News, Views, Happiness Pursued

Where the Wild Yeasts Are

A blunt history of a rebel bagel shop: 158 Pickett Street Cafe turns 20

by | Jul 5, 2021

Katie Schier-Potocki and Josh Potocki outside their South Portland bagel shop. photo/Matt Robbins

 

Danny Bailey was miserable. She’d moved across the country, to Scarborough, Maine, and couldn’t find a job that “felt right.”

“Like, I tried working at this weird insurance company that was totally a scam,” she said. “I had to sell an insurance policy before I got paid a dime. … They wanted me to go to people’s houses at dinnertime and try to sell them insurance when I’m not invited. I was going to get shot!” She laughed. “It was terrible. I never sold anything and I would cry in my car because I didn’t want to go in.”

Then her friend Alice, “who I had known from Seattle and other places,” told her they were looking for help at the South Portland bagel shop where Alice had baked: 158 Pickett Street Cafe, in the Willard Beach neighborhood between Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) and Bug Light Park. Danny interviewed and got the job on the spot, working the counter and making coffee drinks.

“I was scared when I moved to Maine, ’cause I moved from California,” Danny said. “I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to find the freaks. And when I started working here, I very quickly was like, Oh, this is where the freaks are. I found them. I’m going to be fine.

That was six years ago, and Danny’s still joyfully employed at 158, where her unofficial title is Mother of Bagels. This gig also opened connections in Portland’s music scene — she’s in the punk-pop trio Crunchcoat, and has played bass with the ferocious metal act Cadaverette, among other projects.

“You actually told us during the interview, ‘I hate my job,’” Ashley McComish recalled when I spoke with her and Danny last month in the eatery’s small dining room, which has been closed to the public since the pandemic (158 is doing take-out only, via phone and online orders, for at least the rest of the summer).

Ashley’s been running 158 for over eight years and has worked there for about 13. She grew up in the York County town of Lebanon and had been managing a Spencer’s gift shop in a New Hampshire mall, while commuting to study marine biology at SMCC, when she discovered this little lunch place down the street. Upon graduation, rather than sail off to study sea creatures, she took up with the self-described “pirates” in the cafe’s kitchen.

“It was a pretty easy jump” from Spencer’s to 158, Ashley said. “Working with tattooed, pierced people that are funny and kind of cynical, and then I came here — it was just about the same thing. … I just really loved the vibe.”

Danny Bailey (left) and Ashley McComish in 158’s backyard. photo/Chris Busby

In an economy dominated by corporations that demand and enforce near total conformity — from the product to the people who sell it, down to the traces of drugs permitted in employee pee — independent small businesses like 158 are the last bastions of creativity, true inclusivity and, frankly, freedom. The more “eccentric” food found at cafes like 158 attracts customers looking for something different, as well as all sorts of weirdo workers who, by virtue of their independence, are the only ones who keep a community’s culinary culture evolving and exciting.

The seed that became 158 — which marks two decades in business this year — germinated at just such a place: the aptly named Laughing Seed Café in the progressive southern city of Asheville, North Carolina.

In the mid-1990s, between hikes on the Appalachian Trail, 158 owner and co-founder Josh Potocki got a job at the Laughing Seed making smoothies. “It was a cool, funky, vegetarian place, so there were a lot of freaks there,” he recalled during our conversation last month. “They had vegan stuff, macrobiotic — in the ’90s, that was rare. But they did stuff really well, and I worked with a lot of really cool, weird people. It was like this counter-culture place.”

One of his co-workers at the Laughing Seed was baker Allison Reid. Josh said Allison once had to ask him to cover her shift on short notice. “I’d baked like one loaf of bread at that point, at home with my dad or something,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how to bake,’ and she’s like, ‘You can do it! I’ll just leave you notes.’”

“It wasn’t amazing, but I did it,” Josh continued. “We had bread and we were able to sell it, and I got [Allison] through that — that was our connection. I kind of looked up to her as an older sister or whatever, ’cause she was a really good cook and really passionate about baking.”

