“So… I actually have always wanted to open a bagel shop. I know, that sounds so random right?”
Whang I-Wen was living in San Francisco when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, effectively shutting everything down as shelter in place orders were imposed throughout California. When she returned to Singapore in March of 2020, she came back to a country in lockdown as well. Bored, restless, cooped up at home, and retrenched from her job in America, she decided to start Able Bagel. “In America, bagels are everywhere. You can find them at specialty bagel shops, bodegas, and even the Asian delis. They’re very accessible and always hit the spot. I don’t consider myself intense by any means but if there’s one thing I’m intense about, it’s bread. I take my bread very seriously! When I came back to Singapore, I just couldn’t find a bagel that was satisfactory. So I decided to try making them by myself.”
A UI/UX designer who studied at the Academy of Art University’s School of Web Design & New Media, I-Wen put her energy, time, and resources towards making her bagel dreams a reality. What started as a cottage industry pop-up on Instagram has now become a full-fledged business and a source of income for I-Wen and her business partner and cousin, Jonathan Tang. It’s a small wonder: Able Bagel puts out excellent bagels. The airy crumb and springy bite of her bagels — technically perfect on every level — serve as a perfect canvas for Able Bagel’s wilder flavours: earthy Kopi-O filled with butter; Nasi Lemak with a sweet coconut dough, sambal, and fried chicken; a crackling Bolo crust with a salted egg yolk schmear. The cross-pollination might be thought of as a love letter to I-Wen’s lives: the flavours of Singapore and America, combined in a few perfect bites. These bagels were a hit, particularly with younger Singaporeans who were taken by seeing and tasting familiar flavours of home served in the form of another by-now familiar, yet foreign, food item. Able Bagel, with its sunny, cartoonish graphic design and its friendly voice, gained a steady following, consistently selling out. She enlisted the help of family members, also stuck at home through the national lockdown.
More than just putting out excellent and inventive bagels, Able Bagel donated its profits every week. “We got the $600 government stimulus, but I was like, I actually don’t really need this money. I can give it back. But then I thought, well, what else can I do? We knew that we could have done more than just give away that $600. So the first four months we just donated all the proceeds every week to a different organization, which could have been a local or an international one.” In a way, Able Bagel’s bagels served as a fitting vehicle for their key ideas: that our fates and responsibilities are connected with the lives of other people around the world. They responded directly to local causes, like the (ongoing) human rights crisis surrounding migrant workers’ housing conditions—the conversation around which reaching a fever pitch in the middle of last year—by giving money to the Humanitarian Organisation for Migrant Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2). But often in the same week, Able Bagel also donated the other half of their proceeds to a cause outside of Singapore: to the Black Visions Collective in Minnesota after the murder of George Floyd; the International Rescue Committee which delivered aid to Yemen; to Gays and Lesbians Living In a Transgender Society (GLITS), a grassroots organization with global reach. The decision to donate to causes outside of Singapore was not exactly an immediate one. “Jonathan was the one who kept pushing to donate to organisations outside Singapore. And at first I said, we have more than enough charities and organisations here. Why don’t we help our own people first? And he was like, it’s important for us to reach beyond Singapore. I mean, our world is so big. Jonathan lived in New York, and I lived in San Francisco. There’s all these things going on beyond our own borders.”
Still, the beauty of Able Bagel is not in exactly how much money it was able to raise for different causes (about $600 a week), but in the way it used its business model to start conversations and provoke thought. For the other initiatives and businesses in this profile, the type of food itself is politically resonant: much of the importance lies in the act of preserving these cuisines and traditions, and intervening in public memory. But Able Bagel provides another model where food — just a pure, likeable product, like Asian-fusion bagels — can still be used for a deeper, more soulful social cause beyond donating proceeds. The experience of following Able Bagel on social media during the circuit breaker was such: before they released the next week’s menu, they made a post about which causes they donated their proceeds to for that week. Being a customer of Able Bagel, then, meant that you knew where your money was going; you had to be comfortable with the fact that buying a bagel meant contributing financially to—for instance — migrant justice, Black liberation, LGBTQ rights. And this is not uncontroversial: some people prefer their bagels to just be bagels. But the risk that Able Bagel took — and the success it was met with — provides fodder for an interesting way to think about how businesses can open dialogues rather than simply supplying products.
These dialogues happened not just with Able Bagel and its customers, but within the decision-making process of the business itself. “Jonathan and I, and our little team — which consists of my family, and one of our other friends who does the content writing — came together once a week, and we talked about who we wanted to donate to. We would choose the one that we all felt a connection to at that point. We did our research, and made sure that the organization is legit. And we continued thinking about who we wanted to donate to next week,” I-Wen explains. But she’s also been met with pushback: some people in Singapore, particularly from the older generations, have apprehensions around organisations like the Black Visions Collective. They instinctively balk at a statement like Black Lives Matter, or they think that America has its own problems and can solve them itself. “But that’s not true. It’s not just America’s problem; these problems exist in a different form here also.”
Today, Able Bagel has switched to a for-profit model: it now serves as the primary source of income for its owners. But what it did last year remains a compelling study about how a small business, built around family and friendship, can express a communal vision of justice and world-making. Able Bagel was based on an evolving dialogue around what mattered to its founders—a true passion project—and that came through in its food, its ethos, and its very nature. Because Able Bagel was truly their own, there was just no way for I-Wen and Jonathan to simply make and sell bagels without bringing their other concerns and ideas into the mix: connecting transnational issues, opening conversations both internal and external, redistributing resources to vital causes. And perhaps Able Bagel also drew—for us—links between people who we don’t always think of as being like us, or as living on the same earth. These are important actions that food, in particular, is so well-poised to do. Able Bagel offered to us over and over again, in ways both nimble and material, different parts of this aching world that deserve our care and attention.
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