For Brent Woodard, making a better gluten-free free bagel was a matter of problem solving. A former architect, IT support entrepreneur and, most recently, a stay-at-home dad, Brent says his approach to things has always been about solving problems, no matter what career hat he’s worn. So when he discovered that he was gluten-intolerant and could no longer have his beloved bread and bagels, he set out to tackle the challenge of making a gluten-free bagel that was as close to the traditional bagel as he could make it.
“I was kind of in denial for a while. I wanted it to be anything but that [gluten intolerance]. I gave up milk, I gave up soy, a whole list of things and my digestive system got a little bit better, but not really better. So my wife was like, ‘maybe it’s the wheat.’ And I went ‘Nooo, nooo,’ so I went off and pretty much within 10 days a lot of my digestive symptoms started clearing up,” he said.
After going off wheat, Brent began trying the gluten-free alternatives that were on the market. No stranger to making a good bagel, Brent had actually gone through a “wheat-ful” bagel-making stint prior to his diagnosis and had wondered whether making bagels might be a good business idea. But his daughter came along, and he shelved that idea. That is, until he couldn’t have regular bagels anymore and found he was disappointed by what the market offered.
“The first thing I did was try out samples of alternatives…and they didn’t really hit the bagel mark for me…I thought, ‘there’s gotta be something better,’ so I went in the kitchen and started grinding out recipes. It took me about two or three months to get something that was even close to edible. The first attempts were just these gnarly, sticky, gooey things that I just had to throw away because they were so bad,” he said.
Because Brent had been posting his experiments on Facebook, a friend of his who owns Fayes Video & Espresso in the Mission offered to sell the bagels at the store. But Brent didn’t feel the bagels were quite ready for prime time. So to test his creations, he gathered a group of other folks with various levels of gluten intolerance and asked them to provide online feedback in exchange for getting samples from the next batch. He asked the taste testers to grade the bagels based on the criteria of “it’s gotta look, it’s gotta feel, it’s gotta have the qualities of a bagel. It’s gotta read as a bagel,” he said.
“I wanted to solve the problem. [I thought] ‘I know I can do this, I think there’s a solution out there, I just have to get it right,’” he said. “It’s a little like sculpting because you’re tweaking one ingredient at a time, making a batch, seeing what the results are and then going to the next step.”
After working the problem for two or three months, Brent created a recipe that combined rice and potato flours and a baking process that was as close to making traditional bagels (he boils them and uses a lye solution bath before baking) as he could get and he began “releasing them into the wild” more. From there he decided to look into commercial kitchen space, first exploring the space at Kitchener Oakland, then finding a home at Oakland’s Uptown Kitchen. He also started contacting outlets such as Berkeley Bowl and Good Eggs to begin selling them.
The name for the business came from his first experiments. “When I first started making them, they were really weird looking. They were gooey, they were gnarly, they were lumpy, they were really odd looking. So that was one part. The other part is that it’s odd that there’s no wheat in it, you know, it’s the odd bagel. And I always like to say, ‘who doesn’t like the odd bagel?’” Brent said. Plus, gluten-free marketing, he says, is far too sterile and medical right now with names that “sound like pills,” so he approached the brand with the idea that it should not just be medical but fun and interesting. “I wanted a name that stands up and says something like that.”
For Brent, making a gluten-free bagel that anyone—from those that are gluten intolerant to vegans to people without dietary restrictions—would eat, enjoy and recognize as a bagel has always been an important part of his mission and method for the product. While it’s a commercial endeavor, he said, it’s also about serving his “gluten-free tribe.”
“First it’s gotta be good, then it’s gotta address as many of the food particularities that people have. So it’s gluten-free. It also doesn’t have any animal products—no eggs or milk products—which a lot of gluten-free bagels [have],” he said. Making sure that the ingredients were natural and didn’t contain anything that was “unnecessary for a bagel,” was also key.
Brent says that although those diagnosed as celiacs are only about one percent of the population, there are many other people with gluten intolerance. According to an article he saw in the Wall Street Journal, a recent study found that up to 30 percent of the population wants to cut down on wheat consumption. With that trend as a part of the general consciousness, he believes riding that wave will help him reach the 1 percent who really need it, he said.
“Outside of any commercial rewards, there’s this idea that I could really help people, which is kinda cool,” he said.
Brent’s journey into the bagel business has happened relatively quickly. It was just last summer that he problem-solved his bagel-making process, and he really perfected it just this past December, he said. Regular flavors include plain, everything, onion, sesame, poppy seed, garlic and salt. Right now Brent is focused primarily on selling to larger retailers such as Berkeley Bowl and Good Eggs, as well as Miglet’s, a gluten-free bakery in Danville and Saul’s Delicatessen in Berkeley. He’s also started to build a team for the business and currently has one other baker and a strategist assisting him.
Making the transition back to work outside the home has been a bit tough, Brent says. “It’s kind of that mother going back to work syndrome because I’m the mom, and I miss my time,” he said. “I don’t get to put [my daughter] to bed at night because I’ve gotta be at the kitchen, and I do deliveries [in the morning] and I have to get back because I have to take her to school.” Nevertheless, he says, he talked to his daughter about the business and why it’s important for the family. “This is Hawaii money I told her,” he said. “Every bagel I sell gets us closer to a trip to Hawaii…that’s an easier shift for her to understand why I’m not there.”
