Chris Cunningham wasn’t nervous when he and his wife, Ali White, opened Nervous Charlie’s despite his failed attempts to make bagels days before the soft opening.
“I tried to block it out somehow [the nerves] and just focusing on making bagels because I was like, ‘There are no bagels in town. We have great bagels, a great operation, and the food tastes great,” Cunningham said.
White, however, was nervous. The couple left New York in 2016 for Cunningham’s dream of opening a restaurant and changing pace. They were drawn to Austin by the outdoor attractions, live music scene, friendly locals and community support for small businesses.
“We wanted to explore a new city,” White said. “We had been to Austin many times before, everyone was – I mean you’ve heard a million people say it – everyone was so warm and welcoming and friendly.”
The couple first thought they might open a concert hall. Then, on their first weekend in Austin, they couldn’t find a place to buy bagels, which was their usual New York routine. When they settled on a national chain, the line was out the door.
“We couldn’t get bagels. We just thought we were probably living in a simulation because there’s probably a bagel shop there,” Cunningham said.
The couple didn’t know anything about making bagels, but they started considering opening a shop.
They knew they wanted the name to represent their dog, a red and white Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Charlie. White said Charlie had always been nervous, so “nervous Charlie” seemed natural.
Cunningham stayed with his uncle, who has a small business making New York-style bagels in Tennessee.
Cunningham chose to import the fresh dough from New York. But when he made his first batches of bagels, they failed.
“What people don’t realize is that bagels are really finicky,” Cunningham said. “And finally, it all came together. We just kept making them until they finally worked. I literally didn’t sleep I think the night before the soft opening.
When the restaurant opened in September 2018, Cunningham started with two lockers, which hold 300 bagels each, and thought they would never use the second one. On the first day, he made between 200 and 300 bagels and sold them within an hour. For the first month, Cunningham said they couldn’t make enough bagels to avoid selling out.
Cunningham said they had attracted the attention of the press and a sign out front that read, “The bagels are coming,” but he thinks many people lined up around the block at those early days were thrilled to see a new restaurant on North Lamar Boulevard, when this stretch of road was less developed.
“I think people saw it and thought, ‘Nobody’s opening a new restaurant in North Lamar,'” Cunningham said.
Now Nervous Charlie’s has six racks. The menu includes more than a dozen types of bagels and 10 sandwich options for breakfast and lunch.
Nervous Charlie’s is a vendor at Austin City Limits this year and recently hosted the 2021 Formula 1 Grand Prix.
“I feel more at home in Austin than I have ever been in New York,” Cunningham said.
White said she still misses her home in rural Pennsylvania, but loves being in Austin.
“The life we’ve built for ourselves here is something I never thought would happen,” White said. “The success and motivation we have had has been enormous. [Nervous] Charlie’s was amazing. As Chris said, we have truly found a family here with our group of friends who are really supportive of us.