Pictured above: Front row, Lou and Lovey Borenstein; back row, from left, Mona and Mark Borenstein, Wendy Borenstein-Tucker and Don Tucker, Neal and Shirli Borenstein.
If you’ve ever sunk your teeth into a fresh New York-style bagel with whipped cream cheese at Chompie’s Restaurant, Deli, Bakery and Catering you have Wendy Borenstein-Tucker to thank.
Wendy and her first husband, Ron Wall, had come to Arizona to visit some friends who had moved here and she decided it was time to “move out west.” They had had an exceptionally brutal winter in Queens, NY, and then the summer hit with temperatures and humidity both in the 90s. Not to mention that David Berkowitz, the serial killer known as Son of Sam, was on the loose.
Now, all Wendy had to do was convince her parents, Lou and Lovey Borenstein, to follow her along with her younger brothers, Mark and Neal, who were 17 and 15. She told them that there would be opportunities in Arizona and lots of room for growth.
“I started thinking ahead to my parents 25th wedding anniversary, I wanted to have a party for them,” says Wendy. She told the guests, “If you’re going to bring a gift, bring a cactus or a piece of luggage – gear it to going out west to Arizona.” Lou and Lovey walked into a surprise anniversary party, and the final gift they opened up were tickets and hotel reservations to visit Arizona from Wendy and Ron.
In December 1977, Lou, Lovey, Wendy and Ron all came out to Arizona together. Wendy and Ron bought a house during the trip and Lovey remembers, “I was standing there looking around thinking, ‘What am I going to do? My daughter is moving to Arizona with her husband.’”
The answer was obvious to a Jewish mother – follow her.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
It was March 3, 1978 (Lou Borenstein’s birthday, coincidentally), when Ron, Wendy and Wendy’s younger brother Mark arrived in Arizona. The drive across the country had been rough, their AMC Pacer had broken down along the way, and now they were waiting for the movers to arrive.
They had decided before they left New York that Arizona was in desperate need of a place to buy real “water bagels” like the kind they had at home. Since Lovey had done some catering and Mark and Neal had both worked places where they learned the bagel-making trade, they decided to go with what they knew.
So there they were, the three of them sitting around experiencing Taco Bell for the first time and trying to figure out a catchy name for their business venture. They came up with names like New York Bagel Bistro, Borenstein Bagels, Bagel Delight and the Brooklyn Bagel Bistro.
“We had been to town once before, and it seemed like there were a lot of ‘cute’ names of places back then,” remembers Wendy. “They were catchy, memorable – like the Lunt Avenue Marble Club, Harvey’s Wineburger, The Velvet Turtle – to name a few.” Then all of a sudden Wendy had a vision of what the logo would be, and at the same time, Mark says, “Wow, I really miss the Chomper.” That was all he had to say. “I went chomp, chomp, chomp … Chompie’s Bagel Factory,” says Wendy.
“Chomper” was the nickname of the youngest Borenstein boy, Neal.
“Neal has a big broad smile and a large mouth – he could eat a hamburger in three bites,” says Lovey. “When he was a kid, and we lived in Queens, the kids on the block would holler, ‘Hey Chomper, you wanna play street hockey?’ ” Little did Mark realize that saying he missed his brother back in New York would create the iconic name for the family business.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The first Chompie’s was located in a strip mall at 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard in Phoenix. The Borensteins had to special order the equipment they needed including mixers, ovens and even the tubs to boil the bagels in before baking. “Kettling” is the name of that specific process and it’s not a true New York “water” bagel if it hasn’t been boiled first.
It was a long time coming (made longer with delays by the Arizona health department as they had never inspected this type of equipment and the bagel-making process before), but on Feb. 1, 1979, the first bagels came out of the oven.
“The first week we were testing all the new bagels, I gained nine pounds,” remembers Wendy. “They were so good.”
They had people coming to the back door to try and sample their bagels before they were even open. Their earliest customers were the kids attending Shadow Mountain High School. “There was a cinder block wall between the school and us, and the kids busted the wall down so they wouldn’t have to go around,” jokes Lovey. “Those kids are now bringing their kids into the store.”
Lovey had to educate some of the customers early on. “Many people didn’t know what a bagel was,” she says. “I had a customer come in and say, ‘I’ll take six of them there chocolate-covered donuts,’ directly looking at the most beautiful pumpernickel bagels you ever saw!” And it got worse when the customer questioned what to put on top – sour cream? Well, that was just too much for Lovey. “I said, ‘Madam these are not donuts, these are pumpernickel bagels and what we put on them is whipped cream cheese!’ ”
The best thing was when transplanted New Yorkers discovered them.
One customer’s reaction made the biggest impact on Lovey. “I had a guy come in and take a look at the beverage board and say to me, ‘You make chocolate egg creams?’ I said, ‘Yeah we do that.’ ‘You don’t by chance use Fox’s U-Bet syrup do you?’ I said, ‘As a matter of fact we do, straight out of New York.’ Well, I made him the biggest, frothiest chocolate egg cream you ever saw.” When she handed him the soda, the man sat down on the floor and started to cry. In the 40 years that he had lived in Arizona, he had not had an egg cream soda. “I felt so bad. It was heartbreaking. He had the best time,” says Lovey. Needless to say, the man became a regular customer.
From that point on, they made sure to bring a little more of Brooklyn to Arizona by ordering products that Lovey remembered from her own childhood and while raising her family, . They have always listened to their customers and try to carry what they want and miss from back East.
MOVING AND GROWING
They stayed at that original storefront on Shea Boulevard for 15 years. Between construction of the State Route 51 and the fact that they had expanded as much as they could at that location, the family decided to move up the street to 32nd Street and Greenway. They stayed there for 15 years also, and when that lease was up, moved into the space they now occupy at Paradise Valley Mall.
