After closing Uptown shop, Bakesale Betty talks business and family

Customers gather Saturday morning on Telegraph Avenue and wait for Bakesale Betty to open for business.

Customers gather Saturday morning on Telegraph Avenue and wait for Bakesale Betty to open for business.

The wig is gone and so is the line, at least for now.

It’s close to 3 p.m., and Bakesale Betty sold out of its last sandwich a little over an hour ago. The shop’s co-owner, Alison Barakat, who also goes by “Betty” while she’s working, is not wearing the trademark blue wig that customers have come to recognize. Instead, the dark-haired woman, dressed in black, is standing under an awning talking to one of the shop’s neighbors, holding her young son George in front of her while offering the toddler bowtie pasta on a fork.

Earlier, the line to the shop had extended well past the middle of the block and almost 500 people placed orders for Bakesale Betty’s famous chicken sandwich. Now the day’s lunch service is over, but Barakat has hours to go before she sleeps. Then she’ll start again at 6:30 the next morning when she, her husband and the employees begin to prep for the day’s service. “My husband compares it to a football game,” she said. “Football is not like baseball where it goes on for hours. It very intense for a short period of time and then it’s over.”

A few months ago, this frenzy of activity would have been taking place at two locations at the same time. For a little more than two years, Barakat and Michael Camp, her husband and the shop’s co-owner, divided their time between two stores in the Uptown and in Temescal, offering the same menu to two groups of people who are just as willing to stand in line for a chicken sandwich on Broadway as they are on Telegraph Avenue.

After running the two shops for a little over a year, the couple reduced the hours of operation at the Broadway location until the store was only open one day a week for three hours. A few months ago, the couple made the decision to close the shop on Broadway and focus on their original location on Telegraph.

They wanted to ensure that the service and the product they provided to customers remained top quality, Barakat said. “It was busy, but it was more than my husband and I could manage comfortably,” Barakat said, referring to running the Uptown location. “It was bittersweet because we enjoyed being down there.”

It’s not that she and her husband are afraid of hard work—it’s that it starts to take its toll, said Barakat. “We are not the same people we were when we opened the first shop,” she said.

The concept for Bakesale Betty began to take shape in 2002 when after working as a line cook at Chez Panisse for three years, she quit her job to start her own business. Bakesale Betty debuted in 2002 as a bakery stand in the North Oakland farmers market. Around the same time, Barakat met her husband.  “We teamed up, did farmers markets for three years and opened the store in 2005,” Barakat said. This was also about the time she started wearing the blue wig. “I wanted to get dressed up go around the market and sell baked goods. I wasn’t thinking of it as a marketing tool or something people would remember,” she said.

Before they had their three children, when the farmers market was their bread and butter, Barakat and Camp would stay up all night baking and then head out to the market and sell all day. After opening the shop on Telegraph Avenue, there was a period when they divided their time between the farmers market and the retail store. At the farmers market they sold baked goods and what was to become their signature item, the Bakesale Betty chicken sandwich—a crispy, golden brown chicken breast served on a torpedo roll and topped with a spicy coleslaw made with a mixture of vinaigrette, red onions, jalapenos and olive oil.

Barakat said that she never anticipated that the sandwich would become the top selling item on the menu. Seven years ago, the first Bakesale Betty location opened very quietly—it was the pre-Yelp era and the shop had no Twitter or Facebook accounts. There was no buzz about it, Barakat said. “But after a year or two, as social networks blossomed, the shop became a phenomenon,” Barakat said. “It helped to grow our business.”

Suddenly customers were commenting about the sandwich online. The media took notice and Bakesale Betty was reviewed in newspapers and magazines across the country. In 2011, the San Francisco Chronicle headline proclaimed Bakesale Betty: Oakland’s hottest chicken sandwich for an article written by Sophie Brickman. The Zagat restaurant guide ranks the food 25 out of a possible 30 points as the best chicken sandwich in Oakland and this month the Huffington Post named Bakesale Betty’s chicken sandwich number five in the United States.

