Bodo’s Bagels

On the roof of Charlottesville’s legendary diner The Tavern appeared the words “Where Students, Tourists, and Townpeople meet.”  With The Tavern long closed, that motto could now belong to Bodo’s Bagels, Charlottesville’s most popular place to eat.

Everyone goes to Bodo’s.  College students nursing a hangover with a bacon-egg-and-cheese.  Kids powering up for soccer games.  Construction workers carb-loading for a hard day.  Families enjoying a budget-friendly dinner.  Office workers on a lunch break.  Event planners easing their planning.  Ladies’ lunching.  Babies trying their first solid foods.  And, every out-of-town guest we have ever hosted.

When you are in Charlottesville, going to Bodo’s is just something you do.  Bodo’s is so embedded in our culture that it has become a Charlottesville institution to call Bodo’s a “Charlottesville institution.”  In a city of 43,000 people, Bodo’s has a Facebook page with 20,000 “Likes.”

Still not convinced? Consider this. Combined, Bodo’s three locations feed roughly 6,000 people per day. That’s nearly 500 per hour that they are open. Or, seven per minute.

Yet, things have not always been this way.  Although it may feel like Bodo’s has been fueling area residents since the days of Thomas Jefferson, Bodo’s is not even 35 years old.  That’s younger than LeBron James.

And, while it may seem like everyone in Charlottesville eats at Bodo’s, bringing bagels to the area was not an easy sell.   In the late 1980s, when the first Bodo’s opened, bagels were not common in many parts of the South, as bagel franchises had yet to stretch across the nation.  Even as late as the early 1990s, we recall a UVa student who liked to boast that he had never had a beer, bagel, or Chinese food.  Bagels are “Yankee food,” he would say.  Given Charlottesville’s position below the Mason-Dixon line, our friend was not the only reluctant customer.

So, how did a bagel place become Charlottesville’s signature place to eat?

Roof of The Tavern

The Origins

Bodo’s was founded in 1988, by Brian Fox.  After running a restaurant in Burlington, VT for more than a decade, Fox had grown tired of New England winters, and sought a warmer place to begin anew with his wife and two daughters.  He hopped in his car, and headed south, literally driving from town to town in search of somewhere that felt right.

Most places didn’t.  Some were not “solid” enough.  In others, the people seemed unwelcoming, or the social atmosphere didn’t feel right.

Then, he came to Charlottesville.  With its rural and cosmopolitan mix, Charlottesville struck Fox as a virtual twin city of Burlington.  Charlottesville, he found, was a “wonderful, wonderful place” with warm and hospitable people.

Fox liked Charlottesville immediately, and soon, Charlottesville would like him back.  Bodo’s became an enormous success in large part because it embodies many of the best attributes of its founder.  Even today,  seventeen years after Fox sold Bodo’s, his stamp remains.

A Social Forum

The fact that so many different types of people come to Bodo’s is actually by design.  Fox, a dropout who never thought of himself as particularly good at anything,  is certainly good at least one thing: creating social fora.  Before Bodo’s, Fox had run two businesses that, while very different, both succeeded because they were places that regular customers could relate to and even become “champions” of, as Fox puts it.  They were social successes.

Fox’s first business was a pair of counter-culture clothing boutiques in Nyack, NY, and Burlington, VT.  Open from noon until midnight, seven days a week, the boutiques became known more for their social scene than their merchandise.   In running the two stores, Fox discovered that he enjoyed creating and influencing a social atmosphere, and then standing back and watching.

Fox’s next business, a bistro in Burlington, VT called the Deja Vu, was a huge success, too, winning acclaim from The New York Times and others.  And, while the food was renowned, it was again the atmosphere and social scene that Fox believes attracted a cadre of loyal regulars.

In Bodo’s, Fox set out to create another social forum — another place that people could become champions of.  He also hoped to remedy some aspects of running a restaurant that had bothered him at Deja Vu.  These included long hours, dependence on floor staff, and the inevitable divide between front of the house and the back of the house.

But, the thing that seemed to bother Fox most about his run at the Deja Vu was that it was “socially exclusive.”  Yes, the bistro was beloved by regular customers.  But, Fox says, at least fifty percent of area residents were excluded.   This was in part because of the prices.  But it was also because of the atmosphere.  Not everyone felt comfortable there.

