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Buying a sandwich at Bakesale Betty

on November 28, 2016

At 11:02 am, five people stand in line at Bakesale Betty, a small corner shop on Telegraph and 51st St that opens at 11:00 am. The soon-to-be customers are quiet, shuffling forward incrementally, eager for fried chicken sandwiches, but not making a fuss of it. Inside, it smells like seasoned oil and hot cookies. Customers order from the smiling, blue-haired Betty herself, who hands out paper bags pre-loaded with the joint’s specialty. Outside, the decadent aroma is swept away by speeding cars and it simply smells like the street.

From the new vantage point of customers seated at one of the weathered ironing boards turned sidewalk tables, the quickly shifting and now buzzing line is a pan shot of the city of Oakland. A muscly man labeled “Coach Valdez” by the back of his t-shirt arrives just before a Walgreen’s pharmacist, who beats a young fashion-forward dude. He wears a fuzzy pink bucket hat, silk bomber jacket and Givenchy-branded sandals, and taps on his phone in line, pauses to order from Betty, then picks up the tapping throughout his meal.

Three EMTs in pressed shirts and tight Oakley sunglasses are fortunate enough to arrive around 11:14, when the line is down to zero. They stand cross-armed before the menu, which is composed of three sheets of parchment paper taped to the building’s façade with painter’s tape. “We come from Sacramento. Every time we come down here we try to time it with Bakesale Betty’s hours,” says one of them once they’ve settled with sandwiches at an ironing board.

Nearby, a woman in all black, including a black beret, with a chunky pink necklace for a pop of color, settles in. She’s an artist and an associate professor at California College of the Arts. “We need an art scene in the Bay Area,” she says. “We were pushed out of the city and now we’re being pushed out of here. We will resist it, though.” She says this stretch of Telegraph is extremely interesting for people-watching. She smiles and turns back to her pear and ginger scone, which she loves, and says she’s been coming here since Betty opened her first store in 2005.

Bakesale Betty is not a gathering spot per se, as the chicken sandwiches are generally consumed quickly or carted off for consumption elsewhere. But it’s certainly a community spot, a place that both beckons people from afar and functions as a home for daily customers. A trio of workers with Children’s Hospital badges line up familiarly. Three generations of a family stand behind them. The youngest is Mazie, who hangs out in a Baby Bjorn slung across the chest of her mother, Ruth. Ruth’s own mother, Julie, has just arrived in town for a visit, and Bakesale Betty is their first stop. Five recent high school graduates, who have brought their own ketchup, eat next, their table bursting with laughter.

Betty comes outside and pours water for customers happily crunching into her sandwiches. She started her Bay Area culinary career as a line cook at Chez Panisse, and sometimes people ask her if she gets bored of serving one item. Bakesale Betty says, “The sandwich is the same, but every day is different.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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