Rockin’ Bagel business born during pandemic

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 8 March 2021 at 5:44 pm

Thom and Tracy Jennings of Albion used downtime from Covid to develop new venture

Photos by Tom Rivers: These bagels are fresh out of the oven on Friday night. Thom and Tracy Jennings use the certified commercial kitchen at the Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds to make about 400-450 bagels each week.

Thom Jennings measures cinnamon while making a batch of Papa Thom’s Rockin’ Bagels on Friday night. He started the business about a year ago with his wife Tracy. It quickly outgrew their kitchen at home in Albion.

ALBION – Last April, more than a month into the Covid-19 pandemic that closed schools to in-person learning, Thom Jennings was bored with more time on his hands than usual.

Jennings works as a social studies teacher. He also was performing stand-up comedy routines and writing music reviews for the Niagara Gazette.

But last April his schedule slowed down and he was watching a lot of the Food Network. One episode showed someone trying to make bagels.

Jennings watched the show with his wife Tracy, who loves to bake and experiment in the kitchen. She suggested her husband give bagel-making a try. Never, he replied.

But soon after, when he his wife was out of the house, Jennings made a batch of plain bagels. He didn’t think it would be too difficult. He worked at a Rochester restaurant as a young adult and felt comfortable making bread and had plenty of experience with yeast. He also grew up in Brighton where there are many bagel shops.

When Jennings pulled the bagels out of the oven for the first time, they were a disaster to behold. They were comically flat.

“The first ones were just horrible,” he said. “I became obsessed with mastering the bagel instead of the bagel mastering me.”

Jennings tried again and again and by the third batch felt like he was getting a knack for it. He started giving the bagels to friends. He received good feedback.

“This was never on my radar,” said Jennings, 54. “I never envisioned myself as a bagel maker.”

Tracy Jennings sprinkles cheese on Jalapeño cheddar bagels that were made Friday night. Papa Thom’s currently offers about 12 different types of bagels.

He had a feeling the bagels, made in small batches and without preservatives, would be popular in the Albion and Orleans County community.

He secured a home processor’s license from the state that allowed him to sell the bagels. The business by July outgrew his home kitchen.

“We were baking all night because there was only so much oven space,” he said.

Jennings told people he baked the bagels while listening to some of his favorite bands and musicians. He decided to make a small business out of it, and called the bagel making enterprise, Papa Thom’s Rockin’ Bagels. He is “Papa Thom” to four grandchildren.

He guarantees not only a great-tasting bagel, but that they are “born” to music. The label on each batch notes which band or musician was on while Jennings made the bagels. On Friday, the bagels were born to music by the Grateful Dead.

Thom Jennings works on the dough for the bagels while his wife boils and bakes the bagels. Thom wore a tie-dyed shirt on Friday while playing Grateful Dead music.

Thom and Tracy have been making the bagels since last summer at the commercial kitchen at the Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds. The couple arrive Fridays around 6 p.m. and typically are there to 1 or 2 in the morning. Then it’s an early morning Saturday to make deliveries from Rochester to Middleport. Most bagel-making nights they are joined by assistant Zoe Seniuk, 16, of Albion. She has joked she wants to start her own bagel enterprise some day called “Zoe Doughy.”

The label of this order of bagels note they were made on March 5 while being “born” to Grateful Dead music.

The Papa Thom’s business has taken off so much that they have added Thursday evenings to bake the bagels. Papa Thom’s is now making about 400-450 bagels a week and they are booked for orders about a month out. They currently offer bagels in the following varieties:

Traditional – plain, everything, sesame, onion, garlic, poppy and cinnamon raison.

Specialty – Asiago cheese and sundried tomato, everything inside and out, pumpernickel rye, Jalapeño cheddar, Rosemara (rosemary olive oil and sea salt).

The bagels sell for $7 a half dozen or $12 for a dozen. Thom and Tracy continue to experiment with flavors and recipes. They made a red-and-blue Buffalo Bills bagel for the weekend when the Bills faced the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship on Jan. 24.

Thom Jennings sets some of the bagels in the boiling water on Friday. Each side is boiled for about 90 seconds.

Jennings continues to work as a social studies teacher in Buffalo and Mrs. Jennings works at the Iroquois Job Corps in Shelby, where she is the data integrity records manager.

The couple has a good system in the kitchen. Thom experiments with the recipes and makes the dough. Tracy does the baking, boiling each side of the bagels for about 90 seconds and then baking them in the oven for about 24 minutes.

The Jennings said they have made many new friends through Papa Thom’s, including the the owner of HeBrews 5:9, a coffee shop in downtown Albion that sells about 10 dozen of the bagels each week.

“My hope is it will become a family business,” Mr. Jennings said. “We like to take our time on it. It’s not like we’re a bagel factory.”

They also take requests from customers on new flavors and bands to listen to while the bagels are being born. One customer recently requested Frank Zappa.

“Everything we’ve done has come from customer feedback,” Jennings said.

For more on Papa Thom’s, click here.

Thom and Tracy Jennings shape the bagels before they were boiled and then baked.