Dough, Delight, and Determination: A Candid Conversation with Flagstaff Restauranteur and Fat Bagels owner, John Conley

bagels in behind a glass case

Clear Sky Professionals Team Lead, David Swain, speaks to John Conley about Fat Bagels, growing up, and being a Flagstaff Restauranteur

David Swain: John, from your culinary experience, what makes a perfect bagel?

John Conley: It’s one of the most complicated bakes I’ve ever done, and I think the most important ingredient is time. You cannot rush the true New York style bagel dough. It takes days and days to make. Some would say it’s the water, but if you talk to the 3rd generation bagel makers in New York, they’ll tell yah that if it was the water, that the 5 bagel restaurants that they’re surrounded with would be making the same great bagels.

D: If Fat Bagels had a soundtrack, what three songs would be on it?

J: Jump by Van Halen, Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, and Carolina In My Mind by James Taylor

D: Who has been the most influential person in your culinary journey?

J: Wanda Whelcher, she was my boss at Katz Deli and when I was 13 years old, we were forced to cook a Sunday rush together and she let me know that cooking is something that I really needed to look at and consider seriously, and because she instilled this sense of confidence in me, it was a great lesson... Never underestimate the power of a kind word to a snot nosed punk.

D: Were you a punk as a kid?

J: I was a punk, yeah, I left home at 17 and never looked back. I didn’t do well in school. I just liked scaring myself and was kind of reckless, and I didn’t generally care about what people thought of me.

I lied on my application to get hired on the hot-shots crew in Heber, AZ and by the time I was 18 I was in Missoula, MT smoke jumping. Being a fire fighter is what I needed because there were very strict boundaries, but the rush was something that fed my soul.

D: What aspirations do you have for the culinary scene in Flagstaff?

J: For us as a community of independent restaurants, it’s a whole new playing field in terms of what Covid did to our industry. There have been more changes in our industry in the last 3 years than we have had in my entire career. So, we need to be extremely creative, and we need to share our knowledge about what’s working and what’s not so that we can navigate the new norm.

D: What is the greatest challenge for local restaurants?

J: We have the 3rd highest minimum wage in the country, and as minimum wage goes up, we are having to find new ways to manage the cost of doing business. I ask people that challenge our service fee, what they think an average restaurants’ profit margin is? I often get answers like 20%. No, it’s 4% for full-service restaurants, and when labor and the cost of goods has gone up 25%, we are just trying to maintain a 4% profit margin.

D: If you could invite any three well-known Flagstaff figures to share a bagel with you at Fat Bagels, who would they be?

J: Dr. Henry Poore – Dr. Poore practiced medicine in Northern AZ for over 50 years and was the founder of the Poore Medical Clinic, a community-supported free medical and dental clinic.

Bruce Babbitt – Former United States Secretary of the Interior, 16th Governor of AZ, and graduated from Harvard Law School.

Ted Danson – Actor and long-time activist for Ocean Conservation.

D: What tv show are you watching right now?

J: Northern Exposure. No one’s trying to kill each other and its old school fun. My wife and kids are really enjoying it.

D: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

J: Walt Smith said to me during an incredibly difficult Smoke Jumpers training…

“If you quit now, you better get used to quitting, because you’ll never know what your medal’s made of. There’s more in the tank, don’t quit!”

…and I’ve lived by that.

John Conley is the owner of Salsa Brava, Fat Olives, and Fat Bagels in Flagstaff, AZ. He has lived as a restauranteur since he opened a taco shop called Salsa Brava in 1987. He is well known for being a featured guest on Guy’s Grocery Games & Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and has traveled the country in search of how to make the perfect bagel. While he didn’t take the easy path in life, John has persevered as a pillar of the local Flagstaff business community and charitably supports many of the local youth organizations.

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