By Elaine Stone, Photo by Joe Simon

Marx Hot Bagels in Blue Ash looks like the typical storefront restaurant nestled among a variety of stores in a strip mall, but the sign posted on the door is the first clue this is far from the typical bagel shop.  It reads, “This is an experience, not a restaurant.  Owner is not politically correct.  Enter at your own risk.”

Upon entering the shop, you are immediately confronted with all the wonderful smells of fresh made bagels: the cinnamon, the honey wheat and the savory smells of onion and garlic.

If you happen to visit the shop when the owner, John Marx, is calling the shots, you might be in for a different kind of confrontation.  On any given day, Marx can be heard barking at his employees to keep up the frenetic pace, jabbing and insulting the regulars in his Don Rickles’ style and educating those first-timers on the proper way to order their food.

Marx was born in Chicago. His family moved to Cincinnati when he was very young.  He grew up in Walnut Hills.  His childhood was difficult to say the least, but in the 8th grade, at St. Francis de Salles, Marx met a young nun, Sister Tera Seda, who was a major influence in his life.  “She gave me the mothering that I longed for and she gave me advice that has stayed with me,” Marx says, softly.  His teenage years were tumultuous, getting into fights, always trying to be the tough guy and as a result, he bounced around a couple of different high schools never graduating.

At 17 years of age, he got his first job at the Kroger’s store located at 8th & State in the bakery.  He moved around to several different bakeries in the years that followed until, in 1968, he started working as a bouncer in a bar in Mt. Adams and stayed there several years.  “I was getting tired of it,” recalls Marx.

It was around that time that John was made aware of a bagel shop that was struggling in Roselawn.  They were in bankruptcy and the attorney involved asked Marx if he would like to work for the court and try to turn it around.  He did what was asked and was given the opportunity to take it over.  Again, he remembered a piece of advice from the Sister.  “You don’t go to a job asking how much you are going to make.  You make yourself worthwhile.”

Marx celebrates 40 years this year in the bagel business.  On any given day at Marx Hot Bagels in Blue Ash, John hand rolls approximately 6,000 bagels, offers 40 different flavors (even though plain is their biggest seller) and employees 24 people.  When asked how many hours he puts in at the shop, he replies, “I never count them, I just have fun doing them!” He believes he runs his bagel shop like two of his heroes, former NFL coach and Hall of Famer Mike Ditka and College Basketball’s Bobby Knight, also a Hall of Fame coach.  “I don’t know how to manage people but I played a lot of sports so I feel like I can coach and that is what I do in the shop,” says Marx.

Marx believes he was the first bagel shop in the country to offer blueberry, raisin and then cinnamon raisin flavored bagels.  Some of his flavors are his original design and some flavor ideas come from his customers.  When asked what is the most unusual combination anyone has ever ordered?   He wrinkles up his face and says, “A pizza bagel with strawberry jam.”

He is the only kosher Jewish bagel shop in Greater Cincinnati.  “I enjoy owning a shop that caters to the Orthodox Jewish community,” John says. Marx loves the diversity of the people that come into his shop.  His curiosity about different ethnic groups, religions and customers’ political views drives him to read everything he can get his hands on.

In 1992, John traveled to Israel with a group from Cincinnati.  He explained that he and Dr. Leon Boothe were the only gentiles in the group.   Everywhere they went in Israel, he would see someone he knew or he would be recognized.  “They had all visited my shop when they were in Cincinnati and I guess I’m hard to forget,” Marx says laughing.

“I’ve had some wonderful things happen to me in my life,” Marx reflects.  He is most proud of being chosen as a Righteous Gentile by the Jewish community, and in 1971, John was asked to make bagels for the Smithsonian.

Customers compare Marx Hot Bagels to the best bagels in New York City, but there is another item on the menu that runs a close second to their bagels and that is the tuna salad.  “It’s a very simple recipe and we sell a ton of it,” says Marx.

If you ask John Marx when he plans to make his last bagel, he is quick to explain that he is going to live to be 100 years old and has no plans to retire. But he is just as quick to tell you the words he would like on his tombstone:

“Why be normal, why be sane, why be easy to explain.”