From the Laughing Seed, Josh — an outdoorsman and snowboard bum from northwestern Pennsylvania who had the chops, but lacked the scratch, to attend the Culinary Institute of America — headed west and found work at a bakery-cafe in Bozeman, Montana, called the Sweet Pea. He’d initially planned to follow the snow south, to Peru, after ski season, but was enchanted by the kitchen wizardry of Chef Charlie Totten, who owned and operated the Sweet Pea with his wife, Alison Totten.

Working at the Sweet Pea was like “looking at my life in the future,” said Josh, who owns 158 and the Bread + Butter Catering Company with his wife, Katie Schier-Potocki. The couple, who married a decade ago, have a young son, Finn. The Tottens “were doing what I pretty much have been doing for the past ten years, with a kid. They were running, like, three shifts, seven days a week. He was working like crazy. I’d see them fighting in the walk-in and shit. It was classic.”

“That guy’s skills were insane, dude,” Josh said of Chef Charlie. “The croissants they were making, and cakes — it was next-level.” The Sweet Pea was also “where I kinda started with the bagel idea for here, ’cause they made handmade bagels. They did everything by hand: bagels and super-sick salads for lunch, and they had a pastry program. … I ended up staying there for two years, just to learn.”

Josh’s experience at the Sweet Pea gave him the confidence to land his first gig as a private chef: making holiday meals for ex-telecom executives who owned a posh mountain retreat in the Rockies and a gated compound in West Palm Beach, Florida. They hired Josh to be the chef aboard their 80-foot teak yacht during a month-long jaunt around the Caribbean.

Provisioning the boat for a month’s worth of classy meals prepared in a tiny galley, using fresh produce that had to be procured in ports he’d never seen, was a daunting challenge for the young chef. Deflecting the persistent advances of the yacht’s “sketchy-ass drunk captain” was no picnic, either, but otherwise it was smooth sailing, and the clients were satisfied.

When Josh disembarked in Florida, he wasn’t sure where to go next. It was the last summer of the millennium. He thought of returning to Montana. Instead — “I don’t even know why,” he said — he called Allison Reid, who was working in Portland at the fine-dining restaurant Street and Co. She offered him a job there, he accepted, and the future of craft baking in Maine took a sharp turn upward.

As he’d done in West Palm, Josh got off an airplane in Portland with only a backpack and the clothes he was wearing. The plan was to work at the restaurant and live at Allison’s place in South Portland until he got his own pad. “I went down to meet Al at Street at like five or six, right before service,” he recalled of that first day in Maine. “She’s like, ‘What are you doing right now? … You want to work tonight?’

“I’m like, ‘OK.’ So immediately, my foot into Portland, I went right into the dish pit at fuckin’ Street and Co. and just started sending it.”

Josh met one of Portland’s most notorious eccentrics that night: William Burke, whose vociferous recitations of Shakespeare in city parks caused him to repeatedly run afoul of the authorities back then. This William was deep in the pit, “no shirt on, rubber apron, big rubber gloves, all fuckin’ hairy and covered with water, ’cause it was super wet down there,” Josh remembered. The soggy bard confronted the newcomer: “You ever run a dish machine before?”

“He was being a dick, ’cause he’s kind of a dick, but I also love him, because he’s fuckin’ weird,” Josh said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, bud, I have. Just show me what’s up.’ We just started working, and him and I became friends.”

Josh eventually got to cook in Street’s fabled kitchen with Chef Abby Harmon and her rock-star crew. “For me, as a young cook, it was magic, and I was in love like that,” he said. “Wharf Street, fog outside, a fuckin’ fire, and just that whole mystique.” Standard Baking Co. — since relocated a couple blocks east, beneath Street’s sister restaurant, Fore Street — was just a few steps down the cobblestones back then, its aromas providing yet more daily inspiration.  

