It’s no secret that Rochester restaurants—like eateries everywhere—are hurting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those operating at reduced capacity.
Soho Bagels and Cafe is no exception, and yet, this small business still found ways to give back to the Greece community during hard times. That is, until the shop was broken into on Christmas Day.
Owners Michael Spano and Julie May had collected 25 bags of coats, hats, and boots in December to donate to the House of Mercy, a nonprofit organization focused on helping Rochester’s homeless community. In accordance with the charity’s COVID-19 requirements, most of the donations were brand new with tags, with an estimated value of a few thousand dollars.
On Christmas morning, Spano and May arrived at their shop to rotate dough for the next day’s orders. Spano recalls noticing a stray glove on the ground, and several bags missing from the pile of donations.
Since it was Christmas Day, the duo initially didn’t think much of it.
“We thought that it had been picked up (by House of Mercy),” Spano says. He and May went about their business, closed up the shop, and went home. “But then we called our employees and asked them, and they said nobody came to pick up donations.”
The next day, Spano and May opened the shop to find the rest of the donations had been taken. The owners then called the police, who came to collect statements, camera footage, and evidence of forced entry.
While the break-in is still under investigation, the Greece community has rallied behind the owners of Soho Bagels and Cafe.
Spano and May have received nearly 200 bags of donations since Christmas, eight times more than they’d originally collected. Some supporters have made direct donations to the House of Mercy, while still others have given cash.
“And that was where the biggest donations came from,” Spano notes. “Not from wealthy people, but from people that have nothing. Everyday people who heard about it on the radio or saw a news story. People that said, ‘I just want to give you 30 bucks, or whatever I can give.’”
Spano and May attribute the sizable turnout to word of mouth, and to the Greece community.
“We’re a family business in a family community,” Spano says. “We figure, if we take care of the community, then the community will take care of us. And it seems to be working out.”
Adds May: “There were a lot of people that were outraged on social media about the break-in.”
Among those outraged were loyal customers, and complete strangers. Those who have followed Spano and May on social media were quick to point out that Soho Bagels and Cafe has been giving free bagels to anyone who needed them throughout the pandemic.
May recalls one comment on social media that said, “Free bagels during the pandemic to whoever needed them, and then people treat the business like this?”
Since Soho Bagels and Cafe is in the orange zone, it can only serve takeout and drive-through orders. The business is struggling to break even, but giving away free food is actually a win-win for the owners and for those who are in need.
“Our business basically lived off wholesale to local colleges and universities, hospitals, and business and industry accounts,” Spano explains.
When COVID struck, accounts pulled out one by one, and Soho Bagels and Cafe was left with an enormous excess of product. The shop is surrounded by chain restaurants, which began to lay off their waitstaff during the pandemic. May says this was the inspiration to start giving away the extra bagels.
“Their waitresses and bartenders have all supported us when things were good,” she says. “When they all lost their jobs, we thought, we have to do something to help them, because they don’t have any way to make income right now.”
Soho Bagels and Cafe continues to offer free bagels daily to anyone who requests them.
“There’s always bags of six bagels for anybody to pick up every day,” Spano says. “Come through the drive-through, ask for free bagels, no questions asked.
“You’ve got to like people to be in this business,” adds the former pastry chef and restaurant manager with nearly 40 years of culinary experience.
After meeting May, a former marketing director, the pair decided it made sense to embark on a community-centered business venture together.
“The inception of our business plan was to give a certain percentage back to the community,” Spano says. “That percentage would rise every year depending on our profitability. But the last two years have been more than a struggle to survive. We haven’t made any profit, but we agreed to continue giving support to our friends and neighbors.”
Meg Lavery is a Rochester-area freelance writer.