Spotlight on Middle Country – Ep. 11

ah hey everyone welcome to the latest episode of spotlight on middle country i’m ryan gessner from the middle country library and the middle country chamber of commerce and i’m alex blend from the miller business center at the middle country public library and we’re here today with gerard donahue of jojo bagels welcome gerard hey hi guys how you doing good good great great great glad you could make it today um so this series is just one where we try to each week highlight a different uh business or non-profit in the middle country area to give them a spotlight on both their history and the community and how they’ve been faring during the pandemic so um alex is going to kick it off with our first question all right yeah so george tell us um a little bit about yourself what’s your background and your story basically uh uh obviously i’m the owner of jojo bagels we’ve been here for about 23 some odd years at this point and prior to that i had been in the food business i had been working in uh in appetizing uh for a couple gentlemen at an appetizing store uh and prior to that i was in fast food and restaurants and stuff and uh uh during college got involved in food and just kind of got the food bug and it seemed like a like a an easy thing to do that was easy to master uh and being a self-teacher uh and i absorbed i like to absorb everything around me i learned a lot and i was like well i could tweak this i could tweak that i could make a little better so long story short while i was uh working for the appetizing store uh i had ambition of owning my own business i had come from uh management when i was with uh fast food i was the district supervisor and training coordinator so while i had ambition of being my own boss uh you know i didn’t like the uh you know corporate thing when corporations came and started taking things over i was like i don’t like that these home suits uh so i said uh you know let me see what i can find out there and when i get involved with bagels it seemed like a home run because it was early morning i had just started to have our family uh and uh i was like this is great i can come and do this and i’m not gonna be out to twelve one o’clock in the morning anymore all right then in the afternoon we’ll be home for dinner and uh you know figure out the kids so uh family of five me my wife lynn who’s been with me all these years and three girls who are all uh graduates of the middle country school district uh district we live in the w section of courtroom so we’re locals you know uh and uh we uh i had the opportunity somebody came to me somebody who uh one of the salesmen said listen there’s a guy in center reach that’s i got a little cafe place kind of thing he’s not doing so well it’s a bad shopping center uh and he said uh you know the guys guys getting updates getting sick he says you may need somebody to come in and take a look at it i went in and long story short i was like this is great this is my neighborhood this is where i want to be so uh one thing led to another and and and then the start of j jojo bagels so uh the name comes with my three daughters the first two initials of their each of their names uh which at the time they were five three and one i mean and then uh they’ve been through through the whole school thing through the school years uh and uh we’re still here and still plugging along absolutely that’s great uh great story great very very interesting like you said you’re embedded in the community this is where you know you come from and you know what what a good uh place that you were able to find the storefront right right here you know right right right i mean obviously over the years things have changed the center has changed stores have come and go that’s you know but that’s a part of doing business you know that’s that’s a part of trying to to surf the water uh you know and then i know you’d ask me about catering and stuff like that and everything uh that all came from being involved with businesses where catering was a good part of the income for the business where they did parties they did uh you know things with the temples they did things with the old folks homes and stuff like that and there so it made common sense to uh to do that and uh having my kids in the

school district and being involved with the school district as well and sports and uh you know uh having three girls they didn’t play a lot of sports i mean they played something but not a lot of sports but uh you know being having a football team and basketball looking everything around all the time there was always something going on and i was like hey listen you need this you need that you need this and little by little we got our feet in the door and then people were like listen we’re gonna have breakfast for 20 30 40 people can you do something and we came up with the idea of the giant bagel and we said you know what if we take the bagel out of the oven i mean they’d do cold heroes and right smack out of the oven and cut that thing open and throw the eggs and the stuff right on it and it was a home run and people love it and it started basically i was feeding the teachers they used to but they go feed me friday and i i mean sending them to the schools for the teachers and and then for the football teams we fed the football teams and and one thing led to another and then uh it was something that you know just just exploded um and then people would say listen yo you can you do this for me can you do that for me and uh we never want to say no to anybody so if somebody would come in and say could you do this could you do that you’d be like why not let’s give it a shot what we do is we fail and we say let’s do something else so uh it’s