By Marjorie Nesin
---- — GLOUCESTER — When Jim Santo set up his first doughnut shop in town 25 years ago, he quickly became known as Doughnut Jim.
Eighteen years and a new shop name later, his nickname turned to Bagel Jim. But this time of year, one could just as aptly dub him Pie Jim.
With just three days left before the turkey holiday, Jim bustled around the back end of his Jim’s Bagel and Bake Shoppe on Railroad Avenue Monday, using a white rag to wipe down a cake decorating table while talking pies over the phone. The sugary aroma reveals trays of billowing blueberry, apple and pumpkin pies just around the corner.
Santo hung up the phone and wiped his hands on a white apron tied around his waist to hang over his jeans. He’ll ship out about 750 pies by the time Thanksgiving arrives.
Santo said the secret to selling so many Thanksgiving treats is creating all the baked goods from scratch.
”It’s not just baked here, but made here, too,” Santo said.
It was in 1987 that Jim — a year out of college, with a degree in economics from University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and working as a stockbroker for about a year —decided to drop everything and open a doughnut shop in Gloucester, a city in which he and his family had summered over the years.
”(Stockbrokering) was a compromise of morality. I was selling products I couldn’t guarantee,” Santo said. “Now I control what I’m selling. I can say all right if something goes wrong, I can take the blame for it.”
Before opening shop, Santo needed to learn how to bake. So he bought a building on Washington Street, secured a day job, and drove to Manchester, N.H., each evening to work in the only bake shop he could find where the owner would hire him, and more importantly, teach him to bake.
That decision turned out to be a good one for Santo — who, looking back on the 25th anniversary of his shop opening, is still enjoying his career.
”Baking is like a happy thing. People consider a baked product something enjoyable,” Santo said. “And when you make something really well and people say these are the best doughnuts or bagels, that’s my energy, that’s my gasoline, that’s what drives me.”
Jim has seemingly had plenty of fuel ever since his first summer on the job, when he worked 18 hours daily, including weekends, until he was hospitalized in that first summer from a virus egged on by a lack of sleep during the heavy weeks.
Now Santo has 18 employees, but he still bakes as often as he can, arriving at the shop early each morning to bake every last bagel. “I almost don’t trust people to do that. I still want to make the bagels,” Santo said.
Santo’s focus on bagels began in 1994, when his shop name changed from Doughnut Jim’s to Jim’s Bagel and Bake Shoppe. Bagels were the trend then and, Santo said, a bake shop owner must follow the trends, whether that means altering everything to low fat, or being up to your eyeballs in bran when high fiber ingredient was all the rage.
That year was also when Santo made the location change from Washington Street to Railroad Avenue, favoring the parking lot and location of the new building. Santo, meanwhile, leased out the Washington Street location and apartments above it until a fire ravaged the building in 2011.
Now he said, he has plans to construct a retail store and townhouses on that lot, at the corner of Washington and Mansfield streets. Santo, however, said he will rent out the retail space, remaining focused on his Railroad Avenue shop and the bagels that have earned him his nickname.
So, what does a man known by the title “bagel” recommend to eat?
“I love a cinnamon raisin bagel with olive and pimento cream cheese,” Santo said.
In fact, Bagel Jim Santo eats at least one bagel a day he said, if not two, adding a bagel sandwich in for lunch on some days. And, mysteriously slim, Bagel Jim slaps a doughnut into his diet sometimes, too, defending the deep fried dough treats and insisting they get a “bad rap.”
But whether you drop by to grab a doughnut, try a cinnamon raisin bagel or just drive through to pick up a cup of coffee, Santo said he will reward everyone who stops by the shop today and wishes him happy a 25th anniversary with a free slice of cake — a slice that Santo hopes will be the best one you ever taste.
”In order to bring customers in, you have to be something special,” Santo said. “Everything I do I want to make the best.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.