Three Brothers and a Sister

Confessions over a bagel: Stories of tenacity, friendships and survival baked into local food institution

Confessions over a bagel: Stories of tenacity, friendships and survival baked into local food institution

When I first moved to Houston to embark on graduate studies at Rice University, I had difficulty finding a bachelor pad that quenched my desire for something cute, with personality, close enough to school so my morning drive wouldn't be burdensome — but not too close. I knew during trying times I would be yearning for a respite from scholastic activities.

Nothing I toured echoed my essence of style; in retrospect I was being a stereotypical, demanding jackass without much to my name. My realtor tried and tried to appease, though she wasn't succeeding. It was the Sunday after Tropical Storm Allison and the pickings were slim — and I didn't understand why. Rain couldn't be as destructive as the many snowstorms I had survived in Toronto, Canada; Rochester, N.Y.; and Lansing, Mich.; could it?

"Yes!" she emphatically responded. Surely I must have rolled my eyes, the kind of gesture that judges and implies, "whatever, I'm not pleased."

"Anything Jewish, with a bagel place nearby?" I inquired.

To this day, I am unsure why such a query came to mind. I didn't identify with the faith that strongly then, and neither Jewish nor bagel were on my list of apartment must-haves. Albeit my question did prompt my guide to deviate from her route and make a beeline for Braeswood Boulevard — with a stop at Three Brothers Bakery on the way. Nearby I settled in a lovely one-bedroom apartment in Meyerland, and once or twice a week my jaunt to and from class included a shmeared carb-heavy treat. For those two years, it was what brought me comfort — and a smile.

Some people solve the world's problems over coffee, tea or wine. In my family, no meal, snack or serious heart-to-heart would be complete without breaking bread, literally. For the tribe who bakes and decorates the cornucopia of indulgences at Three Brothers Bakery, matters of importance are discussed while kneading, shaping and molding the dough that became my makeshift, imaginary companion-cum-therapist with whom I'd converse freely in the safety of my car during my initial years in Houston.

 "Now, the decorating ladies? Who knows what they are yapping about — they don't stop. Here, it feels more like social time rather than a day at work."

Thankfully, bread can't talk. Because otherwise I'd have to kill it.

Flour and water

"You make the ladies happy with this," one seasoned baker says to me in Spanish, pointing to a chocolate cupcake while braiding a coffee cake on a large wooden table dusted with flour. The others let out a hearty laugh.

"Hey, the boys like it too," I responded, reaching for a steamy poppy seed Hamantaschen fresh out of the oven. I scorched my tongue, but it was worth the pain. The stuffed triangle cookies are customarily only available during Purim, analogous to Jewish Halloween, usually in March. However they are available year-round here, filled with apricots, cherries, prunes, raspberries, strawberries and chocolate.

"The guys are more chatty on any given day," says Robert Jucker, owner and fifth-generation baker. "Now, the decorating ladies? Who knows what they are yapping about — they don't stop. Here it feels more like social time rather than a day at work."

The camaraderie is why Silverster, a gentleman in his mid-60s from Mexico, has been with the Juckers for more than 25 years. Jucker and Silvester are about to offer a hands-on tutorial on the art of the bagel. But what was intended as a cooking workshop has morphed into something different: A rap session about life, tenacity and friendships over baked goods.

"When I was growing up, everyone would be around this table," Jucker recalls. "We would all be making bagels together by hand. My dad would yell, 'get over here,' and everyone would come. We would be here for two hours making bagels, and then three-and-a-half hours shaping kaiser rolls. No machines."

Indentations embedded on the wood top, like beauty marks, document where each member of the family stood. Sigmund, Robert's father, labored his dough with the most pressure, and a conspicuous imprint lives there permanently. 

"I feel like was raised here, eating scrambled eggs cooked by the staff — not by my mom," Jucker jokes.

 "The three brothers — twins Sigmund and Sol, and younger brother Max — had a sister; miraculously they all ended up in the same concentration camp at the very end."

Sigmund began by incorporating high gluten flour, yeast, salt, water, malt and a small amount of sugar to aid fermentation, and Robert does just the same. Eight-pound batches, measured with an old-style press, are allowed to rest for 15 minutes or so — not hours — prior to dividing them into small portions, just the right size one hoop bread.

"The protein in the gluten, when it's mixed well, binds the flour so all the strands are tighter than in a regular loaf of bread," he says.

The technique of hand-making bagels isn't something one can describe, but a motion that has be observed and practiced. The raw, stiff mixture is draped around the fingers and rolled into a circlet. One sweep forward, another backward, in a rhythm, fashions the traditional shape. I try to imitate. I fail, I don't conquer — but I eat.

Boiling is no longer necessary as steam ovens that produce 91-percent humidity yield the classic final appearance and consistency, but though Jucker has acquired technology that automates this intense physical process, he hasn't forgotten his craft.

Over the course of the week, the kitchen churns out 4,000 bagels, a tiny three percent of the bakery's full service operation. Although Three Brothers Bakery maintains that it introduced bagels to the local market it's Rye bread, gingerbread men and Hamentaschen that bring home the kosher bacon.