it’s just gone crazy since then so uh the giant bagel is like a iconic thing i think now in the middle country community you see that giant bagel you’re like oh giant bacon egg and cheese bagel i have jojo’s must have done this to jojo’s so gerard thank you for giving us a little bit of the history of jojo’s now how have you guys been faring recently with the pandemic have you had to change up your business model a little bit yeah yeah well like everybody else there’s been there’s been a lot of bumps in the road and everything else i mean you know you’ve got a bunch of them you’ve got the financial problems the financial hardships you’ve got the uh employee problems uh and you’ve got the uh what we’ve come to see now is the supply problems of starting become a big issue uh there’s uh you know everything that would normally be available to you i mean there was a time like three four weeks ago where there was no cream cheese to be found anywhere wow wow wow because i guess the farms had issues wherever they had them and the cows and then you know when they started dumping the milk with all those cows well the milk makes the cream cheese they won’t produce enough milk then they couldn’t produce the cream cheese and i guess all these factories throughout the production places throughout the midwest where they’d get the illnesses and they’d have to shut down and shut down all their productions fell off so i mean there was a ton of stuff that would uh there’s still probably a half dozen items that from boy’s head that they can’t don’t carry anymore uh more expensive baits you know pastramis things like that uh there was a lot of ham issues again i guess related to the counting the cattle thing i don’t know uh sausage was a problem for a while uh and on top of that anything that is available and anything that you normally use to do anything the prices have just skyrocketed because supply and demand yeah yeah and then you add on top of it that this is all just come into effect at the time when they were changing everything for small uh you know food businesses in terms of the paper supplies and from styre from the paper so all those things had just switched over so the supply was already tight the prices were already going crazy so so that’s been an issue because now you’re dealing with a a much much lower margin this cost is a lot more and you’re trying not to really jack the prices too much because you know you don’t it’s not the customer’s fault and uh you know middle country is a good community they’ve been a good community this world we’re in here with walmart and so so the shopper at walmart is is usually a you know middle road shopper so i mean you know what are you going to do the charge of 10 bucks for a bagel they’re not going to when that we’re not out in in east hampton anyhow that’s been an issue your employees in terms of who wants to work and who doesn’t want to work because when this first started a lot of them were scared to death you know they didn’t know if they would get sick coming out and going to work and then when you finally got people to come to work you had to set some rules in place because you had to tell everybody listen you got to understand when you come in here this is our family this is not a large corporation where half the half the people are out sick we keep going we’re dealing with six seven eight people four or five years here every day if three is a sick who’s who’s doing what i’m saying so everybody had to understand the

responsibility involved thank goodness our staff has been with us for many many years where we we pride ourselves on taking care of our people and making them part of our family so uh therefore they you know they responded to that they knew and it was important to them uh right from the get-go most of them came and said what do we got to do keep this place open what do we got to do you know if i you know let’s just do it uh and then we were fortunate enough to combine ourselves with a lot of uh uh we got involved with uh the hospitals uh we got a uh you know we’ve always donated to the food banks we’ve always given away uh you know we don’t we use any of our food products that we bake daily uh so we have always at the end of the day stressed looking for people whose local churches are so like that to pick up that food to go to a food bank and stuff like that and everything else uh we’re fortunate enough to find that one of our early morning customers was actually a uh coordinator for long island cares and basically where literally every single morning he’s taking out whatever was was left from the day before where even they can go extra so they could think that everybody needs it out there you know what i’m saying so that kept that kept the production everything going and then uh you know we just had a reason now to keep everybody on so i mean other than the financial hit of having to pay everybody constantly and everything else uh you know we were able to do that to keep everybody working to give them something to do uh and then of course the last part is just now you know you’re trying to survive all the rules and everything else you’re trying to you know tell your customers not have a mask on you know put up the plexiglas uh move the tables you know if i turn this around you see half the chairs are stacked up instead of being spread out the table individual tables are gone we just have the couple of boots because you have half a half of the you know the the seating uh we had to acquire outside seating you know the landlord was uh was nice enough to let us put tables and chairs on on the sidewalk we had to go out you know something we did not have so we had to go and purchase tables chairs things like that so it’s been