Fox was determined to create somewhere that would be more democratic (“with a small ‘d'”, Fox says) — somewhere where everyone would feel comfortable.

The Making of Bodo’s

To be democratic, Fox knew his eatery would need to have very low prices, which meant he would also need high volume.  To succeed as a low-price and high-volume restaurant, Fox looked to the model of fast food, which, he admits, would have been loathsome to him in earlier stages of his life.  As a member of the counter-culture scene in Burlington, VT,  “the idea of having a place with even one piece of Formica in it would have been anathema.”

But, friends advised Fox that there were efficiencies in fast food franchises that helped them succeed.  And, while Fox was not fond of fast food itself, he realized they were right about the efficiencies. “There is a reason fast food places do well,” Fox says.

The idea for bagels came from Fox’s wife at the time, who had baked bread all of her life, and suggested a bakery.  Fox liked the idea, and also recalled enjoying a place called Burlington Bagel Bakery.  Fox thought a bagel bakery and a fast food concept could work well together.

But, to combine the two, Fox had a lot to learn.  A self-described control freak, he immersed himself in every detail.  “I don’t like to compromise,” he says.

First, he had to learn how fast food establishments work.  So, he visited area fast food establishments and studied their service systems.  Computerized registers, assembly stations, etc., Fox soaked it all up.  “It was a lot of work because I didn’t know anything about this stuff.”

It was not just the service system that Fox mimicked.  Fox also wanted his restaurant to look and feel like fast food, so that everyone would feel welcome.  “You have to ring the right bells” for customers, Fox says.  Those bells included a “zippy” decor, low prices, and a location that people could get in and out of quickly.

Even the name was intended to ring those bells.  The namesake for Bodo’s is a former waiter at the Deja Vu from Eastern Europe, where the name Bodo is not uncommon.  A great guy, Fox says, Bodo was always jovial and friendly.  Fox liked the name in part because of the letters it used: Bs and Os, easy for kids to say.  He also liked the word’s connotation: self-effacing, humorous, and zippy, and with a clownish bounce to it.   So “Bodo’s” it was.

With all of the work that went into planning Bodo’s, it was more than two years before Fox was ready to open its doors.  When Bodo’s did finally open in 1988, he found that all of his preparation had paid off.  Fox’s vision of a democratic eatery had been realized.

“Right from the start, people came in on foot, occasionally came in pushing shopping carts . . and they came in Rolls Royces, ” Fox says.  “And, everybody got in line and everybody smiled at each other . . .  And, it felt wonderful.”

The original Bodo’s on Emmet Street

Thirty-five years later, people have not stopped coming.  In fact, the demand for Bodo’s has been so great that two more locations have opened.  And, there are no signs that demand is slowing.

Bodo’s Timeline

1986:  Fox comes to Charlottesville
1988:  Emmet  St. Bodo’s Opens
1993:  Preston St. Bodo’s Opens
2005:  The Corner Bodo’s Opens

The Bagels

Enough about Bodo’s history.  What about the food?

What makes Bodo’s unusual as a bakery is that it offers a fresh-baked product all day long.  While many bakeries do all their baking for the day in the morning, Bodo’s bakers bake all day.  They start before opening, and their last bagels come out of the oven about a half hour before closing.  This means that any time of day customers can enjoy bagels fresh from the oven.

The great virtue of this is that it makes Bodo’s bagels unusually suitable for sandwiches.  Fresh from the oven, they are soft enough to stand in for sandwich bread, no matter what is stuffed inside.  First, choose your bagel from a menu of ten different kinds, such as Plain, Cinnamon Raisin, Whole Wheat, or, our favorite, Everything.  Next, choose your main ingredient from breakfast ingredients like eggs, sausage, and cream cheese or from other sandwich options like deli meats, egg salad, tuna salad, liverwurst, and more.  Finally, select your additions — lettuce, tomato, onion, bacon, horseradish, avocado, hummus, kalamata olive spread, and, again, more.  Almost everyone in Charlottesville has their own favorite Bodo’s sandwich.

