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Stanley Drebin is rifling through his filing cabinet, looking for a Department of Assessments and Taxation certificate that proves he has the exclusive right to use the name “Goldberg’s New York Bagels” in the state of Maryland. He keeps opening metal drawers and thumbing his way across manila folders, each one labeled by hand in heavy black marker. His search seems to be taking forever.
Drebin is the owner of Goldberg’s New York Bagels in Pikesville, a historically Jewish enclave just outside Baltimore. I’d like to think that Drebin’s girth is just the natural side effect of a man who sells 1.2 million bagels a year. Maybe I shouldn’t be silently reviewing Drebin’s features, but I don’t have much else to do as he fingers through those files. I notice how his faded orange golf shirt, branded with the Goldberg’s logo, fits snugly over his belly, which itself almost smothers the tzitzit tassels that dangle from his waist. His yarmulke serves as a quick reminder of his Orthodox faith but also does a fine job concealing his receding, salt-and-pepper hairline. And I’d kill to have his grizzled beard, which gives his face some sporting lines.
When I run out of things to observe, I finally suggest that Drebin call off the search. I tell him that I’ll call the state office later about the matter.
Both of us are willing to spend so much time on the paper hunt because the document is central to Drebin’s complaint against Dan Keleman. Like Drebin, Keleman is a kosher bagel man; he owns a shop in Rockville named…Goldberg’s New York Bagels. There’s a perfectly good explanation for the duplicate handles. About five years ago, Drebin and Keleman were newfound partners looking to open a second location of Goldberg’s. Drebin seeded the business with about $50,000 in start-up capital, provided Keleman access to his secret bagel dough supplier in New Jersey, and even allowed Keleman to share the name of his successful business.
But the partnership quickly unraveled, and just two months after Goldberg’s Rockville outlet opened in April 2005, Drebin dissolved the business relationship. At the time, Drebin says, he had his reasons; mostly he felt as if he were shouldering too much financial responsibility for only a 25 percent stake in the business. But he also felt his partner was too headstrong for his own good. Hell, Keleman didn’t even want to serve Drebin’s recipes for egg and tuna salad.
“He was supposed to copy my idea, right,” Drebin says, “and that’s the way it was supposed to be.”
Regardless of Keleman’s taste in salads, Drebin didn’t take everything with him after the split. By agreement, Keleman could continue to operate his shop under the good name of Goldberg’s, a brand that has served Charm City eaters well, repeatedly winning Best of Baltimore bagel categories. That agreement, however, didn’t extend to Keleman’s second shop, which he hopes to open soon under the Goldberg’s New York Bagels name.
When I first contacted Drebin about Keleman’s expansion plans, the Baltimore bagel man adopted a reserved tone, remaining mostly tight-lipped about his old partner. He wanted to keep his powder dry for potential litigation, he said, if and when Keleman actually expanded his operation under the Goldberg’s brand. “If he uses it,” Drebin told me over the phone, “there will be a legal case. He’s testing me.” Drebin repeated the last sentence five times, as if still trying to comprehend the audacity of Keleman’s betrayal.
The next day when I met Drebin at his Pikesville shop, he was far more open about the past. He had decided to call off the attack lawyers, too; he determined that it’d cost him between $20,000 and $30,000 in attorneys’ fees just to get Keleman to stand down. Besides, Drebin figured he had a cheaper alternative: to tell his story through the press. And through this public megaphone, he had one simple request to pass along to Keleman: Change the name of your stores.
“I don’t want anything else. I don’t want my money back,” Drebin said. “I just want him out of my realm.”
It seems like a reasonable request from a businessman whose store predates Keleman’s by a good seven years, and it certainly seems like a reasonable request from a businessman who has already given Keleman thousands of dollars and the inside track on some killer kosher bagel dough. Yes, it all seems perfectly reasonable until you realize that the Goldberg’s brand didn’t even start with Stanley Drebin.
