After closing Uptown shop, Bakesale Betty talks business and family
on September 27, 2012
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.”
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