Every Thursday at precisely 7:30 a.m., Sam Leonard opens the online market for his homemade bagels, then watches the orders pour in. For customers, it’s a bit like buying tickets to a hot concert: If you don’t jump on right away, you won’t get those poppy seed bagels you have your heart set on. (I know; it happened to me.)
Leonard operates a cottage baking business called Better Half Bagel, making and selling bagels from his home in South Land Park. Customers order and pay online, then pick up their bagels on Sunday morning from a table set up on Leonard’s driveway.
Cottage bakers have flourished in Sacramento during the pandemic. When COVID-19 disrupted the restaurant industry, many food professionals pivoted to become WFH entrepreneurs. Nowadays, you can buy top-notch artisanal breads, cakes, cookies, pies and more from home-based bakers like Leonard. It’s possible thanks to the Cottage Food Bill of 2018, which allows for “microenterprise home kitchen operations” like Better Half Bagel.
Originally from the East Coast, Leonard had lived in the Bay Area, where he worked off and on as a professional cook, before moving to Sacramento with his wife and baby about two years ago. When COVID hit, he started playing around with bagels. It’s a foodstuff dear to his heart: He’d previously worked at San Francisco’s Marla Bakery, which is known for its excellent bagels, and later staged at Beauty’s Bagel Shop in Oakland. “I always had bagels in my head,” he says. When Leonard posted pictures of his bagels on Instagram, people begged for the chance to purchase them. So he got a cottage license and set up shop.
For Leonard, making bagels is a three-day process. He mixes and rolls the bagels on Thursday, then stashes them in the fridge for 48 hours for a long, slow, cold fermentation. On Sunday, he rises super early to boil the bagels, then bakes them on a pizza stone before customers arrive for pickup between 9 and 11 a.m.
Each week, he offers plain, sesame (with both black and white seeds), poppy seed and “everything” bagels, plus one or two wildcards such as rye, pumpernickel or salt-and-pepper bagels. He caps the number of bagels he produces each week at 250. (On Saturdays, he also sells a limited number of bagel four-packs at Taylor’s Market in Land Park.) Notable for their flavorful, chewy interior and dark, crackly exterior, his products are pocked with CO2 bubbles—the hallmark of a great bagel—and completely covered with seeds on both sides. “I try not to skimp on the seeds,” he says modestly.
Eventually, Leonard would like to open a brick-and-mortar business, selling bagels plus all the “go-withs”: cream cheese, pickles, smoked fish and more. In the meantime, he’s enjoying his WFH life. “I can roll out of bed whenever,” he says. “I don’t have to commute, and there’s no overhead.”