One morning, while Josh and Allison were relaxing in the backyard, a friend of hers visiting from out of town “went to get some breakfast and shit at like Dunkin’ Donuts,” Josh recalled, and returned with some hard questions: “‘Are there any bagels in this town?’” he asked. “‘What the fuck?’”

“I think there was a little shop in [downtown Portland] by the movie theater,” Josh told me, “but I was like, ‘I can make bagels,’ because at Sweet Pea we were making bagels, and I had the recipe — I kinda took it. It was a sourdough bagel, which I’d never really had before.”

The visitor, “a business guy,” Josh said, “did some numbers” and declared to Josh and Allison: “‘You guys should just open a bagel shop!’” Josh dismissed the idea that morning, but it stuck in his mind. A couple days later, while biking along Benjamin W. Pickett Street near what was then called Southern Maine Technical College, he noticed a for-rent sign on the ramshackle shack numbered 158. “I went home, I saw Al and was like, ‘Hey, that building’s for rent down there. I was thinking about that bagel thing. What do you think about that?’ She’s like, ‘Let’s fuckin’ do it!’”

The early days of what was then known as One Fifty Ate were, like those of our universe, barely controlled chaos. “There was like zero systems and shit,” Josh remembered. “And I just was freaking, dude. I can cook for a turn of a hundred down there [at Street and Co.] in an hour, but I couldn’t do twelve sandwiches at once, ’cause there was no system.

“Obviously that drove me mad, so I’d be in here night and day, sleeping here,” he added. “It was constant, and I never gave up. I wanted to a whole bunch, and I probably should have a few times, but if you’re really passionate about something, and if it’s in your grasp to make it happen, physically, you’ve gotta do it. You’ve gotta really love it and you live it. So it wasn’t really that hard for me. I was like, Fuck that. We’re making this happen. We’re gonna make this happen no matter what.”

The menu was more complicated back then — “We were doing all kinds of pastries and shit,” Josh recalled, “we were doing croissant work and big, huge Danishes.” They were also baking round loaves of rustic French bread (boule) and selling them to “all the cool spots in town,” restaurants like Local 188, then in its original, much smaller location in Longfellow Square.

“At that time, Standard was the only artisan bakery happening, so we just kind of offered something that wasn’t Standard,” Josh continued. “We realized it didn’t pay in the long run, but it was more [about] the connections I made in the scene through that. … Our generation’s scene was, and still is, deeply connected. It’s missing a little bit of this new shit, but it doesn’t really matter to me, as long as we keep those relationships alive.”

Originally open five days a week, from 7 a.m. to early afternoon, they went daily to try to meet growing demand and still kept running out of bagels — which in turn generated more demand. I asked Josh what makes a 158 bagel so special. “The sourdough, I think, sets it apart, and I think people can taste the energy, in general, behind places,” he answered. “If no one cares about that food, you can certainly taste it. … You have to care for it to be good.”

By 2005, Josh and Allison’s passions were diverging. “I was really wanting to cook, and Allison was really hell bent on baking,” he said. “I love baking, but I also love cooking, probably more.” The solution — to start serving dinners at 158 that year — nearly destroyed their business, though the intense energy it generated spawned several others.

It was around this time that an Ivy Leaguer in his mid-30s named Guy Hernandez showed up and asked to join the team. “I was like, ‘Really, dude? You’re an architect with a Princeton degree and you want to bake bread?’” Josh recalled. “‘OK, great, let’s go.’ And he was a great baker, man. He was a solid dude and he was here all the time.”

One Fifty Ate only offered dinner by reservation, on weekends; it was BYOB and it was not in Portland. But with Allison’s fresh bread on the tables, and Josh and Guy and talents like Fore Street alum Christian Kryger unchained in the kitchen, word spread fast. “We were trying to do a lot of riffs on American comfort stuff,” Josh said. “Crazy mac-and-cheese with weird cheeses and weird breadcrumbs. It was French tapas, too, like confit leg of chicken with some cherries or something.”

