Sakura Smith is reinventing the New York City bagel

Fermented yeast from the mountains of Japan finds its way to Brooklyn through Bagel Bunny.


Sakura Smith with her bagels. Or bunnies. (Courtesy of Hedda Jos Olsson)

Olivia Liu, Beauty & Style Editor

Malibu-raised baker Sakura Smith woke up at 4 a.m. today to feed her bunny. But Smith’s “bunny” is actually a bagel, and was born out of fermented vegetable yeast from a Japanese Buddhist monk. 

“I’m like a crazy person,” Smith said, laughing. “I wake up at four so I can feed the starter every day, or every other day if I can’t get to it. I feed it rice, carrots, apples and yamaimo, which is a Japanese mountain yam.” 

Smith worked at Chrome Hearts in Los Angeles after moving to New York City in 2016 to pursue a career in interdisciplinary design. The 25-year-old said she doesn’t subscribe to a particular career label — the good thing about her business is that she can take it anywhere. Bagel Bunny is her latest project. Her fresh bagel “bunnies,” originally baked out of her kitchen in Park Slope, are dropped off weekly at niche food markets in the city. Now, her most frequent drop-off is at Dimes Market, a spot tucked away in the little pocket between Chinatown and the Lower East Side known as Dimes Square. 

The signature logo on each packaged bundle matches the charm of the market: A little bunny is depicted holding a bagel, and both the drawing and watercolor are designed by Smith’s mother. 

“My mom thinks making the bagels out of the starter is so tedious, but I love it,” Smith said. “I went to a Japanese preschool and my teacher held the school out of her house, so she would always be baking and fermenting all these cozy things in her kitchen. She had the starter that she brought back from Japan, and when I was in high school she gave some to my mom, and I started experimenting with it.” 

There’s an air to Bagel Bunny that feels acutely personal to Smith — the handmade bagels, the childhood connection to her Japanese teacher, and the cozy but not-too-cutesy sticker created by Smith’s friend Ivana Saginova, which safely packages each brown bag of bagels. It feels nostalgic, something akin to your mom packing you a lunch box with a handwritten note.

Smith also considers her original stockist, Salter House in Brooklyn, as the birthplace of Bagel Bunny. Her friend Zoë Wendel first enlisted her help as a baker in the sustainable clothing and homegoods shop, and Smith began working to prepare the baked goods for each morning. 

“I brought the starter with me to New York and started baking with it for a long time, and I would give bagels as gifts to friends,” Smith said. “After I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and then my friend asked me to bake for the shop. Bagel Bunny took off from there.” 

Bagel Bunny’s trios prove that all good things come in threes — the imperfectly perfect, fluffy circles of dough are made in sets of three, with flavors including plain, black sesame, everything and a variety bundle of turmeric, raisin and cinnamon. Each bite is light, with a hint of the signature tang of sourdough, and somehow feels easier on the stomach than any other bagel. Smith chalks this up to the fermentation of the yeast. The combination of the yeast with the traditional, organic flour settles well into the stomach, combatting the usual sluggishness caused by using flour alone. 

“Honestly, I’m just a sucker for salted butter,” Smith said. “I’ll top the bagel off in so many different ways. My sister does a cream cheese and maple bacon — which is so good for you because bacon has a protein in it that keeps us young — but I just love to rip it from the oven and dip it in butter.”

Smith added that because the bagels aren’t traditional, there’s room for them to be reimagined and eaten in unique ways.

“A few people have put this mountain of mushrooms on it, and I think that’s the coolest thing ever,” Smith said. “It’s so much fun to make a chic table, and turn a regular bagel into a dinner bagel. I’ve done that with my friend Elias Keen, who brought the bagels into a wine shop he works at in the East Village, and all of them had so much fun taking turns deciding what wines and toppings would go best with what bagel.” 

For those looking to try Bagel Bunny, Smith will be doing a pop-up every Saturday in May from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Izakaya, a Japanese restaurant at 326 E. 6th St. She, her sister and her friends will be selling the bagels out of the window themselves.

“I feel so grateful to have so many people who love what I do,” Smith said. “It’s something so simple as bread, but it’s easy to forget that everyone is really here to support each other, and that the little things we do on a day-to-day basis truly matter.” 

The process of making a Bagel Bunny was documented by Tisch third-year Ava Newman, and can be found here.

Contact Olivia Liu at [email protected].