritious, they're cheap, they're versatile," says Gary Gerdemann, a spokesman for Einstein/ Noah Bagel Corp., the second biggest chain, after Bruegger's. "People ask me if they're a fad, and I say, "Was bread a fad?' " Einstein/ Noah, which has 333 retail stores, expects to nearly double that number by the end of the year. Among the flavors available at many chains are chocolate chip, raspberry truffle, pumpkin and date-nut--variations so mad-eyed they make many noshers wistful. "Nobody thinks of it as an ethnic food any longer," says Kitty Kevin, editor of Rollout!, a new-product newsletter. "There should be a bagel museum."

Other companies are coming right along with hole-free and prestuffed bagels, but Baras expects to be well in front for at least a year. He's contemplating other fillings--peanut butter and jelly, pizza, chopped liver, marshmallow fluff --but won't branch out just yet. "I don't think it's smart right now," he says. He's probably right. UnHoley Bagels take some getting used to. Warmed up in the microwave, they're soft and flavorless, like faux-rustic dinner rolls, except for the surprising and not completely welcome sensation of biting into hot cream cheese. But customers at BJ's who sampled the bagels were enthusiastic, according to in-store surveys, offering such comments as "Excellent taste," "Unique idea" and "Makes a great appetizer." A bagel with a schmear as palate teaser? Only in America.