According to the lore that Drebin promotes on his own Web site, Goldberg’s can trace its history to the first half of the 20th century (it’s not clear when, either the “early 1900s” or the 1930s) when a “young Polish immigrant named Isador Goldberg arrived in New York with a carefully guarded secret recipe for the world’s best bagels.” Goldberg eventually opened his first shop on the Lower East Side, and other Goldberg’s bagelries would soon follow in New York and New Jersey.
In 1993, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents, a New Jersey company (which would ultimately go by the name All American Food Group, Inc.) bought up two Goldberg’s bagel shops as well as the “exclusive franchise rights to their recipes, flours, mixes and equipment and the prior owners’ related bagel bakery equipment business.” Three years later, All American went public and then went on a buying spree, gobbling up small regional bagel chains in Florida, Connecticut, and Ohio. It was a budding national chain, mixing kosher with non-kosher stores, eager to capitalize on Americans’ fear of fatty proteins and pastries.
The business plan never got off the ground. All American filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November 1998, leaving nearly 20 franchisees to fend for themselves. One such franchisee, Dan Taskila, decided to take matters into his own hands. The New Jersey store owner started to make his own dough, separate from the “Old World” Isador Goldberg/All American Food Group recipe that was the cornerstone of the company. “It’s probably very similar to what All American made, but it’s not their recipe,” Taskila says.
Taskila’s enterprise would pay off for him. His private company (he won’t name it or its exact location) now supplies frozen dough to countless bagel shops, including Stanley Drebin’s down in Pikesville.
Like Taskila, Drebin was cast adrift after All American’s demise. Drebin opted to source his dough from Taskila’s company and, in short order, made a name for himself in the Baltimore area, particularly among the Orthodox community, which flocks to his shop on Sunday mornings. I can understand why. On the day I drove to his store, Drebin served me a sliced everything bagel with a thick layer of cream cheese in the middle. The round’s crusty exterior crackled when I bit into it, revealing a slightly sweet crumb that was both warm and chewy. It was a terrific bagel, one of the best I’ve had outside New York, and I told Drebin so.
“I know it’s good,” he shot back, somewhat playfully. “I don’t even have to ask you how good it is. I know it is.”
Drebin’s bravado is not without reason. He has, after all, taken a moribund corporate brand and transformed it into something respectable, even admirable, in his own community. The name “Goldberg’s” may have a checkered past, but in Pikesville, in this part of Maryland, it elicits mostly warm feelings. Drebin has made the name his own.
The problem, however, is Drebin doesn’t actually own the name in Maryland.
For all his alleged faults as a partner, Dan Keleman seems like a pretty savvy business man. He landed in the D.C. area in 2000 after working as a caterer and butcher in San Jose, Calif. Keleman sought out Drebin shortly after arriving here, with the hopes of opening a kosher bagel shop, but then got cold feet and went into the auto body and painting business instead. After nearly four years of that work, however, Keleman realized it wasn’t personally fulfilling and again sought out Drebin for their long-delayed bagel shop.
These days, Keleman won’t talk about his business relationship with Drebin or address any of his former partner’s allegations. Keleman invokes a Jewish law against slandering someone in a public forum. Instead, Keleman pulls a page from the corporate PR playbook and issues a two-sentence statement—a brief, gracious, and ultimately hollow one. It ends with this: “Mr. Drebin is a successful businessman who contributes generously to the Baltimore Jewish community, and I wish him all the best.”
Keleman’s magnanimous attitude may be rooted in religion, but it could also stem from a secret power play against his old partner: On Sept. 8, 2009, Keleman officially registered “Goldberg’s New York Bagels” with the state of Maryland. Drebin had apparently neglected to renew the business name when it expired. Because of Drebin’s lapse, though, Keleman is now the only one who can legally operate under “Goldberg’s New York Bagels” in the state; he says he has no intention of forcing Drebin to change his business name.
When I break the bad news to Drebin over the phone, the bagel man goes silent. I wait a beat or two for his response. Finally he says: “OK, then I screwed up, I guess.”