In addition to their Phoenix location, they have locations in Scottsdale (the longest at one address – 25 years), Tempe, Chandler and the newest one at Arrowhead Towne Center in Glendale, which opened two years ago.
Everyone in the Borenstein family has designated jobs, and then some. Wendy handles the marketing, Neal is research and development, and Mark is whatever is needed.
“Mark is the general everything,” says Wendy. “He’s the guy that finds our next location, works on the leases with the landlords – anything goes wrong it’s, ‘call Mark.’ ”
Chompie’s is a multi-faceted, complex business. “While all other places might be a restaurant and make their food, they may not be pickling their pickles or baking their bread and everything else that goes along with it,” says Wendy. “We are the restaurant, the gourmet bakery, the bagel factory and the bread bakery. We’re also the caterer and a New York-style delicatessen.”
Lou Borenstein added wholesale to Chompie’s business in the early 1980s. He went door-to-door delivering bagels and cookies and getting their products into businesses, coffee shops and grocery stores. Today you can find Chompie’s bagels and cookies at Fry’s and Bashas’ food stores.
Each location has its own commissary operation, and each store makes what they need. “They all follow the same recipes,” says Wendy. “All the breads are baked in our kosher bakery, and they get delivered. All the bagels are baked on site. We do it all.” They also operate a separate catering division for their customer’s lifecycle celebrations.
A lot of the recipes used at Chompie’s today came from Lovey’s mother and mother-in-law. “My mother was born in Poland, my mother-in-law in Russia, and their recipes are incorporated in many ways – such as the blintzes, potato pancakes, briskets and the chopped liver,” she says.
Wendy adds, “I used to chop and grind liver in my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn when I was a little girl with the meat grinder attached to the chair. I like it, but I don’t love it. I got to like it because of grandma Sarah.”
The grandmothers also had different styles when it came to matzah balls. “We make our matzah balls more like grandma Sarah’s than grandma Sadie’s,” Wendy says. “Grandma Sadie’s – they were the sinkers – grandma Sarah’s are the floaters. We make our matzah balls like Grandma Sarah.” Their chicken soup with matzah ball (a.k.a. Jewish penicillin) is a favorite go-to when Valley residents are nursing a cold or just need comfort food like grandma used to make.
“When you lose your grandparents, you lose a little bit of tradition,” says Wendy.
But Lovey responds, “We are lucky because we have this thing here (pointing to the restaurant surrounding her) so we can keep the traditions going.”
Lovey says that she was “not raised in an Orthodox home, but we were strictly Jewish.” Lou’s mother kept a kosher home. “My mother-in-law would have deli and she’d say, ‘How’s the coleslaw?’ I would say, ‘It’s delicious,’ and she would say she made it. If she asked you, she wanted a good answer; if it wasn’t good, then the deli made it!”
“We think very highly of our Jewish roots and care very deeply,” says Wendy. “My brother Neal and his wife, Shirli, make an annual trip to Israel every summer. This year, all of his kids are going, with their spouses (the youngest is not married) and their grandbaby.”
In keeping with tradition, during Rosh Hashanah and Passover, Chompie’s serves “beautiful dinners with tablecloths and linens and beautiful dishes like gefilte fish and brisket,” says Lovey. “There’s a lot of single people here that have no one, and they are glad to come here for a holiday.”
HELPING THE COMMUNITY
Although they have been donating to the greater good of the community since 1979, about 10 years ago the family started “Chompie’s Cares.” It’s a dedicated page on their website that you can go to and list whatever information you want to share from your organization and they will make a donation. “We donate items for silent auctions, money, or if someone wants to have their own special day or night at Chompie’s, we can do a portion of the proceeds to a 501(c)(3),” says Wendy. Every year they donate more than $100,000 to various nonprofit organizations.
They have had a “charity of choice” for the last two years that is featured on their kid’s menu. The Singletons (formerly known as Singleton Moms) is an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to providing hope and support to single-parent families impacted by cancer. All throughout May Chompie’s held a silent auction at their Scottsdale location. There were more than a dozen items to bid on including a football helmet signed by Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, and a laser-engraved display of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. All of the proceeds from that silent auction was given to The Singletons.
“We also tried to give back to the community during ‘Red for Ed’ – extending our military discount to teachers with credentials and their children,” says Wendy. “Also, if you wore red you got a free cookie.”
Any family run business will experience challenges, but going on 40 years, the Borensteins have figured out the best way for their family to make it work. “It’s definitely challenging getting along with family, it became more challenging as we have gotten older, but we’ve also become more adept at handling it too as we’ve gotten older,” says Wendy, who now serves as executive vice president.
“We love each other deeply. We fight sometimes but we always still love each other, and we always make up. We never stay angry. I think that’s the key to success,” she continues. “We always try to listen to each others’ opinions and give each other the floor – that’s important – and then we still fight, even though we listen to each other!”
When asked if any of Lou and Lovey’s grandchildren are prepared to take the reins, Lovey responds, “The grandkids are in marketing, international business, law, teaching, water conservation – they are all doing what they want to do right now.”
Wendy adds, “They all have been lucky enough to go away to colleges of their choice and become who they wanted to become, and they’re in the midst of becoming those people. Whether they will show interest in the near future or slightly distant future – that’s up for grabs.”
Regardless of what the future holds, right now all of the Borenstein siblings, along with their mom and dad, are doing their best to continue the traditions that have made Chompie’s a haven for their customers over the last four decades.
As a woman at the table next to us gets up to leave, Wendy looks at her and asks, “I hope we made you very happy today – did we? Was your food good?”
“Yes, very good.” the woman replies. “Good,” Wendy says, smiling proudly. Another satisfied Chompie’s customer.