An August 2006 write-up in the Boston Globe reported that Josh, then 32, “looks like he could be the bad boy drummer in a punk rock band. He’s a surfer, tall and wiry with tattoos all over his arms and a short Mohawk under a baseball cap on backwards.” The dish he’d made during the writer’s visit was a pork loin served with “chipotle and sour cherry jam, Cuban-style black beans, and pickled mango.” Josh’s grandmother’s lemon pound cake was also on the menu that night. “I know that she could smell exactly when it was done,” Josh told the Globe’s reviewer.

That pound cake wasn’t the only thing whose time was up. By this point, the dinners at One Fifty Ate had moved to Bar Lola, the upscale restaurant Guy and his wife, Stella Hernandez, opened atop Munjoy Hill, across the harbor in Portland. Meanwhile, Allison had brought in another couple, Sonja Swanberg and Bob Johnson, to develop One Fifty Ate at Willard Square, a bakery a short jog south of the Pickett Street shack that’s since been renamed Scratch Baking Co. and earned its own bagel fame.

“Eventually I was so burned out, dude,” Josh told me while we sat on the wooden benches in front of 158. “I was working like a hundred to a hundred-and-twenty hours every fuckin’ week, eating Adderall just to make it and, like, trying to survive. I was miserable, but it was caught in my brain that I didn’t want to disappoint [my business partners], I didn’t want to lose this — there was all this shit.”

Luckily, Josh’s best friend, then living in Florida, came up to visit. Seeing his buddy so stressed out, he suggested they take an impromptu trip to Costa Rica so Josh could relax, reset, and make some decisions about his future. “We just booked,” Josh recalled. “I just got in line and got a ticket for like two weeks … and I came back very clear.”    

Upon his return, Josh ended the dinner partnership with Guy and Stella, who went on to open the bistro Lolita and a coffee shop on the Hill. The partnership with Allison, Bob and Sonja was over too — and most of the baking equipment was down the road at their place. Josh still had the Pickett Street joint, but needed about $20,000 to keep it going on his own.

“I just went to the bank, dude. My credit was shitty and whatever. I’m like, Alright, well, I guess I’m gonna apply for this twenty K. If I get it, the bakery lives. If I don’t, we’re done. It was literally to that point. And I fuckin’ got it,” he said with a laugh of disbelief. “So we started running again.”

“Was this a small, local bank?” I asked. By this point, Katie had joined us, sitting in a wooden chair while Finny played nearby.

“Yeah, man, TD,” Josh replied. “Been with ’em the whole time.”

“TD Bank,” Katie corrected. “Not a small, local bank.”

“Yeah,” Josh said, unfazed, “but like, it’s our little branch here, ya know?”        

Josh and Katie inside 158 Pickett Street Cafe. photo/Matt Robbins

The bank loan was critical, but it would have been worthless had Katie not entered the picture when she did. Because while it’s great to have a bunch of free spirits in the kitchen, freaks suck at running businesses.

“We had a series of bookkeepers that didn’t really give a fuck or know what they were doing,” Josh said. “That’s really where Katie turned the entire business around, because me, at that time, I just didn’t give a fuck. I’d just spend money, even money I didn’t have — credit card, whatever. I was like 75 G’s in debt, right?”

Katie just laughed, quietly. “Oh, man,” she remembered, “when we first started dating, he’d be throwing his credit card down, fancy meals, like Miyaki ten-course for everyone. Then I got to go over the books and I was like, ‘Oh, ho-ho-ho! OK, OK.’”

“Like, ‘I hope that impressed you,’” Josh cracked, “‘because you’re gonna pay for it now.’”

Raised in southern New Hampshire in “a self-employed family” — her mom did the books for dad’s auto repair shop — Katie had been “exposed” to business accounting, but said, “I really am fascinated by the finances in general, and how money works as a concept. And I’m pretty disciplined when I need to be.