an expensive about that’s been tough and obviously your customer base is limited because you have the people who still aren’t comfortable coming to a a food place or to any in-store place uh if it’s not 100 necessity uh and you have to second by that is that such a large portion of our business were working people and those people haven’t been going to work so if they’re not going to work they don’t stuff in their morning coffee you know stuff in there your buddy bagel and an even larger part of our business has been always was the school district school district hasn’t been there this whole thing started ironically for us the day before saint patrick’s day which in some crazy reason is one of the biggest days of the year for a bagel store with green bagels green beans yeah in the garbage can on march 16th because on march 16th they shut down the schools so all that that got closed off so uh and then obviously since then no teachers no students no graduation parties you know so yeah so it’s it’s been tough it’s been tough but i said we have been we’re failing better than others you know you can always do a little better but i mean we i think we’re uh experienced enough to be able to as they say do the tap dance uh you know and as long as we come up with an agreement for things like the rent and stuff like that and everything else because those numbers don’t change uh then we see ourselves hopefully making it through this as long as things don’t get worse right right so absolutely no i could definitely understand that that was that was very interesting uh feedback and um with uh with all the other breakfast options that are available to people each morning what makes what do you think makes people visit your store do you think it’s the customer loyalty do you think it’s the special service they get when they visit um the long island classic bacon egg and cheese that you can only get at baker bagel stores like yours i mean i’m sure you know people wake up and they they’re like i gotta get a bacon egg and cheese or what i mean it’s actually funny you say

that alex because i will tell you that i there are numerous stories among and of uh kids that have been coming here with their family since they were you know 10 11 years old where the case is uh that eventually went off to college yeah and they would come home from college and they’d be here they’d be like listen i’ve been waiting three months to come yeah i need it i’m craving it and everything else uh so yeah i think it’s a combination of everything you said first okay like i said earlier uh i’ve been blessed with staff that has been here uh for many many years i think the average of my girls are somewhere between five six years of service with me uh some longer some some many much longer uh and the four or five girls that are always here every morning early ah they have come to learn the customer learn the name you know uh so when you’re walking into some place and it’s the first person you’re greeting for today it’s like hey joe how you doing today what’s what’s going on uh they appreciate that yeah that goes a long way it really does and uh i have to say i’ve been told by many many people that my girls are the nicest around you know we we’ve stressed the importance of you know it’s hard to do the customers always right thing but that’s kind of like what you got to do so you know even if the customer is not right you have to make the customer happy right so there’s still got to be a way to you know to to work it out and that’s what balancing yeah so that part of the customer thing uh is important and i think that’s a big thing people come here for my for my girls and for our you know our health uh our loyalty is you know a customer base probably 75 percent of the people come through this store are regulars yeah i mean you know so that that says something uh and then the last part the classic bacon egg and cheese is yeah well it is a classic and you combine it with the fact that we have our own bagel we we make our bagel here from scratch it’s like it’s my recipe uh it’s not somebody else’s thing uh and you know a lot of these places bagels basically come white bread with a circle or a hole in the middle uh you know there’s a lot of things not in there that need to be in there to be a good bagel uh and uh you know people eat like like what ryan is saying earlier about the big party bagels the big breakfast heroes and the you know even the cold heroes uh we have a matcha with the with the big heroes we tell people you have a hero on jojo bread or jojo bagel and you will never go back to the bread hero again uh and people like i can’t believe how freaking good that was yeah it was the same thing so now you’re taking that you’re combining it with a hot bacon egg and cheese on we try to always have fresh bagels you know uh so a nice warm soft bagel and it’s like it just adds to the flavor you know so it does have its own its own taste its own things so a lot of people craving yeah it’s that uniqueness the uniqueness yeah yeah exactly yeah so and that and i know we i mean sal said um you know the you know don’t end the interview without and i know we did mention it ryan mentioned it and and we’ve talked about it um but i think the whole staff here at the middle country library and i’m sure at um chamber events and and everybody else can say how much they love that giant bacon egg and cheese bagel glad about that and that’s the idea is when you do something for people one thing like what that that we strive for without catering is like i said we don’t like to tell anybody no uh the other part of that is that it’s important to us that when you have an event of any size whether it’s two people for lunch or 10 people or we’ve done events for over a thousand people uh that at the end of the day that event was successful and the food was good and that not just the the quality of the food uh or the or the uh uh you know the taste of the food all that kind of stuff but you know it’s important to also talk to customers find out how many people they’re having what their expectation is do you want to wind up with leftovers do you want to have just enough for everybody you know because you never want somebody standing around and something going oh but you know we’re out of food what are we doing now you know oh and that’s that’s the point so we strive to have the customer come back and say thank you wow that was great it was it was a hit and it was because of your