"This job keeps you young," Jucker says. "When my dad stopped coming to the bakery, he was in great physical shape. If he would have continued to work, and he says that to me all the time, he would have retained his strength. He's 91."

The three brothers' sister

As is often said, behind every great man there's a great woman.

"The three brothers — twins Sigmund and Sol, and younger brother Max — had a sister; miraculously they all ended up in the same concentration camp at the very end," Jucker explains. "It's highly unusual that something like that would happen, because families were split and transported to different locations. 

"We don't even want to think about what she had to do to be together with her brothers."

 "He wanted my dad to succeed; he knew they didn't speak English very well; and he knew they had just arrived in the country, so he helped with the loan paperwork."

A few days after the Battle of Berlin in 1945, when the Nazi empire surrendered to the Soviets, the four siblings regained their freedom from the totalitarian dictatorship. The sister, Jenny, left behind the barbarity of World War II-era Chrzanow, Poland, and found safe passage into Houston, where she would once again unite her family. As Sigmund was making arrangements to put down roots in Colorado Springs, he received correspondence from his sister, noting that she had stumbled upon a local bakery that would sponsor their relocation.

After a short-lived employment at Henke & Pillot, a local chain of supermarkets acquired by Kroger in 1955, together the siblings purchased a small but successful bakery on Holman Street, at the site of the new Midtown Arts Center. Three Brothers Bakery opened on May 8, 1949, four years to the day after they were liberated from the Third Reich. Back then a loaf of rye bread sold for $.50 and coffee cakes for $.55. Opening day yielded $19 in gross profit.

Three Brothers Bakery wasn't a cash cow at first. The original location lacked parking; the American palate wasn't accustomed to Polish tastes and textures; the bread was too crusty; the pastries weren't sweet enough; and their target clientele was transitioning to a new residential neighborhood on Almeda. The siblings followed suit and moved their shop to across the old Jewish Community Center in 1954, on the northeast corner of Hermann Park, what is today the Robinson Jr. Community Center.

Yet as the development of master planned communities surged to the southwest, the Juckers considered whether to stay put or pull up stakes one more time. A parcel of acreage on Braeswood, fringed by cow pastures, was designated as the future home of the new Jewish Community Center of Houston — re-dedicated in 2011 as the Evelyn Rubenstein Jewish Community Center of Houston. His shoppers would soon follow.

But this land wasn't for sale.

"This man, who didn't know my dad, offered to sign on his behalf," Jucker remembers. "He said, 'I will lease this land for you. I will sign for you.' And he did.

"He wanted my dad to succeed; he knew they didn't speak English very well; and he knew they had just arrived in the country, so he helped with the loan paperwork."

 "All the guys I went to school with, they are all millionaires. But I make people happy everyday, and there's something to be said about what money can and cannot give you."

That fellow was William Burge Jr., nicknamed "Big Bill," a major civic mover and shaker and co-founder of the Ayshire Corporation, the land development company that prospered with projects like Braes Heights and West University Place. He died last year at the age of 96.

"After 40 years of leasing the land — 40 years! — the Burge family said to us, 'You deserve to own this land,' " Jucker explains. "We bought it from them. I felt we had arrived, that the plight that started in Poland was at rest."

Carrying on the legacy

Alongside his wife Janice and his aunt Estelle, Sol's wife, Jucker continued to grow Three Brothers Bakery into a local institution, but there's more to this story.

Despite destruction from Hurricane Ike, having to operate out of a mobile trailer, reconstruction, calcified pipes, beating a dangerous cancer diagnosis and losing a second retail location in River Oaks, Jucker feels lucky to still be in the business.

"God's will," he says. "I don't take anything too seriously nowadays. I make my employees laugh."

Jucker, who earned a degree from the University of Texas at Austin in petroleum land management in the '80s, imagined a different life for himself.

"The oil business went to hell in a handbasket," he says. "I couldn't get a job. But all my friends who stayed in it, all the guys I went to school with, they are all millionaires.

"But I make people happy everyday, and there's something to be said about what money can and cannot give you."

Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
The intense physical process begins by incorporating high gluten flour, yeast, salt, water, malt and a small amount of sugar to aid in fermentation. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Eight pound batches, measured with an old-style press, are allowed to rest for 15 or so minutes prior to dividing them into small portions using a hand-operated machine. . .  Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
. . . just the right size one hoop bread. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Though Jucker has acquired technology that automates this intense physical process, he hasn't forgotten his craft. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
No longer is boiling necessary as steam ovens that produce 91 percent humidity yield the classic final appearance and consistency. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Over the course of the week, the kitchen chruns out 4,000 bagels, a small 3 percent of the bakery's full service operation. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Although Three Brothers Bakery maintains that it introduced bagels to the local market . . .  Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
 . . . Rye bread, gingerbread men, Hamentaschen are what brings home the kosher bacon. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Despite destruction from Hurricane Ike, having to operate out of a mobile trailer, reconstruction, calcified pipes, beating a dangerous cancer diagnosis and losing a second retail location on River Oaks . . . Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
. . . Jucker feels lucky to still be in the business. Photo by Joel Luks
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012
Three Brothers Bagels video, November 2012