On Saturday, Frankie Baker turned on the lights at Frankie's NY Bagels tucked behind the Turf Club at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds at 2 a.m. He came in an hour earlier than usual to manage the extra eight dozen bagels on pre-order. He worked in solitude for six hours — boiling and baking 40 dozen with dough prepared the day before, then labeling and alphabetizing the warm paper bags — before customers began trickling in to pick up their bagels.
Since COVID-19 and shelter in place arrived in Humboldt in March, Baker has downsized to a one-person operation. His wholesale accounts — bars and restaurants that carried his bagels, bialys and bagel dogs — vanished and with them the need for employees. After getting a disaster relief loan, adopting a new schedule and a shifting the menu, the business is actually thriving, hitting the sweet spot of selling out of everything, meeting overhead and turning a profit. Which is why it's a bit of a surprise he's decided to sell Frankie's NY Bagels and move on in January.
Originally from Rochester, New York, Baker came to the North Coast to attend Humboldt State University, earning a degree in critical race, gender and sexuality. "I never planned on making bagels," he says. "I wanted them, really, that's the main motivation." The craving for the style of bagel he'd grown up with led to experiments, then obsession in the kitchen at home until he'd nailed the recipe for the flavor and the bite he missed: a crisp, bubbly crust with a not-too-chewy interior.
It wasn't until he returned from a visit to New York and ate a disappointing California bagel that Baker decided to give selling to the public a shot. As he started hunting for a kitchen in fall of 2016, he heard the spot at Redwood Acres — roughly 200 square feet with a small three-rack oven — had opened up and jumped on it.
Since COVID, the routine has shifted. Instead of daily batches, Baker takes orders on Mondays for Wednesday pick-ups, and Thursdays and Fridays for Saturday pickups. Pick-up days mean early mornings but the rest of the week he rolls in between 6 and 7 a.m. to prep dough, cut bagel chips and bake desserts, including cheesecakes that can be made a day ahead, and swirled loaves of Jewish babka, something many of his customers hadn't tasted before. On those days, without the steady flow of customers, he's completely on his own.
While the fruits of baking are often enjoyed socially (we call it breaking bread for a reason), the work itself can be a solitary practice, requiring precision and focus from people who live on early shift schedules apart from the 9-to-5 crowd. "You're alone in the kitchen with your music," says Baker, who says it suits his independent personality. "You get a rhythm down." Working alone has been a boon not only in terms of the low overhead, but in terms of safety. Social distance would be impossible in the tiny bakery and some of his customers are older or have health vulnerabilities. "One customer," says Baker, "he's really sweet and he said, 'I risk my life once a week to come here and get bagels.'" Baker says for that reason he sees only a couple of friends and gets tested for COVID-19 monthly at the Redwood Acres site.
Seeing his steady clientele is, despite the distraction from the precision of baking, the best part of pick-up days. That customers are similarly attached to Baker isn't a shock — his charm aside, the bagels are a regional staple that feeds a small legion of homesick East Coasters and locals who've developed a taste for the style.
The regulars have seen not only the evolution of the business but of Frankie's life. Since opening four years ago this month, he's been married, divorced and transitioned gender, all with the same faces showing up each week. With a laugh he says when be began his transition, he thought, "Are you really gonna do this while you're starting your business?" But he's gotten only respect and support from his customers, with a little endearingly awkward encouragement here and there. "I've only had a couple weird looks over four years — that's amazing." Baker says again and again, "I love my customers," and that saying goodbye to them will be the hardest part of letting the business go. But it's time.
Baking is physically demanding work. It's likely the repetitive motions of working with dough and machinery are what landed Baker the rotator cuff injury he's nursed for a year. "It hurts, like every second of the day. It hurts to sleep. And I think over time I'm just getting used to the pain," he says. Surgery would necessitate closing the shop for months while he recovers.
Only a week ago, Baker was talking about pushing through the pain indefinitely. Maybe getting a street cart. But after talking with a mentor, he reflected on how much he's been putting into the business — financially, emotionally, physically — and whether it was still giving back what he wanted. Slowing down amid the pandemic may have helped him make the decision, though he says he feels a little guilty making a choice some struggling businesses don't have. With his former employee newly employed elsewhere and no more accounts to service, there's less to hold him back from possibly returning to school and pursuing social work or art again. "I've always known I was not going to do this forever. ... I wanted to create this in this community. And I am thriving, so I want to pass it on to somebody ... I feel proud of what I've done. I can't even believe it."
Baker is optimistic about selling and feels it might be a good fit for a couple or a pair of partners, that someone could take his recipes and expand the business. "I want someone to take it and do what they want with it," he says, even if that means tweaking his recipes, though that would be a shame. The decision is new enough that he hasn't come to a price yet but he's already organizing for the next owner, whoever they are. He's willing to teach them the ropes, too, partly, he says with a chuckle, out of self-interest. "Hey, I'm gonna definitely go in there and buy bagels."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.