Oddly, the freshness of Bodo’s bagels may also be why the bagels have some detractors.  Some New York bagel aficionados, for example, swear that Bodo’s bagels are not as good as “real” New York bagels.  We have had many “real” New York bagels in our day.  Ess-A-Bagel and Murray’s are among our favorites.  We think that Bodo’s bagels hold their own.  The trick, we have found, is to wait several hours before eating them.  While bagels fresh out of the oven are ideal for sandwiches, they have not had the time to settle and adopt the chewy texture that is common to many of the best New York bagels.  So, if we plan to eat ours in a classic way, say,  with cream cheese, we try to buy them several hours before eating.

The Restaurant Experience

As much as we enjoy the bagels at Bodo’s, we find that Bodo’s greatness lies not so much in the food as it does in the entire experience.

How do you spot a tourist at Bodo’s?  He is the one leaving because the line looks too long.

Regular Bodo’s customers know that the line is never too long.  Even when it stretches out the door, as it often does Sunday morning, customers know that they will have their food in hands in just minutes.

This is testimony to Bodo’s remarkable efficiency, utilizing many processes first implemented by Fox.  With Bodo’s employment experience under our belts decades ago, we have seen first-hand how well Bodo’s is run.  They have the process down.

In addition to efficiency, Bodo’s excels at creating a positive environment.  If we had a nickel for every time that a Bodo’s employee forgot to say “Thank You” when they gave us our order, well, we might have about ten cents.   Bodo’s achieves this in part by hiring selectively (with the obvious exception of hiring one of us).  Fox was famous for the length of his employee interviews.  Current co-owner Scott Smith recalls that when he first applied to work at Bodo’s, Fox’s interview of him lasted more than four hours.  Co-owner John Kokola recalls an interview of many hours as well.  These days interviews might not last quite so long, but the current owners continue to be selective in the hiring process, targeting employees who help sustain Bodo’s positive feel.

To Toast or Not to Toast?

How do you spot a tourist ordering at Bodo’s?  He is the one who asks for his bagel toasted.

Regular Bodo’s customers know that a toasted bagel is not on offer.  And, this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of Bodo’s.   Even some regular customers long for a toasted bagel with butter.

Where do we come out in this controversy?

We like things just as they are.  First, we happen to think that a good bagel should be left alone.  Bodo’s bagels require enormous attention to detail.  From boiling the dough, to caring for the yeast, to baking the bagels, their preparation requires expertise, attention, and precision.  Bagels are a “fussy product,”  says co-owner Kokola.

All of this effort is aimed at getting the flavor and the texture of the bagel just right.  To us, the end result is a finished product.  We would no sooner ask for a Bodo’s bagel to be toasted than we would ask for a Parisian bakery’s croissant to be put in the microwave.  While both processes would add warmth, they would also alter the texture and flavor of a product that its producers worked hard to perfect.

That being said, we understand that some people like their bagels toasted.  Our own families include such nutjobs.  Taste is, of course, entirely subjective.

What is less subjective is the impact that offering toasted bagels would have upon the Bodo’s experience.  A large part of what makes Bodo’s great is the efficiency of the ordering system.  This goes a long way towards keeping customers happy.  At many lunch counters or even fast food establishments, it is all too familiar to find frustrated customers standing by the counter, rolling their eyes, and checking their watches.  This almost never happens at Bodo’s.  Bodo’s is fast.  And, Bodo’s customers are happy.

Kokola and Smith say that toasting would make this impossible.  “It would fundamentally change the customer experience,” says Kokola.  Based on our own experience working at Bodo’s, we agree.

Consider arriving at Bodo’s with a line of ten people in front of you.  As things currently are, you can expect to be out in no time at all.  If toasting was available, however, and the customers in front of you asked for their bagels toasted, your wait could increase dramatically.  Like Kokola and Smith, we think this would harm the entire dining experience.  As Smith says, there is no way that Bodo’s could offer toasted bagels and continue to serve the number of people it does every day.

