In a short time, just over four years, Wheeler’s Bagels in Johnson City has built a clientele that is as varied as the menu. Expatriate New Yorkers buy bags of Eric Wheeler’s bagels and take them back home as proof that you really can find a good bagel in East Tennessee, a region known for its biscuits.
Wheeler’s Bagels is a place where retired businesspeople gather to analyze world affairs while mothers of former Science Hill High School band members reunite and remember. It’s that kind of place, well-lit and welcoming.
Owner Eric Wheeler had been a police officer in the city of Sebastian, Florida, for 15 years. But before that, he was a scratch baker, having learned the craft when he was 12 years old. Eric, his father Gary, and his mother Donna had operated donut shops in Florida for 35 years.
Eric laughs as he tells me about his father serving as sheriff of Indian River County while at the same time owning all the county’s donut shops. “It was the biggest joke in town,” he says.
Through the influence of a friend, Gary and Donna retired to East Tennessee. “They came up for visits and just fell in love with the area,” Eric tells me. “One day Dad called me and asked what I thought about moving up here, too, and opening a donut shop. I told him I was ready, but that we had done donuts to death. I said, ‘How about bagels? They’re the same shape.’”
The Wheelers at first considered a franchise and began discussions with a company in Wisconsin. They were almost ready to sign the contract when Gary noticed a clause that said neither the franchisee or any of his employees or representatives could say, wear, or do anything that could be potentially offensive to someone else.
“That meant no crosses, no Stars of David, no brochures on the counter for people who are running for public office,” Eric says. “Dad said he was unwilling to give up his constitutional rights to do business with anybody.”
Although the franchise representative told the Wheelers that clause had never been enforced, they could not, in good conscience, sign the contract. The Wheelers walked away from the deal. But instead of heading back to Florida, Eric told his father, “Let’s do it ourselves.”
Eric admits that the first time he ever made bagels was the day before Wheeler’s opened. “But it’s ten times easier than donuts,” he confesses. “Bagel dough is so much more forgiving than donut dough.”
It didn’t take long for Eric to build a repertoire of some 15 different bagels. He uses flour from an artisan mill in California. It’s non-bleached, non-bromated, and naturally aged.
“There are no chemicals and no preservatives in anything we sell,” he says. Eric’s bagels cradle cold sandwiches, hot sandwiches, and breakfast sandwiches. All the breakfast sandwiches are made with three eggs, and the most popular is the bacon, egg, and cheese. The bacon is Boar’s Head, pre-cooked. It’s chopped and then cooked inside the eggs, so there’s bacon in every bite.
“We’ll make your sandwich however you want,” Eric says. “If you’d like diced tomatoes in the egg or sliced tomatoes on top, just tell us. It’s your food.”
Eric’s dad enjoys his bagels with a “schmear” of scallion-flavored cream cheese. Eric loves his asiago bagels with strawberry cream cheese.
Spend just a few minutes with Eric and you quickly understand why this small business is thriving. Here’s an example of how he thinks: “At most bagel shops, if you get a sesame seed bagel, they only put the sesame seeds on top. I do the top and the bottom, because the way I look at it, if you order a sesame seed bagel and the seeds are only on the top, once you cut it in half, you’ve got half of a sesame seed bagel and half of a plain bagel.”
For his iced coffee, Eric freezes coffee in ice cube trays so that when the ice melts, the coffee is not diluted. And all the coffee he sells is locally roasted, at Doe River Roasters in Elizabethton.
“I like doing business locally whenever we can,” he says. “I can order good coffee out of Seattle, but all the money that we spend ends up back in Seattle. When I spend money here locally, it stays here locally.”
And no bagels at Wheeler’s are ever wasted. They, too, benefit the community. Day-old ones are donated to organizations like the Salvation Army, Safe Passage, the MANNA FoodBank, and the Ronald McDonald House.
“I have an open kitchen policy,” Eric says. “Any time a new customer comes in, they’re welcome to come back into the kitchen and take a look at everything before they order. Our health inspector eats here.”
230 Marketplace Boulevard
Fred Sauceman’s latest book is “The Proffitts of Ridgewood: An Appalachian Family’s Life in Barbecue.”