In fact, at the Telegraph store, the demand for the chicken sandwich grew so strong that the rest of their menu shrank. Eventually, the demand at the store grew to the point that Barakat and Camp could no longer do both the market and the shop, so they turned their attention full-time to the store.

Now customers start to line up on Telegraph Avenue, an hour before the store opens. On an average weekday, the line ends near the paint store, which is about midway to the end of the block. On a Saturday, the line extends to the end of the block. People will stand there until the last sandwich is sold. If you stop by between noon and about 2 p.m., you will see Bakesale Betty in the process of serving more than 600 chicken sandwiches each day, each priced at $8.75, along gallons of lemon ice and batches of cookies and other desserts.

When Bakesale Betty opened a second location in 2010 customers were thrilled. “People supported us down there,” Barakat said of the Broadway shop. But Barakat said the couple realized that managing two shops meant less time in both spaces and less time with their three children, who are now ages 5, 3 and 15 months. “Most often people will choose their family,” Barakat said. “It’s not always about sales or money. It’s about quality of life. We have three kids and we are not going to be young for long and we will never get these years back.”

With all those things in mind, they closed the Uptown location in September. “For us, it’s all about the quality of the service and the product,” Barakat said. “If that cannot happen in two locations the way we want it to, then we have to take it back to one location.”

The Temescal shop is currently open from noon to 2 p.m. but Barakat said in the next few weeks they will start to open around 11 or 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

And the lines are still there. On a recent Saturday morning, Deanne Broglio and Chris Brown—who have been eating at the shop almost since it opened—were in line before noon. They were excited that the line was not down to the paint store when they arrived. “Everybody is up and happy about coming in here,” Broglio said. “There’s good energy in the line and they come out with samples. It goes fast and they are very organized. We love Betty!”

Although the line is long, it moves quickly and customers head to their cars or to the ironing board tables outside to enjoy the sunshine and their sandwiches. One of those eating on an ironing board was John Ruege, who had come in from Los Angeles to visit a friend and insisted that they come to Bakesale Betty for a sandwich. “I saw it on the news report on NBC Nightly and loved it, loved her story,” Ruege said. “I wanted to come and see if it is the best fried chicken sandwich and it is.”

David Currie has been to the shop about half a dozen times. “There are no other places that have chicken sandwiches like this one,” he said. “It’s simple, straightforward and when it’s done right, it’s really hard to beat. It’s something you think you can do at home but you really can’t.”

Customer Tracy Sovereign was coming out the shop. She was a frequent customer at the Broadway location and said would ride the downtown shuttle over with her co-workers frequently during their lunch breaks. “I hate that they closed down,” Sovereign said of the second location. “Out of a month we might run through there a good seven or eight or nine times. It’s a disappointment that they are not there.”

Right now the space on Broadway has a “closed” sign in the window. But Barakat said she and her husband will keep working at the Telegraph location, and now they are able to bring their youngest child with them. “George comes to work with me everyday,” Barakat said. “I didn’t have the girls down here with me at this age because it didn’t work out that way. Every day I am grateful that I worked my tail off all those years—sleepless nights, fingers to the bone. We are lucky that our business is to the point where we can sustain it and have children; I can be flexible with my schedule, where I can bring my son to work. It’s perfect.”

Barakat still gets up in the middle of the night to work on her bookkeeping. “My kids are asleep and most of the city is asleep and I’m up playing music or watching The Golden Girls on TV,” Barakat said. And when the store opens you will still find her in her signature blue wig talking to customers. “It’s such a nice feeling to see that you are lining up for our food!” Barakat said of the shop’s patrons. “It’s really amazing. It will never be something we take for granted. We love our customers, love their devotion and the fact that people are willing to wait in line.”

21 Comments

  1. Miguel

    Weird that these people never heard of delegating, you don’t have to do everything yourselves. You’ve hit a gold mine, hire a freaking manager and let the money roll in!