Getting the word out about his bagels to the people who need them most is also a bit difficult, Brent says. He has gotten some calls and emails from people in various places around the country who want a good gluten-free bagel too but the possibility of serving anything beyond the Bay Area right now would mean sacrificing freshness. Brent wants to focus on ways to make sure that product will be good when it gets to someone before branching out further or selling via mail order.
“I want people to like my stuff, I want my stuff to be good,” he said.
What drew you to food?
I love to cook and, mostly why I like to cook is, I like to share food with people, with family. There’s nothing like sitting down to a good meal, good conversation, a little bit of drink and just hanging out. I love to go in the kitchen and be able to lay out a nice spread for people that creates that family environment at the table. As a stay-at-home parent, I was the one that was doing all the cooking, all the shopping and stuff like that, so my wife would come home and I would have a nice spread every single night. That kind of lent itself to gaining more skill in the kitchen and becoming comfortable with the idea of how do you work with ingredients? So when I discovered my own issues, I kind of had this idea, ‘well OK, I know how it works so now I’ll see what I can do and tweak it to get there.’
My own food issues. That was it; it started with me. And the public consciousness [about gluten intolerance] has also gone pretty big, pretty quick. I mean I started this last April and started conversations about it, and then there started being lots of articles about it everywhere and everyone I talk to about it was like, ‘oh, yeah, I know someone who has the same thing.’ And over the summer, it just seemed like everywhere I turned—I mean, it’s my own thing, so I’m more conscious of it—but it seemed like it was everywhere. So it seemed like maybe I’m hitting a wave right now. Right time, right place, right product.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
It’s kind of really internal, I mean I like to eat. I like to eat well. My wife and I, we love to go out. I mean it’s great here in the Bay Area because there’s such a diverse set of food here, and there are any number of cuisines that people do well. But I’m also kind of cheap, so I’ll go to places and then try to mimic them at my house. I’ve done Ethiopian cuisine at home, I’ve done Thai, I’ve done a lot of diverse things. A lot of that inspiration comes when you go out and you eat and you want to have more of it but you can’t always go back all the time because it’s so expensive. So how do I do this at home? And how do I do it well? And it’s always kind of a challenge to see how close can I mimic that meal that I had while I was out. And then once I’ve done that, inviting friends over and sharing it with them. So maybe there’s a little bit of ego inspiration there of trying to do something well.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I’ve talked to a lot of people, I mean especially in the food business right now, especially in Oakland, it’s very welcoming. People are willing to share and talk. When I first starting coming out of the kitchen—my kitchen—one of our neighbors had a contact with Sophia Chang at Kitchener, and he’s like ‘you’ve gotta talk to Sophia, she’s great.’ So I sent her an email and said ‘I gotta find a kitchen, maybe Kitchener,’ so I took a tour and she [said] ‘listen, I love my space here but you know what, you’re going to outgrow it way too quick.’ And I’m like, ‘great, so what do I do? I’m not there yet’, and she said ‘go talk to the people at Uptown, they’ve got a larger space, they’re better for you.’ Basically she was very nurturing and very willing to point me in the right direction regardless of whether I was paying her for her space or not. So having her, number one, say your product’s really good and, number two, here’s what I think you really need and go talk to them, was great. I’ve stayed in touch with her, I go to her events when I can..she sent me over to the guys over at Authentic Bagel to talk to them and kind of make a connection there…I had to put myself out there to begin with and find her. People are busy and you’ve gotta follow up. And just because someone doesn’t get back to you the first time doesn’t mean they hate you, they’re just busy. So you can’t get upset about those things, you’ve just gotta keep going and if people don’t have time for you, don’t let that be a roadblock. Find another way to do it and maybe that person will come back to you later. Because often that’s what’s been happening to me, is I’ll put it out there and then a month or two later someone’s like, ‘come here, let us try your product.’ So that’s been great. The community is great. Participate in it. Talk to people because you just never know who you can help or who’s going to help you back.
