Smile Politely

The rise of Good Judys’ Bagels

Two men smile for the camera in front of a weathered wooden wall with green vines.
Jeffrey and Dakota Thomas-Wilhelm, owners of Good Judys’ Bagels; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

Good Judys’ Bagels is new to the Champaign-Urbana food scene, but already the bagel business has quickly become a popular market stand. While there are a few places to get a bagel, nobody emphasizes bagels like Jeffrey and Dakota Thomas-Wilhelm, the owners of Good Judys’ Bagels. The duo dreams of one day opening an espresso bar, of course, with their signature bagels to pair with coffee. Good Judys’ Bagels currently sells bagels at three markets: Urbana, Champaign, and Mahomet in addition to online orders. On Saturday mornings, the bakers bring over 40 dozen bagels — and sell out. For good reason: they make delicious bagels indeed.

After one bite of Good Judys’ Bagels everything bagel, I was hooked and have been curious to know more about the hands that make these bagels. Over wine on Analog‘s patio in Downtown Urbana, I asked the bagel-makers all my bagel questions. In this exclusive interview, the two shared all about their bagel dough, the term Good Judy, and when a brick-and-mortar Good Judys’ Espresso Bar might open in town.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: I need to know: who makes the bagels?

Dakota Thomas-Wilhelm: Him! He’s head baker. He does all the baking.

Jeffrey Thomas-Wilhelm: Yeah, but he helps with some of the dough prep. I’ve taken the baking on full time now.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I do the logistics, digital design work, and website maintenance. He’s the one behind the bagels, all the recipes and things like that. I’m behind the website, making sure it’s functioning, making sure we’re able to take orders and accept payments.

A rainbow themed background with a Good Judys' Bagels and their logo on it.
Alyssa Buckley

SP: Did you make the logo?

D Thomas-Wilhelm: Yes, I did with the help of Canva. Shout out to Canva! My current job is in instructional design, so I’ve been able to kind of take those skills and apply them a little differently. Try to build a brand from scratch, which is crazy and scary to do.

SP: Are you both from Champaign-Urbana?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I am from south central Iowa around Osceola, Iowa. Go, Hawks! It’s the place along the interstate that has a random casino. I grew up in a small town of about 5,000 people, and moved to Iowa City to go to college. Then I met Dakota.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I grew up in southeast Iowa, right along the Mississippi River in a small town called Franklin of like 100 people. My grandparents still live in that town. While I was in college, my dad moved back to that town because he loves it.

SP: So what brought you to Champaign-Urbana?

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I moved for a job I got in a community-based program associated with the School of Social Work, where they train behavioral health providers across the state. Me and other designers, we work together to develop training programs to make sure they are providing kids with the things they need.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: My job was remote at the time, so I was like wherever you want to apply, whatever you want to do.

Good Judys' Bagels for sale at the market
Alyssa Buckley

SP: How many bagels do you bring for Saturday’s market?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I’ve been trying to beef that up, but for the farmers market for Urbana, last weekend we took 41 dozen bagels, 21 boxes of bagel bites, and 42 bags of bagel chips.

SP: Whoa, that’s a lot of bagels.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: Yes, it was — and we sold out.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: Every week so far at the Urbana market we have sold out which has been crazy. The first week you came by and bought some. Then your article came out, and the next week was when we sold out in only two hours.

SP: How did you get into making bagels?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: All this came about from just trying to open up a coffee shop. It was probably being frustrated in my previous job, feeling devalued. We had always talked about doing our own business. It was never the right time. My previous jobs have dealt with not fun matters like transportation, logistics, short term disability, mail room, retirement, stuff like, not sexy topics at all, essential desk jobs.

We had that conversation of let’s do this, put my mental health forward and do something that I’m passionate about. I could spend hours for somebody else miserable, or I can spend hours with my own thing even though I’m not getting paid right now for it. I put all the energy in for myself.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: We moved here from Iowa City, and there was a bagel place there called Brueggers. It’s a chain, New York-style. Maybe it would be similar to Einstein’s, but I liked Brueggers. Brueggers was much better — on the record.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: They would do bagel sandwiches there. I always loved getting that, and that’s not here. I’ve been to Einstein’s, and it didn’t do it for me. Then it’s like, well, there’s no other bagels. So what’s the competition?

SP: I’d argue Central Illinois Bakehouse is your main competition.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: And they don’t do the same process that I do with mine. Theirs are like sourdough where mine is the boil, then bake method. Even if my bagels look terrible, no one has anything to compare them to, right? Bagels, bagel sandwiches. Everybody loves fresh bread.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I just remember last summer very vividly. We used to just decompress and journal on our screened-in porch after the workday. Also we had last summer, we took an amazing Alaskan cruise to get away, the first big vacation post-pandemic for us. We did the whole shebang, hiked an iceberg, everything. We’re like, this is what life is: putting yourself first, your mental health and having fun with life.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: Two weeks after that cruise is when I quit my job.

SP: That’s what started a bagel business: an Alaskan cruise.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: Yeah, to enjoy life for a week and a half — and only have to worry about ourselves and find enjoyment in what we do. We thought, what if we worked for ourselves? What if we did the thing we always talked about, which was to open our own little coffee shop?

We also are huge fans of Columbia Street coffee. Shout out to Columbia Street! Delicious coffee, and we’re really surprised to know that not many of the coffee shops in town use Columbia Street. Absolutely mind-boggling. Even though it’s not an official partnership, we exclusively use their coffee for our java chip bagel. The plan is to source our coffee entirely from them, if and when we get a shop open. But we thought, what can we do to make it feel quintessentially local with everything.