The Music

Another part of the Bodo’s experience is the music, which includes one of the best soundtracks in Charlottesville. This is again thanks to Fox, who hand-picked all 1,600 of the songs that were part of the original Bodo’s rotation before he sold the business.  Now that Fox has moved on, the mantle is carried by Smith, who has expanded the rotation to 3,800 songs, but has kept the great music from Fox’s days.  And, great it is.  The number of times we have heard Bodo’s play one melody we like exceeds the total at all other restaurants combined.

Ten Artists Most Frequently Played at Bodo’s

1.  Bob Dylan
2.  The Beatles
3.  The Rolling Stones
4.  Richard/Linda Thompson – The Fairport Convention
5.  Elvis  Costello
6.  Neil Young
7.  Van Morrison
8.  Talking Heads / David Byrne
9.  Wilco
10.  The Kinks

Room for Improvement?

Bodo’s is not, nor does it pretend to be, a gourmet restaurant.  Some people might take issue with this.  They might note that the sandwich meats are not beautifully roasted meats from locally raised free-range animals.  Or, that the cheeses are not raw milk, washed rind, or cloth-bound.  But, this criticism misses the point.

Sure, on occasion we like to take our bagels home, and top them with something more indulgent than Bodo’s offerings, like smoked fish from Russ and Daughters or bacon from JM Stock Provisions.  But, usually we are more than satisfied with the unfussy toppings on Bodo’s menu.

As for other possible areas to be improved, in the past we were not always enamored with Bodo’s coffee.  We would even sometimes make one stop at Bodo’s for breakfast and a second stop elsewhere for coffee. Bodo’s coffee problems, however, may are a thing of the past.

Smith and Kokola, both coffee-lovers, say that Bodo’s coffee has gone through many tweaks over the years, as they have gradually perfected it.  Years ago, Bodo’s coffee was served from styrofoam cups.  These days, things sure have changed.  There are now state-of-the-art brewing machines, costing thousands of dollars each.  There is a custom blend of three different coffee beans, roasted by Lexington Coffee Roasters, the same roaster used by local coffee legend Mudhouse.  And, there is the knowledge gained from trial and error.  Smith tried brewing with water at 195 degrees Farenheit, 194, 193, 192, 191, and 190 before concluding that 192 degrees is the optimal brewing temperature for the beans and grind Bodo’s uses.

The result is vast improvement.  No more need for a second stop for coffee.

The Sale

By the early 2000’s, Fox had started to run out of motivation.  For decades, he had drawn inspiration from providing for his wife and two daughters.  But, his daughters were now almost through college, and he and his wife had decided to part after 28 years of marriage.  Fox was asking himself, “Where does the drive come from?”  Without an answer, Fox began to think about moving on.

Not surprisingly, there were many investors clamoring to buy Bodo’s.  But, Fox declined all of their overtures, and opted instead to put Bodo’s in the hands in which it seemed safest: the General Managers of each of his stores, Smith, Kokola, and Connie Jenson, who jointly bought Bodo’s from Fox in 2006. (Jenson has since retired and sold her interest to Smith and Kokola.)

Fox says that two things drove him to do this, and he cannot help but get emotional in describing them.  Fox’s primary motivation, he says, was his love of his staff.  “I grew to love them and felt like I owed them a lot for . . . their friendship, their loyalty, and their hard work.”  Fox knew that if he sold to investors for a “wad of cash”, there was a great risk that Bodo’s would fail.  Fox did not want to expose his staff to that risk.  Looking back now, Fox knows he made the right decision.  “I can’t even tell you what a good feeling it is . . . the sense that is working . . . for somebody that you care about.”

Fox’s second motivation was to preserve Bodo’s legacy in the Charlottesville community, which Bodo’s had become a part of.  “He cared about Charlottesville,” Kokola says.  “Bodo’s is part of what makes Charlottesville a nice place to live,” Kokola says, and Fox “wanted to perpetuate that.”

Thanks to the leadership of Smith and Kokola, Fox’s desire has been met.  In the years since they took over, Bodo’s place in Charlottesville has been perpetuated, or has perhaps even grown.

Meanwhile, without the stress of running a business, Fox now enjoys standing back and reflecting on Bodo’s.  To this day, he says, he gets a tremendous amount of pleasure from seeing that something that he created functions so well for the Charlottesville community.  “It feels great,” Fox says.