Food & Drink

Greg's Goodbye

Facing terminal cancer, local bagel baron Greg Novik discusses his life and legacy.

Greg Novik’s bucket list includes safeguarding actual buckets. Specifically, the well-worn storage buckets stacked in back at Greg’s Bagels. “The old buckets are comfortable and easy to grip and easy to use,” he explains. “New buckets, just like everything else new, are not very good.”

Old: good. New: bad. It’s something of a mantra for Novik, 70, impresario of Greg’s Bagels, the Belvedere Square storefront that swept Baltimore from the bagel-barren late 1980s to today’s bagel-dense landscape.

Over that time, Novik has perfected his recipe, trained generations of diligent workers, and attracted an ardent following hungry for his plush bagels schmeared with wry wisdom.

“I think of Greg Novik as the heart and soul of Belvedere Square,” says the writer Anne Tyler, via email. “For years, one of my favorite summer rituals has been my annual trip to Greg’s to stock up on bagels for the family beach trip; it often involved a brief sit-down with Greg amid the chaos and clatter and cozy chatter of his shop, and I always left smiling.”

Fans are no longer smiling. Novik has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On Aug. 1, 2016, Novik locked the shop, leaving a note on the door that ended, “It’s been a terrific 27-and-a-half years.” Now, he’s focused on staying alive for as long as possible, enjoying time with family, traveling, and training the store’s next owner so that Greg’s Bagels can roll on without Greg.

He’s also reflecting on a remarkable career, one that produced more than a mere brunch staple. “I’m constantly surprised we affected and influenced so many people,” says Novik, at ease in his living room in Cheswolde. “I think we demonstrated durability, stick-to-it-iveness, work ethic. We showed you can be happy much of the time working. It was fun. And it made people happy. How many jobs can you say that for?”

Novik’s childhood in Cleveland—nuclear physicist dad, renowned pianist mom—showed no glimmer of his bagel destiny. “I never liked bagels,” says Novik, still sporting his signature beard and curls over a now gaunt frame. “Sundays my parents would get bagels and lox. As an 8-year-old you don’t want raw fish. I still do not like salty, briny, so-called lox.”

What he did like was music. The family moved to Chevy Chase (dad designing rockets at the precursor to NASA, mom touring the world for the State Department), and by junior high school Novik was playing sax, piano, bass, and guitar. He joined several bands, including The Resumes and The Newports, who, with their clean-cut look, rhythm-and-blues sound, and VW bus, struck an early Motown vibe. He left The Newports in 1964 to study economics at The Johns Hopkins University.

During Novik’s sophomore year, he was invited to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland to write music for the annual campus music show.

“All the girls there thought he was absolutely crazy because he had this long hair and he was the worst-dressed person I’d ever met in my life,” says Novik’s wife, the former Kathleen Thompson. “But he came on his motorcycle and they all thought he was cool, kinda like a Jewish James Dean.”

Kathy says the two became “chums,” then one night, at a party, realized they’d be together forever. “You know, making out for a bit and then, ‘Whoa, this is it!’” They married in 1968, the day before graduation.

Professionally, Novik turned his talent to advertising, working his way up from copywriter to creative director. He still played with local bands and scored jingles for Baltimore’s big names: Hutzler’s, Hecht’s, and Stewart’s department stores; Channel 45; Maryland National Bank. It was fun, working gospel and other “real music” into commercials. It was easy. And, after 18 years, it was “stupid.”

“Computers were coming in,” says Novik, a committed Luddite. “It no longer called for much creativity.”

On Sundays, the couple and their children—Jenna, now 46, and Jeffrey, now 38—cooked together. One week, randomly, they chose bagels. “They were horrible,” says Novik. “We had to try again.” He kept trying, lugging around his homemade bagels until friends and colleagues found them delicious and Novik found a new career.

“The kids and I thought it was the worst idea he had ever had,” says Kathy, an artist and furniture refinisher, who nonetheless was game for the adventure.

With $30,000, the couple opened Greg’s Bagels in 1989. The storefront has been a fixture since, keeping lonely vigil in the mid-’90s when Belvedere Square was all but abandoned. “You used to hope you’d get mugged just to have someone to talk to,” says Novik. The store’s mascot, a baker holding a chalkboard, grinned steadfastly through the market’s 2003 renovation and resurgence. Greg’s regularly earned best-ofs from this magazine and other publications, its reputation staked on an astounding array of smoked fish (some smuggled in from Canada in a customer’s luggage) and its toothsome bagels.

“A good bagel,” explains Novik “is, de rigueur, rolled by hand, it’s boiled then baked, and it’s made of the highest quality ingredients. And, a real bagel must have malt.”

Novik mostly worked the back, juggling hot trays, mixing spreads, and inventing fanciful combos. (“If they gave Michelin stars to sandwiches,” writes Tyler, “his Taste of India on a whole health bagel would be a shoo-in.”) Kathy—despite a wheat allergy and near-constant migraines—worked the front: cash, check, or IOU only. Then as now, Novik preferred face-to-face interaction.