food because of your service or because so that all plays into it right down to the one customer at the counter you know the goal is i always tell my help when that when somebody comes in here assume three things assume a they’re late for work and your job is to get them back out the door as fast as they can assume that they just had a argument with their significant other and that and they’re not in a great mood and your job is to now put a smile on their face and the last part is assuming they’ve never been here before and they’re gonna get something that they’re gonna go wow i’m glad i came in and if you work on those three things with every customer that person is leaving in a good place in a happy place getting out to whether they eat in their car outside now you know or the day when they can sit down and they go well i’m i’m glad i made that choice i’m glad i love that choice you never want them to be unhappy they made that choice no yeah i’ve been um i love that i’ve been working here for more than 20 years and i feel like i’ve been in your store multiple times a week in that whole time period and i’ve i’ve never had a bad sandwich after jojo’s thank you i appreciate that i appreciate that your check will be in the mail thank that’s like you said going back to the loyalty and everything else one of the things that we always drive about is uh uh the girls will say you know i see that person’s about you you reckon start to recognize people and then the funny part is ironically when somebody’s not there you’re like wow have you seen so and so have you seen somebody yeah actually come to worry about some of this even like of course yeah like oh my god so-and-so hasn’t been in in three days yeah and stuff like that and then of course like you said going back to that pandemic one thing we also started doing during this pandemic is we had never done home delivery and we never died because i felt there was a safety issue i never wanted to send somebody to somebody’s house with cash in the hand you know what’s going on so you know we have the over the door dash for all that kind of stuff and everything else but i had said listen we have a bunch of older regular customers who i know can’t be coming out and should be coming out and and we contacted them and we put the word out and everything else and we have you know started a regular deal people call for their food their lunch uh their cold cuts you know what i mean if they don’t want to leave the house they’ll buy a bunch of cold cuts with your bag of rolls or something like that or a dozen bagels so they can stay in for a few days and then we made an effort to check on those people and get to those houses and and make sure those people have something to the point where they can be comfortable coming back out again that’s amazing it takes caring about you know we care about the community i mean you know it’s that’s how it is you gotta it there’s there’s no reason not to at the point where you’re not gonna be a part of what’s going on around you check out leave just yeah mm-hmm you know there’s countries that want to play that game not here yeah what we do yeah i gotta say gerard those besides those i loved those three three things that you said you know uh assume that they’re you know they’re having a bad day assume that they got in a fight with their significant other they’re running late for work and they’re in a room this is their first time i mean that is i love those words of wisdom and then what you just said to hear that from a business owner is like just you can tell how dedicated you are to serving this community you know and to serving everybody that comes through uh your your uh door so that is like i i love that i loved hearing that that’s amazing well thank you thank you everybody i’m sure i’m sure it’s so much i’ve learned over the years that somebody else yeah video it’s nothing i said here and i created anything else but it’s you know kind of guy goes back to ireland you know who said it many years ago the whole thing about you you can’t do everything but you have to do something you know what i’m saying and yeah that’s how you got to look at it you got to look at it yeah i mean just yeah and and the biggest thing is to always if you want to see if something happens if there is a situation is you take a second you step back you you figure out the situation and you figure out what you can do to to to get through the situation because otherwise you’re just never going to go nowhere you’re never going to get anything complex and then the more people you bring into that the more successful you’ll be so yeah i think telling us that and your philosophy on the business that just shows why you guys have become an institution center each all these years you have such loyal like such a loyal customer base thank you again gerard for being here guys thank you for having me

next time we’ll do this at the same table hopefully around the round table guys thank yeah very much thank you so much you