Waiting for Bodo
1995 was a big year for Charlottesville. Emily Couric won her first State Senate election. Christopher Reeve became UVA Hospital’s star patient. Our beloved Wahoos toppled #2 Florida State in an epic 33-28 gridiron upset. And local entrepreneur Brian Fox signed the lease for a piece of property that would keep the town talking for the next seven years.
Nestled between the venerable Lucky Seven and the glossy Starbucks on University Avenue, the infamously unopened third Bodo’s, without doing any business, has nonetheless become a Charlottesville landmark.
Fox, proprietor of the illustrious bagel chain, is known for taking his time setting up stores, but when it comes to the Corner, even a glacial seven years hasn’t been enough.
You’ve seen it, you’ve talked about it, you’ve pressed your bagel-craving countenance to its plate glass windows trying to catch a glimpse of something, anything to give you reason to hope.
You want answers, and the Hook’s got ‘em… sort of.
[a Bodo’s invocation]
Arise, fair muse of baked goods most divine!
Spread forth our tale of bagels bounteous,
And chicken salad sandwiches sublime.
It’s a story that’s been told a time or 12, but it never hurts to take another gander at the rise of one of Charlottesville’s most enduring empires, does it?
Fox is no stranger to business, having previously run a couple of headshops (if it’s an unfamiliar term, you’d probably rather stay out of ‘em) in New York and Vermont, not to mention a highly successful French restaurant.
When he arrived in Charlottesville, he has said, bagels were the last thing on his mind— until he began to miss the breakfast sandwiches from back home. So, after a brief tutorial from a New York master, Fox started baking.
He’s a savvy one, this Fox. In late 1986, he bought a building on Emmet Street, a building which had seen its share of restaurant flops, most recently a Roy Rogers. Thanks to those dining debacles, Fox once told the Charlottesville Business Journal, he bagged a six-figure discount on the site, paying only $423,100.
Then came the big tease. Up on the roof, Fox posted a huge banner reading, “The bagels are coming.” Except the bagels didn’t come until July 1988, nearly two years later. Charlottesvillians thought that was a long wait.
In 1990, Fox bought a now barely remembered restaurant called Rax on Preston Avenue. This time the wait was nearly three years— that Bodo’s didn’t open until 1993.
And when it was revealed just two years later that Fox had rented the old Kinko’s space at the Corner, Charlottesville thrilled at the glorious prospect of a bagel trinity: downtown, 29 North, UVA. It had symmetry, like putting in the last piece of a puzzle. But here we are seven years later, and… well, people are itchy.
But Bodo’s, like O.J. Simpson, transcends all negative publicity.
Two summers ago, another weekly newspaper broke the news that Bodo’s’ mega-popular chicken salad was, in fact, made of turkey… but nobody gave a damn.
In 1999, an impetuous UVA student named Adam Cohen tried to force Fox into opening the Corner location by waging a Bodo’s boycott… but the bagels kept moving.
Cohen, who has since earned his Ph.D. and now teaches at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, continues his crusade against Fox, whom he calls a “pathological procrastinator.”
“The boycott seems to be going well,” Cohen reports from 700 miles away. “A number of people remain steadfast in their refusal to patronize Bodo's because they feel Mr. Fox has misled them and continues to mislead them.”
Hmmm. Maybe the boycott’s going well in Florida, but the bagel empire seems to be thriving here.
Sometimes, it seems that even if Bodo’s got exposed for tax evasion, drug trafficking, or harboring escaped convicts, well, Fox wouldn’t lose a lick of business. There’s magic in them bagels.
[a Bodo’s haiku]
behind the counter
bagel sandwiches are served
by armies in white
"Bodo’s is what the commercials say McDonald’s is: friendly, young, well-spoken kids serving you fast food that looks just like it does in the pictures." So saith Deke Shipp, a Bodo’s veteran of over a year and a half.
Shipp, incidentally, went and got himself fired from Bodo’s about three weeks ago for reasons having nothing to do with this article. Nice work, man.
Now that Shipp’s been canned, he’s going to spill all the juicy behind-the-scenes dirt, right? Right?
"Ummm… there’s really not any dirt, man."
What about Brian Fox himself? What’s the employee take on the ultimate breakfast tycoon?
"Brian Fox, as an employer, is a genius, because I don’t know shit about Brian Fox," says Shipp. "It’s his plan, dude, it’s his store, he’s the one who originated the way we bake the bagels, but you never deal with him— he just stops in once or twice a day to check things out."
Strike two. Just tell us about the job then.
"It’s the maximization of productivity from people who aren’t the terribly productive type," offers Shipp. "Dude, we’re brainless helper monkeys. Just walking back and forth… ‘Ooh, there’s a ticket. Ooh, there’s a bagel.’ That’s all there is to it."
At this point, a nearby television showing Richard Roundtree in the 1971 Shaft making out with some chick in the shower distracts Shipp, and the conversation ends abruptly.
An average day at Bodo’s, according to employee sources, involves filling 1,100-1,200 orders. Keeping in mind that each order could be anywhere from one to eight dozen bagels… well, that’s a whole lot of bagels. No one’s inclined to share profit figures, but make up an average order cost, and do the math. Then brace yourself.
