You Only Have Three Hours to Eat Oakland's Most Famous Fried Chicken Sandwich

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You Only Have Three Hours to Eat Oakland's Most Famous Fried Chicken Sandwich

In the Bay Area, where it has become easier to find venture capital than a sense of authentic community, Bakesale Betty—and its fried chicken sandwich—is a sanctuary.
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All photos taken by the author

Despite Siri's assurance, I see no evidence of Bakesale Betty, a fried chicken spot with a cult following supposedly at this very corner of Telegraph and 51st Avenue in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood. Instead, I see a small, nondescript storefront—far too small to be a restaurant—with three people inside, one of whom is wearing a blue wig.

I proceed. "Hi, I'm Alison," says the lady in blue. I detect a faint Australian accent—is an Aussie responsible for Oakland's best fried chicken sandwich?

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"We have about 20 minutes before I have to get to work, so let's talk now," she chuckles. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Alison Barakat got her break working at Chez Panisse in 2002. During her downtime, she sold pastries at local farmer's markets, where she met and eventually married Michael Camp, a bread vendor.

In 2005 the two opened Bakesale Betty, and, alongside a rotating stable of delectable sweets, began to offer fried chicken sandwiches—but why?

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Alison Barakat and her fried chicken sandwich

Barakat answers a question with a question. "Who doesn't like fried chicken?"

At Chez Panisse, whose alumni run a number of restaurants on Telegraph (including the nearby Neapolitan pizzeria Pizzaiolo), the staff are universal. "Once a guest was served our buttermilk fried chicken and sent it back," Barakat recalls. "The line cooks celebrated by tearing right into his plate."

As we make our way behind the counter, I see a handful of staff moving to and fro. Two registers are constantly going, serving guest after guest. The patter of paper bags and pleasant conversation never stops. Big steel bowls of coleslaw appear and reappear; cabbage is washed; chicken is dredged in flour. All of this is executed flawlessly to the rhythms of dub reggae.

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Inside Bakesale Betty's kitchen

These people know each other. Like all extremely efficient kitchens, every act is coordinated, everyone has a role. If you're not doing anything, you won't be scolded— you'll just feel left out.

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I don't mind. I came to watch, a key part of the Bakesale Betty's experience. The other key part was the actual sandwich.

What makes Betty's so special? No surprise: the simplicity of the ingredients. When there are only a few, each one is of critical importance. Betty deep fries buttermilk-soaked, air-chilled chicken breasts and heaps a mayonnaise-free jalapeño coleslaw atop two soft Acme Bakery buns. The result is a sandwich that's juicy, a little spicy, and bursting at the seams.

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The line outside Bakesale Betty Satisfied customers

While food is prepared and served with assembly line precision, a line spills out onto the sidewalk. Astoundingly, not one customer is glued to their phone: instead, each stares amorously into the near distance, where racks of hot chocolate chip and gingersnap cookies cool adjacent to a countertop of freshly prepared sandwiches.

Still, I take note of the shop's business hours: 11 AM to 2 PM. That's a mere three hours in a very popular, very walkable part of town. Is this false scarcity?

In a roundabout way, that's the question I pose to an elderly man and his daughter seated at one of the makeshift metal ironing boards placed on the sidewalk for customers. They, like everyone else I ask, sing Betty's praises.

The man is visiting from Alabama. "Whenever he comes, he asks me when we're gonna visit the lady with the blue hair," his daughter tells me.

And how does the chicken rate against Alabama? "It's better!" the man says. "But when I tell folks back home that people in California are waiting in line for fried chicken, they think it's pretty weird."

Even though it's only a fraction of the length it usually attains (people are known to wait an hour or more at times), today's line attracts attention, causing pedestrians to pause and passengers in nearby cars to stick their heads out the window and smirk. "That's part of the charm," says Danielle, who's been coming to Bakesale Betty since it opened. "The line is misleading—it's so small inside that any more than three customers and you're gonna have people outside. It moves really fast. And something about waiting for fried chicken and strawberry shortcake puts everyone in a good mood."

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The community around Bakesale Betty

The phrase "neighborhood institution" gets thrown around without much consideration, but Bakesale Betty is just that: a living, thriving place, that serves the community. Barakat greets customers, many of whom work at nearby shops and receive discounts, by name. Not one person in line is a first-timer, and the atmosphere feels unpretentious and genial. In the Bay Area, where it has become easier to find venture capital than a sense of authentic community, Bakesale Betty is a sanctuary.