    • Foxe

      Agree
      …a great sandwich is not like creating an original symphony every day…train, delegate, teach, and hire a manager. A real shame that they are leaving uptown…it is on the verge of really feeling vibrant. Uptown needs good food.

    • Kristy

      Funny, this was my first thought as well. But maybe as she said, it’s not about the money. Delegating comes with it’s own problems and stresses as well.

  2. frederick

    Yeah. I live in the neighborhood. Having a store closed most hours doesn’t really create a bustling thriving business area for us to shop at. They’ve set it up that people have to stand in line for ever for a sandwich. If they were open longer people would come in at different times and not just the tiny window they offer the community. I don’t get it. Create a line and the hipsters come running. They used to have great cookies.

    • Foxe

      Create a line and hipsters come running…that is a good one. Maybe they should be called “sheepsters”. In the soviet union they used to say “see a line, get in it”

  3. Jen

    I agree with the above commenters. This article goes on and on about sentimental stuff — and I’m *all about* sentimental family stuff! — but it seems like the owners and the writer are absolutely clueless about business. How does it make sense to pay rent on such a visible corner storefront in a great neighborhood, and only be open 2 hours each day? Why can’t they hire a manager and additional staff and grow their business? If they stop by once in a while, they can still keep the personal touch with the customers. They not only have a huge unmet demand, but like frederick said, they’re also wasting an opportunity to make the neighborhood better.

    I’m sorry, but I was expecting to hear about some family emergency that forced them to close the Uptown store and keep such measly hours on Telegraph, but having children is not an emergency… you had at least several months to see each of them coming. The history makes a nice story, but the current situation just sounds like bad management, fear of growth, and a wasted opportunity for the owners, their current and potential staff, and the community.

  4. xtina

    I think it’s great that they want to be able to keep their family first and have some kind of work-life balance, but over the years they’ve kind of lost me as a fan of their business (i used to be a big one) – hard to keep track of business hours, no more delicious and amazing pear ginger scones that got me up early on the weekends, and such limited hours that even as a neighbor there’s no way to just stop in and grab something like I used to be able to. I would love to one day have my own small/local business but also know that to do that means to have an incredible team to work with because beyond my family, I know I can’t do it on my own!

    To have had an incredible location downtown (or uptown, whatever you want to call it) and squander it for lack of delegation or a willingness to branch out into management is a shame…one of my favorite homemade everything cafes in LA went bye bye the same way. They had incredible products that everyone loved, but the husband and wife team were unfortunately the best and worst thing about the business- they had a great vision but were unable or unwilling for whatever reason to put it in the hands of a good manager to help run and/or grow the business.

    I’ll still go to Bakesale Betty on occasion, but not nearly with the same vigor or enthusiasm I once had- especially for my out of town friends.

    Sadface…

    • Jess

      Yes, I agree totally with this. I don’t begrudge them the right to run their business how they like. But it bums me out that they can’t seem to make delegation work. Because of randomly shifting hours I have stopped by failed multiple times to find a closed shop when the website etc hours allege they are open.

      I’ll still sometimes make the effort but I also no longer go out of my way or excitedly take visitors there. Oh well.

    • Pete

      I also agree. The real reason in my opinion they closed Uptown was that they really dropped the ball last Christmas vacation by not opening for weeks and not communicating it to ANYONE. An illegible sign on the front door with the hours that were not honored lost me for a while. I walked the 7 blocks to that store three days in a row only to find that same weak sign on the door and no one there. The fact that Ikes opened and was able to handle the demand (quickly and orderly) each day and had longer hours was the more logical reason. I have not ventured to Telegraph and won’t because they clearly do not care about their customers as much as they like to think they do.

  5. Bud

    I think they are still great and all of this is fine and the food is great and I totally agree with the above that they may need to learn to manage and delegate, but 2 things really rub me the wrong way:

    1) To me it’s borderline sociopathic that they thank 600 people a day for standing in line for an hour so that they can have more time with their family. How about loosening up the hours a bit?
    2) Communicate–if you would update your website (or god forbid: tweet) when your location is suddenly going to be closed so that we can find out before showing up at the door that we can’t get food there, it would be a lot more thoughtful. And if you’re scaling back a location that everyone is excited about, tell us why (on your web site, on a hand written sign in the window, somewhere). Don’t just say “CLOSED”.

