Taking the clipboard to sign, Barry Greenblatt — aka Barry Bagels — uses the event to recall how Coke landed his business over Pepsi when the latter’s machines broke down years ago in his store and the Pepsi repairmen took the day off to go to a Bowling Green State University football game.
It’s an innocuous story, but Mr. Greenblatt finds a way to make it both humorous and a valuable business lesson. “I hope they enjoyed that game because come Monday morning I had Coke machines in my store,” he said, laughing.
“You just don’t go to Barry’s to get a sandwich. You go in to relax, have a sandwich, and get a story. He likes to tell stories,” said restaurateur George Mancy, who has known Mr. Greenblatt for 15 years and considers him a good friend. “A lot of people will meet Barry, and once you’ve met him, he becomes your friend for life. That’s how he is. He is very personable,” Mr. Mancy said.
For decades, Mr. Greenblatt has been regaling friends and customers with amusing stories while satisfying their appetites with a varied assortment of deli sandwiches, soups, salads, and baked potatoes served at his chain of Barry Bagels restaurants.
Last week Mr. Greenblatt marked his 40th year in business. But rather than celebrate, he spent much of the week doing what he loves doing — making bagels, running his business, and generally doing whatever the job as owner demands.
“Forty-and-out isn’t in my contract,” he said.
In fact, rather than slow down, the 63-year-old Mr. Greenblatt continues to put in 40-plus hours a week, usually during six and sometimes seven days. Lately, he’s thinking about expanding again, possibly adding a bagel store in Cleveland to augment his four Toledo-area stores and one in Ann Arbor.
“The Toledo market has been very good to us, and we’ve enjoyed being here 40 years. We have very loyal customers, and we’re good with the community and the community has helped support us,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
Told that he has likely achieved icon status along with other great Toledo restaurant names, like Packo’s and Mancy’s, Mr. Greenblatt rolls his eyes and shrugs. “We try to not blow our own horn. I’m happy just being Barry,” he said.
But there is no denying that the Detroit native blazed a path in Toledo where other delicatessen owners never went.
Mr. Greenblatt arrived in Toledo in 1972 with a partner, Peter Johnson, a bagel maker from Detroit, and set out to teach the Glass City about the joys of eating a good bagel.
“We really don’t consider ourselves a New York-style deli, per se. But we really brought the fresh-baked bagel to Toledo, and the deli followed,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Johnson set up shop in Sylvania with their first restaurant, then called The Bagel Place. Bagels were not widely sold in Toledo, and delicatessens were family-owned and single locations. In 1972, Toledo had excellent old Jewish delis — Brauer’s, Siegles, Posner’s, and Eppes Essen, Mr. Greenblatt said, but bagels weren’t really their thing.
“We were a bagel shop that served deli sandwiches,” he said.
Only three years out of high school, Mr. Greenblatt opened The Bagel Place on Holland-Sylvania Road at Sylvania Avenue, specializing in traditional New York-style, hard-crusted bagels.
But after 10 years, the market changed, preferring a softer bagel, and Mr. Greenblatt adapted to a softer bagel.
It was one of many changes and additions he’s made through the years.
Barry Bagels was the first area restaurant to popularize baked potatoes as a lunchtime treat. Mr. Greenblatt got the idea during a Florida trip in 1979, the year Mr. Johnson retired and Mr. Greenblatt bought out his interest in the chain.
“We found them at a food court in Fort Lauderdale. That was the busiest place in the food court, that baked potato stand,” he said. “We realized we had our bagel oven and our steam tables, so we just started doing baked potatoes. We were always trying to find a healthier or healthy option for our customers.”
A few years later, he put in salad bars at his restaurants, at the time an unusual lunch offering. He only recently removed the salad bars because they became too expensive.
Mr. Greenblatt also expanded, opening stores on Heatherdowns Boulevard, then moving to the former Southwyck Shopping Center in the late 1970s, and opening up a store in the Westgate Shopping Center in 1979 and changing the name to Barry Bagel’s Place.
He opened the Ann Arbor store in 1983.
During the last three decades he opened and closed a variety of sites, settling on his four Toledo-area restaurants.
“I used to talk with Sam and Charlie Fine, who owned the White Huts. I think they had up to 40 places at one time and they used to tell me stories. … They told me you have to keep [a chain] where you can manage it,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
The lesson served him well, he said, especially during the 1990s when two large chains — Big Apple Bagels and Bruegger’s — tried to gain a foothold in the Toledo market.
Both eventually left and Mr. Greenblatt’s business, which became known simply as Barry Bagels in 1979, continued to thrive.
“It’s pretty amazing what he’s accomplished being in business 40 years. A lot of competitors have come in, like Big Apple Bagels and Bruegger’s, and those are big chains that came in and left. That’s a testimony to the loyalty to his brand and the quality of his product,” said Tommy Pipatjarasgit, owner of Toledo’s Magic Wok chain.
But Mr. Pipatjarasgit said Mr. Greenblatt also has worked very hard to maintain the reputation of his brand even while attempting to fade into the background.
“It’s just something that's very special. Barry, his name’s on the building, but he’s a very low-key guy,” he said. “He spends a lot of time with his family. When I talk to him we always talk about family.”
Mr. Mancy agreed. Barry “is a very humble, caring, and generous person. …When you go into Barry’s, he’s always there to offer you anything and wants to know right away how your family’s doing,” Mr. Mancy said. “He’s just a very caring person.”
Though he is reluctant to discuss it much, Mr. Greenblatt is well known locally for his generosity, always donating food and other resources to charity. He even set up a fundraising program, Barry Bagels FundDozen, that community groups can use to raise money for projects.
“You always see him when there’s a charity event. Their product is always present. He contributes a lot,” Mr. Pipatgarasgit said.
In an era during which retailing has become a cutthroat endeavor, Mr. Greenblatt is also what some might call “old school” — doing business in an honorable way that few competitors would consider.
When one prominent chain entered Toledo, they attempted to hire several of his employees, even being so brazen as to offer his workers jobs while in his store. “They were ruthless,” he says of the chain.
Yet, as he looks to enter the Cleveland market, Mr. Greenblatt has invested several months visiting with delicatessen owners there to reassure them that he only wants to open a bagel shop, and not compete with their sandwich business. It’s a courtesy few other businessmen would provide.
“The thing is, they don’t know me. Cleveland is really a big deli town and they don’t want me there. But I just want to put a bagel shop in Cleveland, so I’m working on building a relationship, to see if their thoughts might change,” said Mr. Greenblatt.
Why not just open the store? “That’s not how we were taught. It’s a just a personal thing,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
“Is it smart business?” Mr. Greenblatt asked.
He shrugged, then said, “I don’t know. But to me it’s very ethical,” he added.
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.