“It was actually a struggle for us and our relationship in the very beginning,” she continued, “because once I realized what was actually going on here and how much debt was being carried, I basically was like, ‘We can’t spend any money on anything. You’re shut down.’ And that was very hard for him, because he had been so used to doing whatever he wanted, which was awesome and made him exactly who he is and what have you.”

“It was irresponsible, really,” Josh conceded. “But I didn’t have a kid. I was like, Whatever, it’s debt, fuck it, everybody has debt, I don’t care.”

“So I basically just gave myself lessons and Googled everything about QuickBooks and taught myself all of that,” said Katie, who’d been slinging drinks at Portland’s Downtown Lounge and picking up catering work with Aurora Provisions. “Then we just put our heads down. We got married” — in September of 2011 — “and then we got pregnant not long afterward.”

The cafe still had a paper-tape cash register, which Katie replaced with a modern point-of-sale system. “When I took over the books here, they were sellin’ out every day, and they could only sell as many bagels as they could make at night,” she said. “I was like, That doesn’t make any sense; supply and demand — you should be making more bagels if you can sell more bagels.”

The connections they’d made in the restaurant scene paid off here. Catherine “Cat” Oster and her husband, Doug, proprietors of SoPo Wine Co., a wholesale distributor, had extra warehouse space across town. Moving the baking operation there enabled 158 to come much closer to meeting demand (they’ll still run out of bagels toward the end of a busy morning, or sell everything save, say, a seaweed or a salt).  

The move also enabled Josh and Katie to launch their catering company, an idea born of another side project they’d been pursuing: “pocket brunch,” a monthly series of pop-up events held at iconic spots like the Portland punk-rock club Geno’s and Bubba’s Sulky Lounge [see “The Wonders of Bubba’s Sulky Lounge,” Jan. 2020, for the history of that place].

Katie, a graduate of Maine College of Art, turned these meals into immersive experiences. “We really focused on every sense being involved, so it was like a theme,” she said, “which meant we were going all out — the menu is designed in a certain way, the décor is a certain theme.” A Mardi Gras pocket brunch, held the morning after a storm dumped several feet of snow, started at the home of one of Josh and Katie’s foodie friends, then the diners marched through Bayside to Bubba’s second line–style, led by U.S. Air Guitar Champion Erin “McNallica” McNally and Rustic Overtones horn players Ryan Zoidis and Dave Noyes.  

The brunches, like the dinners at 158 and Bar Lola before them, got very popular very fast — even managing to earn a write-up in Better Homes & Gardens, of all places — but the events, which typically hosted 30 to 40 people and featured guest chefs, were so expensive to produce that the couple never really made any money from them. The series ended after a year. To Josh, the experience of collaborating with local chefs he admired was pay-off enough.

I asked Katie how she managed to simultaneously save 158, organize pocket brunches and launch a catering company during this time. “Pregnancy hormones,” she deadpanned, then added, “We went with the philosophy of never going too far into debt. We borrowed some money from my folks to start [Bread + Butter], not that much. I joke all the time that our kitchen over there is the Goodwill kitchen, ’cause every piece of equipment is used. … Just buy what you can afford and when you absolutely need it.”

photo/Matt Robbins

Another of Josh’s past jobs also came in handy. He’d worked for a friend’s company in Atlanta that bought up family-owned restaurants and turned them into links in a corporate chain. “We’d tear up all the plumbing and all the electrical, re-carpet it and wallpaper and redo it to Denny’s,” Josh said. “We were making really good money at that time and I was probably 20 years old, living in a hotel, which was sometimes good, sometimes wasn’t.” He laughed. “At that age, dude, we were raging, but we worked hard, too.” And he learned a lot about used restaurant equipment and how to set up a commercial kitchen.