But as chipper as the employees seem to be, things aren’t always completely sunny behind the counter. Bodo’s employees deal with their fair share of cut fingers, burnt palms, and the occasional dropped bucket of lemonade.
And suppose a customer finds the classics from Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, and the Temptations (except on Sundays, when classical is the standard of the day) just a little too loud.
"Don’t ask us to fucking turn it down, because we’re not going to," says one employee, who, for obvious reasons, requested anonymity. "If you don’t like it, put your damn bagel in a bag and go home. You probably have utensils there."
[a Bodo’s limerick]
I know of a fellow named Fox,
Whose bagel chain totally rocks.
The new one’s mind-numbing—
The sign says it’s coming,
But when will Fox unlock the lox?
But back to the Corner. The store, which Fox designed with the assistance of his daughter Naomi, is nothing short of a work of art. With elegant woodwork, a decorative mural, and all the equipment in place, the store looks ready to start turning out bagels any minute. But the sign out front has cycled over its seven-year gestation from "coming" to "coming… promise" to "coming soon" and now back to "coming.”
The unofficial mayor of the Corner, merchant Bob Mincer, quit waiting some time ago.
“It’s like a dead oak tree,” say Mincer. “You go by it enough times, and you don’t notice it anymore.”
Suzanne and Bud Kramer have noticed. They own two Chesapeake Bagel Bakery locations— one at Barracks Road and one just two blocks south of the would-be Bodo’s.
“Sure, it would be hard,” says Suzanne about Bodo’s opening on the Corner. “In Charlottesville, Bodo’s are bagels— you say one word, and you almost say the other. But I honestly think that bagel-by-bagel there’s not much of a difference.”
Everybody in town has their own theories about why the Corner Bodo’s languishes locked and bagel-less. There are plenty of on-the-record reasons, off-the-record excuses, and off-the-cuff rationalizations bandied about town. Somewhere in the midst of the gossip and innuendo lies the truth.
Digging through the old clippings shows an expected trend:
So, Brian, when’s the store going to open?
November ‘95: “It will open when it’s finished.”
May ‘97: “I have been feeling bad about not being open yet.”
April ‘98: “Probably this summer.”
Or probably not. Not this summer, either.
Fox, now 56 or 57 years old, is as elusive and crafty as his mammalian namesake. In fact, he chose to remain totally silent on the issue, save for the expletive he moans when he finds out who’s on the phone.
“I’m going through a busy, busy time,” he says.
Word from Fox or no word from Fox, pundits are not in short supply. Shipp, who since his firing regards himself as something of an industry analyst, proclaims, “The Corner store will never open."
And why’s that? “The Corner store is going to be the flagship, the store that everyone thinks about when they think Bodo’s, dude. It has to be perfect. It has to be perfect times four.”
A major setback in the achievement of this perfection-times-four is the huge labor drain from the two existing Bodo’s, which won’t lose significant business to their parking-less Corner cousin. Fox has estimated that the new store will need 50 employees, many of whom would come from the existing stores, and the training of that many bagel-makers would be a truly Herculean undertaking. And we know that the Bodoian labor pool has tightened, as Fox— who used to content himself with the want ads— now posts starting wages (which aren’t too shabby) on the doors to his restaurants and even on top of the cash registers.
Most restaurants start slowly and grow as word gets out and popularity increases. The Corner Bodo’s, by contrast, would inevitably start at full-steam-ahead. It’d be a cash cow, no doubt, although one has to wonder how long it would take to recoup the cost of letting such an expensive bit of retail turf sit empty for seven years.
Fox’s landlord, Robin Lee, declined to comment on the situation, saying only, “We look on relations with our tenants as being pretty private.” Local real estate expert Ivo Romanesko, however, reports that the typical rent for stores in that area ranges from $16-20 per square foot per year. Considering the 2,617 square feet that the future Bodo’s occupies, Fox is probably spending at least $3,500 per month to hold the space. According to The Hook’s trusty abacus, that means Fox has blown around $300,000 on rent since he signed the lease in the spring of 1995.
“Fox doesn’t give a shit,” observes Shipp. “It’s his office, and it’s a tax write-off.”
And on top of it all, it’s a legend. In 1999, at Halloween on the UVA Lawn, three-year-old Katie Ryan-O’Flaherty dressed as a giant bagel adorned with a banner reading, “coming soon.” What better publicity could you want?
The Corner store has kept Charlottesville talking, and no one seems to have grown tired of the debate.
Bodo’s remains an icon of breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Charlottesville. Being the coveted “order #1” receipt at 6:30am on any given day is still a feat worthy of lamination. Chicken salad addicts can’t quit, even when the meat’s cold turkey.
It’s been posited that waiting for the next Bodo’s to open is as much a part of Charlottesville life as eating at the ones already here, and maybe there’s something to that claim.
Anyone who’s read Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece Waiting for Godot can see its application to the baked-goods universe. It’s about passing time in a hopeless situation, an infinitely unresolved wait. Over on the Corner, life imitates art.