The owners of popular bagel company “Mr. J’s Bagels” discuss the inspiration behind their famous shop.
STORY | EMMA KORYNTA
PHOTO | SAM TAYLOR
Ready for a reunion, two brothers prepared to go visit their cousin at her new home in the Shenandoah Valley. They didn’t know quite what to bring, so they asked her if there was anything she needed. With all of the resources New Jersey had to offer, she simply requested the one thing Harrisonburg lacked: bagels.
Joe and David Jerlinski turned a visit to Harrisonburg into one of the city’s most beloved establishments: Mr. J’s Bagels and Deli. The Jerlinskis, condensed to the collective “Mr. J” persona, brought a piece of New Jersey with them.
“We always had bagels every Sunday morning, so we brought bagels down,” Joe says. “When I went back after the second visit, I went over to the bagel store that I bought my bagels from and I said, ‘Hey, how’d you get started?’ He told me one brother had stores and one brother did training and sold equipment.”
The Jerlinskis took that business approach and ran with it. With no prior experience actually making bagels, the brothers went to their go-to bakery for help.
“Part of the training was giving us their recipes, but that was the basic bagels: plain, cinnamon, wheat,” Joe says. “We make a sundried tomato bagel — that was our development. Pumpkin, that was ours. For Valentine’s Day, we do strawberry hearts, [which were] featured last month in Food Network Magazine.”
The duo opened Mr. J’s 26 years ago. The first location in Harrisonburg was on East Market Street near Valley Mall. Joe refers to this location as “33” because of the highway nearest to it. In 1996, a second Mr. J’s installment was added on South High Street, and a third location was added on Virginia Avenue near Eastern Mennonite University in 2003.
At Mr. J’s, the day starts at 5:30 a.m. as the Virginia Avenue bakers makes raw bagels every morning that are sent to the two other locations. Bagels are baked fresh at each location, and dayold bagels are sold at a discount in packs, two-day olds are made into chips, and beyond that are fed to cows at a local farm.
After the bagels are freshly made, the team delivers them to JMU, Bridgewater Community College and EMU all before 7 a.m. JMU receives an average of three deliveries a day, due to popularity among students. The bagels are found in many campus dining locations, such as the Student Success Center.
Students at JMU have formed a strong appreciation for Mr. J’s, whether they’re purchasing them on campus or going to the actual stores.
“We’re just glad that … we started off catering bagels to JMU,” Joe says. “It’s just been good to have such a good rapport with JMU.”
JMU students showed their appreciation for Mr. J’s by voting for the bagel business in a USA Today survey for “top-notch hangover cure restaurants.” In the survey, which represented colleges nationwide, Mr. J’s was ranked in fourth place.
Joe had no idea the survey even existed, and said he would’ve been pleased to even be mentioned, let alone to be in the top five.
In response to the news of their reputation as a hangover cure, Joe explained that the busiest time for Mr. J’s is the weekends, especially with the JMU students who treat Mr. J’s as part of their routine.
“The most different crowd we get, I guess, is at the 33 store,” Joe says. “Mostly JMU students come in, and you can tell that it’s definitely a hangover cure. So many kids come in in their pajamas, so you know they just got up.”
Whether it’s the weekend bagel-craving students or the Harrisonburg residents who come in every day with the same order, Joe loves interactions with his customers — it’s the best part of what he does.
“I think it has a big effect on how we’ve survived so long and done so well,” Joe says. “We do a lot for the community, we do a lot of donations at JMU, we do golf tournament donations and stuff, so I think people know that and recognize that and see our food in different places. It helps you get recognized.”
While Joe does appreciate the recognition and the fanbase that Mr. J’s has come to know, he enjoys the individuals that he meets. One customer is so friendly with the workers that every day when they see him walking up to the store they start to make his order.
Joe also appreciates when customers from outside of Harrisonburg come to love Mr. J’s. He recalls a customer who needed a bagel while preparing to run in the New York Marathon.
“I had a kid send me a picture on Facebook that his friend was coming from Waynesboro … and he said, ‘Stop at Mr. J’s, get me some bagels,’” Joe says. “He sent me a picture starting the marathon eating an egg bagel … Just things like [that] just make you feel good, like you’re doing a good job.”