I think also one of the things I learned–having done a previous business when I was young– that was really instructive was that going through my own first start-up was a great Failure MBA. I learned a lot of things of what not to do because we really set up the business first before going out and selling. And this time I kind of turned it on its head. I got the product, then started selling. You know other things will sort themselves out. You’ve gotta figure that if you’ve got some sort of revenue that really will happen, then you can put the other pieces with it. But I’ve learned that by doing it the wrong way first. It’s OK to fail. You learn way, way, way, way more from that. Some of the best pieces of my product I learned by completely screwing a batch up.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Probably figuring out how to connect with my market. People who do want my product, specifically would go find it, but a lot of times it’s like ‘where do I get it?’ And even when I tell them where to get it, sometimes it’s hard. Gluten-intolerant people don’t tend to walk through the fresh bread section, and that’s where my product is. So the people who really, really want it aren’t necessarily going to find it just by browsing. Getting the word out has been the hardest thing, connecting people with the product. Once they find it, they buy it.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Actually, I get the biggest joy twofold. The first is the kids, just kids in general eating a bagel. Kids are so honest with their reactions; they won’t eat things that they don’t like. And I’ll get kids that will just munch on one of the [bagels] and that’s just really a joy to see. Number two—kids that are actually gluten-intolerant, that all of a sudden realize, ‘oh my god, I can have this.’ I was at Miglet’s a couple weeks ago there was a kid that walked in with his mother, he appeared to be somewhere on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum, he definitely had that behavior, but he knew what he couldn’t have in terms of food. I was in there sampling and he looked it over, and I said, “oh, do you want a bagel?’ and he was like ‘does it have dairy?’ because he knew not only could he not have wheat, he couldn’t have dairy. ‘No, it doesn’t have dairy, you’re good.’ And he took it and ate it and came back for more and his mother bought him some, and I provided that kid something that he couldn’t have before. I get a kick out of that. To me, then it’s then something becoming emotional.
I’m a plain with cream cheese, black coffee kind of guy. Everyone else, pretty much hands down, seems to go for the everything. I don’t know if it’s just what it is or the flavor or what. It’s been interesting to see that because I really just don’t go for it, it’s too much for me. I also do some of the sweet flavors, I’ve done cinnamon raison, I’ve done blueberry and chocolate chip. I don’t do those regularly right now, it’s kind of a separate thing, and it hasn’t caught on as much out at Miglet’s. I make what people will buy. Personally, it was about the plain bagel and getting something that was gluten-free.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
I like Dan Graf of Baron Baking a lot. He worked at Saul’s for a while and then went off on his own and figured [out how to make New York style bagels]. He hadn’t done bagels before, and Saul’s had been looking for a bagel product to use regularly and he kind of figured it out. I went through a similar process that he did because there was a bit of invention that he had to go through in working out his process. We’re similar in what we went through I feel like. It’s a different product, a different market a little bit, but the same kind of shared pain. We sit and we talk.
I like the guys at Authentic as well, I’ve sat and talked with them but we’re doing different things. They own a bagel shop, and I’m more about retail, working on that retail angle. I’m not about having a shop right now. With [gluten-free being] one percent of the market, that’s really not a good idea. But I’m starting to meet more people. The kitchen that I’m in, there are a bunch of small vendors and everybody there is really cool for the most part. People are doing Good Eggs, people are trying to figure out how to get into those mini Whole Foods like Bi-Rite. It’s just kind of fun to hand out and talk shop with them.
I’m still meeting people, because I’m still new to the food scene. I went to Wise Sons. I got a connection through someone and went in and met with Evan Bloom, who’s someone of note to me…and he knew about me, which was weird. It was really odd. We were talking and he was like, ‘yeah we’ve been thinking about getting a hold of you,’ and I was like ‘Really?’ and he was like “yeah.’ And they know Blake [Joffe]and Amy [Remsen of Beauty’s Bagels] and [Evan told me] ‘they’ve been talking about getting ahold of you, too.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ I’m nobody. So it’s weird to be this junior part of this what I would consider a food scene. Not fully a part of it yet, but it’s a little weird. It’s interesting. I don’t see myself as them yet, but I’m getting introduced to them and it’s kind of fun!
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would probably have gluten in it because it just wouldn’t matter anymore. It depends on how close to the last it would be. If it was the last within 24 hours, it would be something like fried chicken or something like that, all things that I can’t do anymore. I love Indian food. I go regularly to Vik’s [Chaat House], and it’s great because that’s cuisine that I can eat. I’d probably have a beer, too because I can’t drink beer anymore. That’s one of the things that I really miss, to just sit and have a beer.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Well for the longest time if I had something that I was going to eat out it would have been Bette’s corned beef hash at Bette’s Oceanview Diner on 4th Street in Berkeley. For a long time that was my go-to if I had thought about something to be going out and getting. But I hadn’t had it for a long time, and then my wife and I went and got it sometime after I went gluten-free and I ate it and, sure enough, they must use a wheat roux or something because it’s off my list now, which is a bummer because it’s the best anywhere. Corned beef hash is one of those things. I grew up in the Santa Cruz area but went to school at Berkeley, and I’ve been eating at Bette’s since like ‘89 back when 4th Street was still crunchy. I’d go down there to Builder’s, which is an architectural bookstore, and I’d go to Bette’s ,and I’ve been eating the corned beef hash there since then, before there was a 45 minute wait. And it’s the best. Where ever we would travel, we would try the corned beef hash just to compare it. In my book, it’s one of the best I’ve had anywhere and now I can’t eat it. I think it’s the creaminess, there’s some sort of roux that they use to cream up the potatoes. Boo hoo. There’s a lot of things like that here that you just can’t get anywhere else. Again, like Vik’s, that chaat, Indian fast food stuff – it’s like oh my gosh, there’s the tamarind, the mint, you can’t get anywhere. There are a lot of the little Ethiopain where you can get the gluten-free injera bread and you can get all of that here.
Photos courtesy of Brent Woodard, Odd Bagel.