Recipe for success: Serving up fresh food and friendly smiles helped local business survive the pandemic

A Zombie Leg Panini, which is a lunch special, is shown at Bagelicious on Southwest 27th Avenue in Ocala on Sept. 21. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 
It’s 3:15 a.m. Time to make the bagels. And Steve Forrest couldn’t be happier. When Bagelicious opens at 6:30 every weekday morning, the owner is in his element – smiling at patrons enjoying their breakfast, greeting the many repeat customers-turned-friends he’s made over the past two decades. If you’ve been there more than once or twice, chances are he remembers your name – and your “usual” order.

It took breaking up a fight in the bar of TGI Fridays for Forrest to leave the corporate life and launch his own business in 2002. Since then, he has turned the restaurant he took over into a southwest Ocala favorite with breakfast to lunch dining and catering services — a small business successful enough to survive COVID-19.

Forrest has worked in restaurants ever since he was 15.

“Originally, I started off as a dishwasher,” he said, “or not even a dishwasher. I was actually a pot washer for Morrison’s Cafeteria … then I got to be a fry cook, then I got to be a line guy.”

Upon graduating high school, Forrest joined the management team with Morrison’s, where he worked for several years before moving on to work as general manager at Bennigan’s, Applebee’s, then Rio Bravo Cantina.

“Those were like 30 years of my life working for the big corporations,” he said. “I moved 27 times.”

Forrest’s last corporate gig was at TGI Fridays in Orlando. However, after intervening between two men in a bar fight only to have them register a complaint, Forrest found himself out of a promising job at the cusp of becoming general manager.

“So, at that point I was basically unemployed,” Forrest said, “and I was serving tables in Dixie Crossroads in Leesburg, I think it was. I found out that Bagelicious was for sale and didn’t really have a lot of money, but I took what I had and bought it.”

Once part of the franchise Bagel King, Bagelicious had been bought and renamed by a local couple before Forrest purchased it in 2002. He saw potential in the little deli and bakery. After sinking all of his funds into Bagelicious, Forrest began gaining it back exponentially, starting with a catering event in the first month.

Supported by catering, an enhanced menu, and rapid service, business was booming – until COVID-19. When the dining room closed, Forrest immediately switched to curbside delivery. Though Bagelicious’ revenue was cut in half, Forrest fought to maintain all of his five employees. He reopened the dining room as soon as state restrictions were lifted, but the numbers he sees are still significantly fewer than before the pandemic.

“Before COVID we were doing fantastic,” Forrest said. “And before the second round of COVID we were back on the climb to get back where we were at, and then the bottom dropped out again.”

Finally, there are days when Bagelicious feels like it did before the pandemic: mornings when the dining room is crowded with people eager to get their bacon, egg and cheese omelet on an everything bagel and lunchtimes with diners lined up to order a corned beef Reuben sandwich or their favorite fresh hot soup.

“Every side item is made from scratch,” Forrest said. “All of our soups are made from scratch, All the bagels we make in house.”

He loves serving his food to his loyal customers.

“There is nothing better than looking out in the dining room,” he said, “and watching somebody jumping through a sandwich that I just made for them, or we made for them, and you just see a smile on their face.”

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