Bread + Butter has also become a success, and Josh and Katie’s approach to food service and staff management is a big reason why. Most of the people who work Bread + Butter events are seasoned restaurant pros whom the couple met through 158 or pocket brunch. The general theme and menu are determined by Katie and Josh (ably assisted by B+B’s longtime head of operations, Kelly Franklin), in collaboration with the clients. But once on site, the staff is trusted to use their own judgment in presenting the food and interacting with guests.

Before the pandemic temporarily erased their industry, Bread + Butter created buffet-style feasts and never offered individually plated service, “because there’s a very specific clientele that wants to be served in that fashion, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Katie said. “We’re not servants to the client, we are a part of the party, an essential and exciting part of the party. We are artisans that are providing this craft to make your event better … so we don’t like to go into situations where we’re putting our team in a position where they could be treated like the help, you know?”

Neither is the couple comfortable being the “face” of 158 or B+B, because both businesses have been shaped and made successful by “all the input of the generations of staff that we’ve had involved,” Katie said.

“We’re looking at the businesses as a way to basically prove that you can make money and do something you love and be treated well while doing it,” she continued. “The greatest joy I get out of any of this is being able to take care of other people and help them be able to live the life [they want to live]. Ideally, we’re all sharing in this quality of life —not just a Reaganomics, trickle-down situation, but actually have them be a part of it and building it.”

Reflecting on 158’s milestone this year, Josh said, “the community this place has generated over twenty years is priceless” — a point reiterated, and exemplified, by Danny and Ashley.

“We have the most loyal, wonderful regulars,” Ashley said.

“I’ve crocheted baby blankets for our regulars!” Danny added.

“When we have time, we love doing stuff like that, because these people do come back and we watch their kids grow up,” said Ashley.

“It’s like we have a flock of children,” said Danny. “The customers are the reason that I want to keep going. … They’re the reason we do this. We appreciate all the love that comes from them, and they love how quirky and weird we are. It’s fun.”

Josh and Katie don’t plan to radically change or expand either business anytime soon, if ever. “How much more do we want to manage?” said Katie. “We’ve gotten to a place where our family is happy and healthy and we’ve got a home, and I think we have what we need. And I don’t want to be greedy. I don’t want to take on more and ruin our quality of life. I don’t care for the fame, I’m not in it for that, and I don’t think Josh is in it for that.”

“Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered,” Josh said in a heavy Appalachian drawl, repeating a saying one of his hometown pals would use for such occasions.

“Who knows what the end game is?” said Katie. “I don’t foresee us having these businesses forever. Ideally my dream would be to pass it on to somebody that wants to keep them alive. … If it could eventually be an employee-owned, sustainable situation, that would be amazing.”

It’s fitting that 158 became a local favorite by feeding people sourdough bagels. That’s the type of bread you get when dough is leavened with the wild yeast floating in the air around us, not the lab-cultured, mass-manufactured baker’s yeast sold in stores. Sourdough also has local flavor, which is why San Francisco’s is famous; the yeast there has a distinctly strong sourness. Wild yeast is free yeast, funky yeast, freaky yeast. The sourdough starter still used to make 158’s bagels is almost old enough to legally drink. “It started as Luis and now has morphed into Luisa,” Josh said of this primordial dough. “She is all natural South Portland hybrid.”

Like Luisa, 158 must be kept alive. “If nothing else, keeping [158] open for the community as a safe haven, as a free-thinking space to come in this world, I think is very important,” Josh said, “because those spaces are becoming less and less, where it’s not controlled by some bullshit.”

Amen to that, dude.

 

158 Pickett Street Cafe is open Wednesday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to noon. For more info, visit 158cafe.com.

Related Posts

Major in Beer

Major in Beer

Sisyphus at the Taps: Pay and opportunity gaps in the craft beer industry

Subscribe

We are supported by advertisers and readers, like you, who value independent local journalism. For the cost of one pint of Maine craft beer each month, you can help us publish more content and keep it free for everyone.