“I’ve always wanted my own Jewish-style deli and bagel shop. Maybe it’s because of my unhealthy love for pastrami,” says Dale Donchey, owner of Spiller Park Coffee and baker behind pop-up Dear Friend, Bagels.
A veteran of the Atlanta coffee scene, Donchey’s background includes stints at Steady Hand Pour House, Method Coffee Bar, and Octane. He opened Spiller Park Coffee six years ago as a large kiosk on the first floor of the food hall at Ponce City Market, followed by a second, larger location in 2017 at the Toco Hill Shopping Center. A third location opens this fall in northwest Atlanta. Now Donchey has set his sights on bagels and deli sandwiches to continue tying in his Jewish roots through the food served at Spiller Park. Donchey eventually plans to open a bakery and kitchen facility with a small retail space, allowing him to expand the menu and bagel offerings at his coffee shops.
Donchey began making bagels at home eight years ago when he still lived in Grant Park, just east of downtown Atlanta, and didn’t want to travel across town to Bagel Palace in Toco Hills or Bagelicious in Marietta, then the city’s bagel institutions.
As his bagel-making endeavors at home and for friends became a much more serious business, Donchey began playing with flour ratios — two grams of this, four grams of that — using old cookbooks and baking techniques from Poland and France, hoping to land on a recipe that wasn’t one hundred precent, high-gluten flour. This turned into playing around with fermentation and flavors, like buckwheat or sprouted rye.
“I always like the idea of more flavor and less gut bomb,” Donchey says of his bagels.
Needing assistance with fermentation methods and ingredient proportions, Donchey enlisted friend and fellow Ponce City Market purveyor and baker Chris Wilkins of Root Baking Co. Wilkins helped Donchey scale down and hone his bagel recipe and speed up the fermentation process with a one-to-one ratio of water to flour, before adding yeast.
“I wanted to do things the old way,” say Donchey. “But Chris is very good at what he does, and he unlocked ways for me to make my very labored and archaic baking process better and more consistent. It was the final bit of education I needed.”
The impetus behind Dear Friend, Bagels has always centered on friendship and fellowship. Over the years, friends kept asking Donchey when he was going to open a shop and what it would be called. It sort of became a running joke, “when are ‘we’ opening a shop,” he says of those discussions with friends. The name materialized organically while bantering with a close friend one day: Dear Friend, Bagels. It made him, and everyone who heard the name, smile.
With the pandemic forcing Donchey to pivot his coffee shops to takeout only last year, popping up with Dear Friend, Bagels at both locations of Spiller Park became another form of revenue and a way to keep his staff employed. It also became a proving ground for his future bagel and delicatessen business.
“When COVID hit, we were closed for two months because, along with the rest of the world, we had no idea what the hell was going on,” he says. “When we began reopening, we needed something to jazz up the shops and not just be like, ‘here’s a cup of coffee.’ So, it became ‘What about bagels? Let’s just do bagels.’”
A bagel-making day sees Donchey up at 3 a.m. to bake batches — sometimes at home, sometimes from the small kitchen at Spiller Park in Toco Hills. This includes Donchey mixing up doughs, cutting and rolling out bagels to boil, and then topping and baking multiple batches throughout the early morning hours. Though he has help from time to time, Donchey bakes most of the bagels himself. Since starting Dear Friend in June 2020, Donchey estimates he’s baked close to 10,000 bagels for the pop-up.
Typically run Friday through Sunday from one or both Spiller Park locations, Dear Friend, Bagels serves bagel flavors like everything, cinnamon sugar, and sumac poppyseed topped with dill or sorghum labneh with a side of sumac pickles, bagels and schmear by the half and whole dozen, bialys, white fish salad, and sometimes deli sandwiches, such as his beloved pastrami. Donchey credits Spiller Park culinary director Caroline Martin for helping to craft the food menu for the coffee shops, including its popular jams, as well as the deli sandwiches for Dear Friend. People can preorder bagels and sandwiches online for pick up, which is highly recommended to avoid showing up to a sold out shop.
Donchey is currently looking for space to open a Jewish-style bakery and deli production facility in Atlanta, with the goal of offering bagel brunch weekends and more lunch specials at Spiller Park and to sell lox, pastrami, corned beef, and whitefish by the pound. He also wants to expand the Dear Friend, Bagels pop-up to more spots throughout the city and provide catering options.
Initially, Donchey had thought of opening Dear Friend, Bagels as a bagel shop and deli in downtown Atlanta, where small businesses like his once thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries around two railroad terminal stations. Downtown is familiar territory for Donchey, too. For the last two summers, he’s been testing the waters there with Spiller Park as a pop-up coffee shop in South Downtown, a redeveloping area of downtown Atlanta along Mitchell Street. Occasionally, Dear Friend, Bagels makes appearances. It will again during Spiller Park’s final day at the Lot on Mitchell Street, Saturday, September 25. But he’s not giving up on opening in downtown Atlanta, instead considering the area for a fourth location of Spiller Park Coffee.
For now, Donchey is preparing for the opening of his third Spiller Park Coffee this fall at the Moore Mill Shopping Center in northwest Atlanta. The shop will feature a similar layout to Spiller Park in Toco Hills and include a larger kitchen where Donchey and his team plan to offer more grab-and-go food. It provides more space for Dear Friend, Bagels to continue expanding operations, too.
“I’m using this [bagel] concept to explore my ancestry and my heritage and create more Jewish ties to the company I’ve already started, maintained, and worked very hard to grow,” Donchey says. “I’m thankful to have a very good management staff for Spiller Park. They’ve given me the ability to do these things right. You know, I’m not totally the lone soldier here.”
Follow Dear Friend, Bagels on Instagram to keep updated on pop-up dates and menus.