Jacob Gray is a hugger. A smiler. A giggler. And he’s been making Oklahoma City’s mornings brighter for two years. He may only be part-owner of Old School Bagel, 519 NW 23rd St., but he’s the public face of the restaurant. The goofy grinning, effusive, enthusiastic face. And arms. Do not forget the arms. If you’ve visited this slightly hidden location in the last couple of years, you’ve more than likely met Jacob, even if you didn’t know his name. He’s more often than not working the counter, taking orders and interacting with customers. And if it’s slow or if you’ve been in a few times, he’s probably come around the counter and wrapped you up in a surprising morning hug. But, you might ask, why? “I made a conscious decision that I’m happier when I’m happy,” Gray said. It’s not that he’s an unending fountain of bliss. When there’s work to do, as there often is at the busy Uptown 23rd Street restaurant, he takes care of business. But even in the midst of a rush, when he’s working with a good crew, there’s always a way to sneak in a joke. “We have very low turnover,” he said. “Everyone comes in and knows what to do. They self regulate.” That gives him the freedom to do what he really loves: crack wise with guests. “My life ambition is to laugh and joke,” Gray said.
It’s a good life. After nearly a decade of running Miss Violet’s Catering (named for his daughter), he was getting run down. His business largely centered on breakfasts and lunches for the pharmaceutical industry, but toward the end, it really was all business and very little fun. That’s when he got involved with Old School. He did his time baking bagels — a process that begins at 1:30 a.m. — before he got his own store. Now his mornings start a little later. He’s at the 23rd Street store at 5:30 a.m. to get the freshly baked bagels, start the coffee and tea brewing and get everything prepped. The breakfast rush comes in and there’s a pretty steady flow of people until the lunch rush hits. It wasn’t always so flush. Building up a lunch crowd took time, but after two years in the locale — tucked on the backside of The Rise — Gray has become as much a draw as the food.
I just imagined going in there and not seeing him and it gave me a sad. — Rock Tom (@RockTom84) June 20, 2017
Jacob is a great hugger — suzanne (@reddirtsweetie) June 21, 2017
Totally agree! He is the nicest guy! — Amber (@thefoodiefox) June 20, 2017
We go there every Sunday and he always brightens my family's morning! He's super patient with my kiddos' indecisiveness. — Sarah Cooper (@itssarahcooper) July 28, 2017
“I’m a morning person,” Gray said. “That helps. And this is my baby. I wanted my own little baby and now I’m coddling it.” Some people want the world. Endless ambition is right for a few, but for Jacob, he just loves his life the way it is. “It fits me so well,” he said. “I’m done at 3 p.m. I get my family time. It’s the best of both worlds.” As for the adulation of the bagel-loving masses, he’s a little embarrassed. But he also loves it. So go in. Get a bagel and a hug. Start your day off right. Need help ordering? I’ve got you covered.
I’m a simple man with simple tastes. I like my women like I like my coffee — lukewarm and bitter. (Actually, I like mocha lattes, because I’m a fancy bro.) But when it comes to bagels, I am always, ALWAYS, happy with a plain toasted bagel and plain cream cheese. Old School Bagels’ bagels have a lovely chewy texture. The crust has a bit of pliability that gives it good pull. Bagels are bread, yes, but if there’s no chew, they’re not really bagels. Texture counts almost as much flavor. Both at Old School are excellent. My every day order is the everything bagel with bacon and chives cream cheese. It’s a barrage of tastes, lots of salty and savory, with the crunch of seeds and crisp bacon. The cream cheese squeezes out with each bite, making it a little like a delicious game. How do I eat this without wasting a single precious dollop of bacon and chive cream cheese? I win that game a lot.
A Veggie Sunrise is, ostensibly, a healthier way to start the day. Creamy avocado takes the place of cream cheese and the tomato has a slightly tart, slightly sweet flavor that gives it more heft. The fried egg patty makes it feel more substantial and the Swiss cheese holds it all together. Do you like it spicy? Ask Jacob. He’s got a great mind for ingredients and access to some fresh jalapeño and hot sauces. He can get your tastebuds tingling. But bagels refuse to be pigeonholed in the realm of breakfast. When you're looking for a sandwich, Old School Bagel has you covered with some ridiculously delicious options. One of my favorites is lox, cream cheese, tomato and capers. It's a very high-society brunch kind of lunch without all the people wearing monocles (yeah!) and without any bloody marys (boo!). Any time of day, this is a light and refreshing choice that won't weigh you down when you're working.
For something much meatier, grab a Mile-High Club — turkey, ham, salami, provolone cheese and veggies on your choice of bagel. The thing about using bagels for bread is that you're kind of limited on how wide a sandwich can get. The Mile-High Club gets around those restrictions by being tall enough that it's nearly comical. But don't laugh while you're taking a bite: we've lost too many good men that way. If you're some kind of sicko who gets a twisted kick out of not ordering a bagel at a bagel restaurant, Old School Bagel has some pretty tasty salads on the menu. A Boston Salad has a mix of romaine lettuce and field greens as a base before going COMPLETELY BONKERS with toppings. Chicken provides heft. Bacon provides fat and flavor. Diced tomatoes and apple slices give it a freshness and crispness that keeps you shoveling bites in your mouth. But the secret ingredients are walnuts and cranberries. The crunch of the nuts and the tart chew of the berries sneak in every few bites and give your palate a thrill. If only it came on a bagel...
No one is confused about the food at Old School Bagel. It's good. It's solid. It's filling. Every time I leave, the angry hunger beast that lives inside me and makes me a nightmare to know personally is sated for a precious few moments. But the reason I go to the 23rd Street location and nowhere else is Jacob. I love the hugs. I love that he's excited to see every person who comes through the door. A guaranteed smile is hard to come by, but I know there's one waiting for me there.