Craving a career change in the pandemic, Matt Harvey turned to bagels

Harvey quit his dead-end 9-to-5 during the pandemic and began making bagels. This week, he’ll have a grand opening for his bagel shop, Harvey’s Handrolled Bagels, in Montclair.

You’ve seen the headlines. They read almost like a fantasy: Join the Great Resignation, quit your 9-5, do the thing you’d rather be doing instead. 

For many, quitting a job to pursue a passion is untenable or otherwise out of reach. But for some, like Matt Harvey, quitting was the first step on a journey toward a more fulfilling life.

Earlier this summer, Harvey quit his job to pursue making bagels full time. His business, Harvey’s Handrolled Bagels, is “a pandemic story.”

“For the past decade I’ve been working in medical sales, before that I was playing music–touring in bands after college,” Harvey says. “I was already sick of being in the field, sick of being in sales, sick of the corporate life and all that crap. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

In early 2020, Harvey was living in Jersey City and started getting more involved with cooking and baking at home as a creative outlet—“For the heck of it, I started making bagels,” he says.

Over the years, he’d eaten a lot of bagels from different shops due to his sales career. “I worked in NYC for 10 years. I had different territories so I was all over the place, from the top of Westchester and White Plains down to Staten Island. I went to every bagel shop everywhere.”

Courtesy Matt Harvey

When the pandemic hit, Harvey “had more time to read, to learn,” he says. He consulted bread baking books as well as the subreddit r/Breadit, where many home bakers share recipes and tips. He also watched videos on YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, “where food creators, trained or not, were showing their processes.”

One of the biggest assets Harvey brought to his bagel-making journey was his chemistry background—he studied biology and psychology in college, and took plenty of chemistry courses along the way. 

“I quickly understood the science of bread, which helped me get the bagel right,” he says.

Those early experiments he conducted in his home kitchen “started coming out pretty good,” so Harvey launched a weekend delivery service with the goal of donating the proceeds to relief funds benefitting NJ and NYC restaurant workers and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. In the beginning, his deliveries went to friends and family and people within his immediate network—“Then I made an Instagram and a few other people started picking up on it,” he says. 

That summer, Harvey resumed in-person work in the city, so he stopped offering the bagels. There’s a timeline where that could’ve been it. Harvey’s bagels could’ve been an occasional hobby, and the story of selling them during a pandemic to benefit charities could’ve been an interesting anecdote he shared with coworkers when they asked how he spent his time at home. After all, how many of your pandemic pastimes have you kept up with? How’s your sourdough starter doing these days?

But it turned out his friends and family missed the bagels, so he decided to offer them again in late 2020 on weekends, while balancing his day job. As he did pop-ups at friends’ restaurants and shops, his Instagram presence and word-of-mouth buzz continued to grow. Harvey wondered if maybe there was a way to successfully take his pandemic pastime and turn it into a whole new life.

Then Harvey’s friend Beverly Lacsina, whom he met at Rutgers 15 years ago, presented him with an opportunity that changed everything. At that time, Lacsina was the head chef and manager of Corso 98, an Italian restaurant on Walnut Street in Montclair. She had ordered bagels a couple of times and thought Harvey was onto something, so she invited him to do a pop-up in the restaurant’s bakery, Cucina 98.

“We did that and from there people really liked it, it picked up and I kept doing it,” says Harvey. 

Photo Credit: Kerri Sullivan

What was first scheduled to be a one-time thing became monthly, then weekly, and “by the end of 2021, we were talking about buying this place, and that’s what we did in April,” Harvey says. 

Lacsina and Harvey opened last spring as Walnut Street Kitchen, with Harvey’s Handrolled and Walnut Street Bakery nextdoor to the restaurant. 

“It was definitely a huge shift. I don’t have much culinary training, it’s all stuff I’ve learned myself and with Bev as my mentor within this field,” Harvey says. “She’s been working in this industry for 13 years and she’s helped open some pretty big restaurants. She’s given me a lot of guidance through this.”

Harvey’s Handrolled currently offers about a dozen types of bagels, and he plans to add frequently requested whole wheat and whole wheat everything varieties soon. He describes his bagels as “a mix of the doughy-fluffy Jersey-style bagels with the NYC-style crispy crust.” 

The bagels are also the foundation for Harvey’s sandwich offerings—“Some sandwiches are based on ones I’ve enjoyed over time, my own take on them,” he says. The most popular is probably the Jersey City Devil, which features Taylor Ham, fried egg, American cheese, crispy hash brown and spicy scallion cream cheese. 

“I’ve tried to take a bunch of nostalgic things and make my own versions of them,” Harvey says.

Like he did early on, Harvey continues to find ways to work with other businesses and to give back through his bagels. 

“My buddy runs a nonprofit called Good Times Familia, which provides skateboarding gear to kids, and he makes hot sauces and a romesco sauce that benefit the organization, so we use those in sandwiches,” Harvey says. 

Those sandwiches are The Cafone (fried eggs, charred long hots, mozzarella, and Good Times’ Romesco) and The Corner Store (crispy bacon, fried eggs, cheddar, scallion cream cheese and Good Times’ OG Mango Rojo Hot Sauce).

He’s also collaborated on a brisket sandwich with The Velveteen Pig and plans to do more crossovers with other food businesses in the future. “My friend has a coffee roasting company called Cozz Coffee, and we’re going to feature his coffee here; it’ll be our drip coffee,” Harvey says.

As for the future, Harvey is going all-in on some big plans, starting with a shift in hours to accommodate folks who commute into the city from Walnut Street Station, just steps away from the bakery. 

“I see everybody in the mornings when I am here prepping and they’re bolting to the train, so hopefully if they know we’re open early they’ll leave themselves enough time to get a bagel and coffee,” Harvey says.

Courtesy Matt Harvey

Expansion is his next goal, in part for practical reasons: the current kitchen, which he shares with the restaurant and bakery, is too small to think about scaling up to something like catering. 

“I want to open up out in Jersey City, too. It’s a hometown for me because I lived there for 10 years.” Harvey says. “And maybe somewhere else, maybe New Brunswick. I went to school at Rutgers so it’s a nostalgic place for me. I played a lot of basement shows there. The music scene was really big when I was there, there were a lot of big bands that came out of there and really blew up.”

For as much as Harvey credits his science background for his success, his years spent as a musician deserve some of the credit, too. There’s very much a DIY ethos to his business, demonstrated in the scrappiness of its beginnings, the offbeat names of his sandwiches, the commitment to bringing people together, and in his dreams for what’s next.

“It’s all new, I’m still learning, but it’s been fun.”

Harvey’s Handrolled is hosting a grand opening celebration on Saturday, Sept. 10 starting at 7 a.m. New sandwiches will be debuted, and Cozz Coffee will be on site making drinks.