“When you come in here, you gotta deal with us,” says Novik. “If I’m up at the register, you’re gonna have to be sharp on your toes because there’s gonna be some humor involved. And if you deal with Kath, you can tell her your troubles. She’s like a bartender. There’s something going on and it’s sincere. It’s personal. And it’s real.”

It was real for the staff, too. When Andrew Williams was 15, he frequented the cookie and ice cream shop that preceded Greg’s; it had a pinball machine. One day the place was gone. “I was like, ‘Grrr! Bagels?!?’” he says, with comic-book inflection.

Instead of pinball, Williams found a job. He manned the register and cut dough in the back. He learned a lot: “Show up, do your job, have fun doing it, and treat people well, regardless of where they’re coming from,” says Williams, now 42. He also learned to triage tasks, a skill he uses today as a software engineer for Cisco Systems.

Early on, much of the staff would go out to eat after hours.

“Depending on who you were, a 15-year-old kid or a 25-year-old adult, he ended up being a father figure, a mentor, a best friend. He was your first boss, the guy who taught you life lessons, the guy who taught you how to have a good meal, drink a bottle of wine, the guy who taught you how to be a good human being,” says Heath O’Laughlen, 42, now a district manager at Panera Bread. “I didn’t have a father in my life. So he was my father figure.”

“He was one of those guys who you could tell anything to without judgment,” continues O’Laughlen. “He’d help you, guide you, give you advice. He was able to give a lot of us the keys to having a happy life.”

One key was valuing quality of life over quantity of money. “I am one of the few Hopkins graduates who is not wealthy, a celebrity, or a doctor,” Novik reported to his alumni magazine in 1998. “I am doomed and damned to a life of hard, physical labor, six days a week, 12 hours a day. If any of my classmates remember me fondly and would like to send me money, I would be appreciative.”

The long hours and slim profits were leavened by three vacations a year (often to France, Luxembourg, or Scotland), his pride in the product, and the bagel circle, as it were.

“He was so engaged with the community he created,” says customer Stephanie Shapiro, long-time features writer for The Baltimore Sun, whose two sons worked at Greg’s. “He was very curious. He’d ask me about stories I was working on. He was also really plugged in to Baltimore. He’s part of the firmament that makes it worth living here.”

In the spring of 2015, Novik noticed his weight dropping. By the next summer, he was plagued with stomachaches. He thought it was food poisoning. It was pancreatic cancer, and terminal.

“I’m dying,” says Novik. “Dying is no fun.”

He had surgery to make digestion possible and then started chemotherapy at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “I go about each day, I try to eat, and I rest,” he says. “I don’t do any heavy introspection.”

Doctors estimate he has months, perhaps a year. “With all the prayers that people are saying for him and the incredible love of life he has, I think he might be around for a while,” says Kathy, a practicing Buddhist. “And if not, we’ve had such a great time together that it’s all right.” Her hope is that her husband can die without pain.

This past November, six members of the old crew got together to scrub the shop; afterward, they handed the Noviks 600 euros. Eleven days in Paris lifted Novik’s spirits and his weight—up to 116. “I took up drinking again in Paris,” he says. “I forgot how good that is.”

Once, Novik imagined he’d be reincarnated as a white-chocolate macadamia nut bagel. Now he forgoes any guesses. “I’m very intelligent, but not deep,” he says.

Novik considered selling the business to a chain, or auctioning off the equipment, but was surprised when Tommy Hearn, 22, who rolled bagels at the shop and washes dishes at Atwater’s, made an offer.

“I told him he was insane,” says Novik. “I thought I could talk him out of it. I couldn’t.”

Still, Novik is committed to Hearn’s plan and spends a good hour or so each day teaching him the business. There are batters to mix, spreads to whip, taxes to pay, people to hire, vendors to contact. There’s a lot to memorize and some things to wing. “If you can improvise a solo on the guitar,” says Novik, “you can improvise a bagel batter.”

“I’m going to mess up a lot,” admits Hearn, who grew up munching chocolate-chip and cinnamon-raisin bagels from the short-lived Greg’s Bagels Annex, in Hereford.

Hearn, says Novik, has bagel potential. “It’s a question of how much I’ve got to give and how hard he wants to work. And whether he remembers to turn lights off and lock doors and not waste things and get the right people working with him and having a partner, which he will eventually meet. I think what you do is find some nice girl, get married, and have her run the store with you. A nice Jewish girl.”

Once the deal is inked, Novik will hand over his last bit of wisdom: the secret recipe. “I will be the first person he’s ever [divulged] the recipe to,” says Hearn, a dead ringer for Shaggy, of Scooby-Doo fame.

Hearn vows to keep the same menu, the same battered buckets, the same aura—plus, add a credit-card reader.

Novik appreciates the effort but knows nothing stays the same.

“There’s only one Kathy,” says Novik. “And there’s only one Greg.”