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CLEVELAND — It seems fitting that Kate Gluckman and Marisol Doyle, co-owners of Big River Bagels, first got to know one another over breakfast. Gluckman had moved to Cleveland in 2013, and, with her fiancé, stopped at the restaurant where Doyle worked. Doyle, struck by their friendliness, invited them over for a meal. And because of Doyle’s work schedule, Sunday breakfast was the only meal she had available.
Elsewhere in the country — even elsewhere in the state — Sunday brunch is a grand social occasion. That’s just not so in this small college town. Even on weekdays, fast food is one of the only choices for a morning meal.
Gluckman, who grew up in Vermont, was accustomed to more options.
“There isn’t even a place [in Cleveland] that made homemade bread,” she says. “You’ve got to be willing to drive to Oxford — an hour and a half — to get bagels or baked goods.”
At another friendly breakfast, a few years after that get-to-know-you meet-up, the two friends decided they’d had enough. If there was no good breakfast in Cleveland, they’d just have to offer it themselves.
So, last February, the pair began tinkering with bagel recipes. In May, when the Cleveland Farmers’ Market season kicked off, Big River Bagels debuted. That first Saturday morning nearly 200 bagels sold out in just 45 minutes.
“We had no idea it was going to be like that,” Doyle said. “When we were baking the bagels, we were asking, ‘What are we going to do with them all [when they don’t sell]?’”
They began to discuss whether there was somewhere in Cleveland that accepted donations of baked goods; if not, they figured they could give leftovers to friends.
For a few people in Cleveland, bagels were a tough sell, almost a foreign food. Doyle, who grew up in Mexico, recalls one farmers’ market customer who refused even to try them; they were “too Yankee,” he said. Others had to have the concept of bagels explained or had to be tempted past the most basic of flavors (varied offerings each week included plain, everything, cheddar, cinnamon raisin, asiago, cinnamon crunch, and sesame, as well as specialty cream cheeses like jalapeño cheddar, honey pecan, veggie and strawberry).
Even as they expanded to include coffee and bagel breakfast sandwiches, everything continued to sell. A line would form as soon as the market opened and Doyle and Gluckman, along with their husbands, would keep dishing bagels until everything was gone. At their peak, the weekend of July 4, Big River sold 25 dozen bagels. Now that farmers’ market season is over, Doyle said she runs into people in town who tell her they miss their weekly bagel fix.
For Gluckman and Doyle, though, the winter is something of a respite. Each Thursday this summer, they’d buy ingredients. And then on Friday evening they’d begin to make the dough. On Saturday morning, starting at 4:30, Doyle and Gluckman, along with Gluckman’s husband Michael Stanley, would be in rented kitchen space, preparing for the day: weighing out the dough, boiling it and then the final bake.
“It was not that bad,” Doyle said. “We’d be sleepy, but the first half of the summer we were so excited that we didn’t notice.”
By the end of the summer, though, she admits they were beginning to tire.
Still, Gluckman said she was pleased by the response.
“People go to school to make food, and we were sort of just hacking at it,” she said. “But people really appreciated it — so I knew we were delivering a quality product.”
She’s proud, she said, that the company reflects the friends’ values: localism, the value of the hand-made and the importance of sustainability. They intentionally avoid using Styrofoam. Stanley, a sculptor and woodworker, created a handcrafted display class.
“This is who we are, and what we believe in — and our customers appreciated that, and were willing to pay for that,” Gluckman said. “I know our bagels are more expensive than what you could buy at the grocery store, but having them be made locally, made that morning — that’s the choice I wanted to give them.”
The business has thrived, in part, because of the friends’ intertwined skill sets: Doyle, who has managed restaurants, was an organizer and problem-solver; Gluckman, meanwhile, was the visionary — and a skilled baker.
Gluckman had once considered opening a bakery in Cleveland. When she moved to Cleveland, Stanley, then her fiancé, had been hired to teach art at Delta State University; Gluckman did not yet have a job and knew few people in town. She had always loved to bake (“She would do blueberry pies—so good,” Doyle said) and thought a new bakery could be a gathering place. When she found a job, that plan fell to the wayside.
So when the pair was invited to move into restaurant space in a new hotel being developed on the edge of town, it was difficult to say, “No.” They went as far as to visit a bagel shop in Jackson to learn how it was run. But, at the moment, both Gluckman and Doyle are satisfied with their current work (Gluckman is the executive director of the Sunflower County Freedom Project, an after-school program for public school students; Doyle works at Long Chiropractic) and could not imagine going full-time. Yet.
“It was a tremendous opportunity,” Gluckman said. “But it didn’t feel 100 percent perfect.”
Big River Bagels will rise again this spring during the farmers’ market and will contribute to various pop-up events throughout the off-season. Gluckman and Doyle are considering partnering with local restaurants or coffee shops to have a committed, year-round vendor for their bagels. And they know, at some point, a spot for homemade brunch will appear in town.
“It has to,” Doyle said.
Maybe — if Cleveland breakfasters are lucky — things will change, and it will be Big River Bagels serving up that home-baked goodness.
“I still dream about it,” Gluckman admits. “And I can do that because Marisol and I have such a good partnership. It would be a lot of fun to create something with her that’s even bigger than what we’ve done so far.”
A Big River Bagel Sampling (Photos by Rory Doyle):