    I’m sorry but all other things being equal, I think these people are a little sick. Narcissism maybe.

  6. Jimmy Smitty

    Nice article, but I agree with most of the commenters here… I thought I heard thru the grapevine that BB took advantage of Oakland offering extremely cheap rents in certain areas, to entice businesses to try out an idea or new place… I wonder if now the rent deal has timed out and costs are going to go up.

    Couple THAT with poor management, and BBcould plain fail there.

  7. Biff

    Their sandwiches are still good, but not great like they use to be. Due to the cost of rising chicken, maybe they changed to a cheaper chicken. The sandwiches are not worth standing in line for 20-30 minutes. The free samples are a nice touch though.

  8. Mia

    I’m glad the Barakat family can afford to run a business that is open for 2 hours fo 5 days a week so they can spend time with their kids. Too bad 99.9% of other business owners (and other working parents) cannot afford that luxury. As a working parent and a child of immigrant parents who worked 18 hour days to keep their business and who never could afford to spend much time with THEIR kids, I am really irritated at the audacity of the owners of Bakesale Betty.

    Where to start? I agree with most others on this board that something about their approach rubs me the wrong way. First, the sandwich is good but not good enough for me to stand in line for 30 minutes. Second, I have never once seen Alison making the chicken, mixing the slaw or assembling the sandwiches. In fact, most of the time I’ve been there, I have not seen her in the store at all. There were lots of other hardworking folks pumping out the sandwiches. This tells me that there are other folks who can be delegated to do this.

    What really annoys me is that they happened upon a great business idea – a simple sandwich that has a huge demand. Why not meet that demand by training the staff so the store can stay open longer – it creates additional employment opportunities while adding to the energy of the neighborhood and providing some flexibility for their CUSTOMERS. I think it’s extremely arrogant and selfish of the owners to keep the hours they do – a slap in the face to their customers and the community. What, your time is worth more than ours? Or is it that they do not want to see the lines to go away because they know that the line, more than their product, is drawing in the customers?

    I for one will not patronize them any longer and I think soon enough a lot of other folks will start to realize that and the lines will go away and they may have to actually run a conventional business and open up for more than 2 hours a day.

  9. Jen

    Most of the comments here sound like jealous whining. If you don’t like there business model or products, don’t give them your custom. Or start one yourself. I hear there’s a storefront available on Broadway. Then again those who can, do, and those who can’t…

    @Bud had a good point about the need to communicate. They should be a bit more customer-focused in communicating about their hours, product offerings, etc.

    I wish them good luck in raising their family and keeping financial stable.

  10. Jen

    yeah, their

  11. Just what paint store are you talking about, Theresa Adams?

  12. PRE

    2 freaking hours a day! I’m glad I haven’t ever stood in a line line like that at either location. Actually I’m glad to see them leave the B’way location as it never seemed to be open, and what sort of shop can’t be bothered to paint over the bare sheetrock in the store? Somethig better for the neighborhood is bound to move in. Now can we get new owners for Punch Down? People who might actually have a clue what to do with that fabulous space that they are wasting?

  13. JC

    I agree, better communication would be nice. They should be updating their site with current hours, etc.

    That said, I have seen “Betty” at the shop and she is always running around working and chatting with customers. I’ve been their from the beginning and I love this spot. Her husband has helped me from behind the counter, multiple times so maybe people don’t know who he is but he is there working alongside everyone else just like “Betty”.
    Also, they used to be open in the mornings until about mid afternoon. They’re still ironing out the kinks that developed after opening and then closing the 2nd store. They’ve already stated (above) that the hours will change and they’ll open a little earlier.
    Everyone needs to chill out…this is a great place with great people and I’m sure they will figure it all out in the end.

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