SP: So let’s talk about the coffee shop.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: We’ve been talking to some people in Urbana about a place, and we’ve also been discussing things with banks to see if financing is available for us at this time. So, if things go our way, we would have a brick and mortar maybe sometime in the fall.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: That’s the hope. But all the pieces have to fall into place at the right time.

I will never forget when I told you, “Quit thinking about the bagels. Like, we’re trying to start a coffee shop!” But when the coffee shop original idea didn’t really come to fruition, we spent a couple of weeks being so angry and upset. Then, we said, we’re not giving up on this idea.

That’s when we pivoted to Good Judys’ Bagels, really emphasizing the bagels and getting into the farmers market, starting as a cottage food establishment. Unfortunately — or fortunately, I guess — we’re outgrowing that rapidly. We can only do so much with our poor little oven at home.

A bagel with everything seasoning on the outside on a white plate on a white table.
Everything bagel by Good Judys’ Bagels; Photo by Alyssa Buckley

SP: How long have you been making bagels?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I learned how to make bagels almost a year ago. I don’t have some kind of old story where back in the old land I made bagels with grandma. No, that’s not how it began. When I had the idea of the bagels, it was for our coffee shop because if we’re just doing coffee, we’ll probably gonna go out of business. We have to have something special because there’s already so many people doing coffee. I basically just found a recipe online for a New York-style bagel, and I started making it with this clunky KitchenAid mixer that we have.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: We spent evenings watching YouTube videos, really surveying how other people are doing it because we were also trying to learn about the kind of equipment we might need to do this as well. We would watch these videos, and we even one time we ordered bagels from Utopia Bagels of New York just because it was it was all hyped up on this YouTube video.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: We had to try it, taste test it, compared to ours. How much does it weigh?

D Thomas-Wilhelm: That’s when we transitioned from your three-hour proofing method to the overnight method, because we were learning that a lot were doing overnight proofing or fermentation before the water bath. That’s when you started to take your base recipe and really alter it. Now it’s an authentically Good Judys’ recipe.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I’ve altered it, and I’ve changed it all in grams. I weigh everything, even liquids.

SP: Do all bagels start with the same base dough?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I guess we do. Today, I prepped all of my plain dough, which that would be toppings only. That’s everything seasoning, cinnamon-sugar, sesame, plain, and the new garlic-salt. That garlic-salt kind of tastes like a breadstick — and I’m not mad about it; I love it.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I’m gonna say, I wouldn’t be upset if you eat those with, like, a side of pasta.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: Then we have our mix ins: our oatmeal-raisin, honey-oat, and the blueberry are all done the same, where I mix the dough for half the amount of time, and then I throw it in and mix it for the other half of the time. Then I do my bagel thing.

The java chip, I take out some water and replace it with the espresso. It’s always a fun process with that because you can’t take the warm shots and try to make dough and then also put chocolate chips in. I have to ice the espresso, refrigerate the chocolate chips, so they don’t melt because there’s been several occasions where they have melted.

The owners of Good Judys' Bagels stand in front of their market stand selling bagels, bagel chips, and merch.
Alyssa Buckley

SP: Can we talk about the name Good Judys’ Bagels?

D Thomas-Wilhelm: We are quintessentially a gay business. From the name to the people who work there. The term Good Judy comes from Judy Garland. As a kid, I used to love watching The Wizard of Oz. So Judy Garland’s just always been my go-to girl. Didn’t know what that meant at a young age, but —

J Thomas-Wilhelm: Now you do. 

D Thomas-Wilhelm: Yes. [laughs] The term Good Judy is like calling someone your best friend or your confidant within the queer community. So if you’re a Good Judy, you’re kind of like my best friend. You’re someone I’ll tell secrets to or pass notes to. Good Judy is the person you call when you need out of a bad date or something like that.

It does come from Judy Garland being an early friend and advocate of the queer community. I tend to say it’s the more modern version of friend of Dorothy. And friend of Dorothy was very much the coded language through the mid-century of how you identified other gay people. Because it was very stigmatized or frowned upon and sometimes not even legal to be out and gay. So people would have gatherings that would be identified as friends of Dorothy, referenced to Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz character. And then, of course, by extension, Judy Garland, who was just, again, so kind to the gays from the beginning.

So, yeah, a Good Judy is — it just was a natural fit for what we wanted to do. Our vision for a storefront brick-and-mortar is a sense of community and a safe space for anyone. Because it’s a really weird time to be living where, I think we’re pretty okay where we’re at in this town, but other people — especially kids in schools and stuff — they don’t always have safe spaces, you know. So even if we can be a neighborhood coffee shop that a teen can go hang out at to get away from bullies.

We intentionally spelled it with the punctuation the way we did; we very much wanted to make it a plural possessive. We wanted it to be a place where not just us but all Good Judys can come together. It’s not just one person.

As I did a little bit more research about the term and honestly the positive force that Judy Garland was for the queer community — rest in peace, gone too soon — it’s a nice way to honor the community at large with that name, too. On the flip side of that, unless you do your research, it can be slightly coded to people — if you know, you know. Or you look it up and find out.

Everyone’s always like, “So who’s Judy?”

J Thomas-Wilhelm: All the time.

Clear plastic wrapped bagels of bagels for sale.
Alyssa Buckley

SP: It’s probably hard to choose, but do you have a favorite bagel?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: The Java chip with crunchy peanut butter. The Java chip is just unique — delicious.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I think my favorite might actually be blueberry. Something with the little added sugar with the dried blueberries. They get so fluffy, and the color of the dough for the blueberry ones, it’s always just so pretty. I’m not a cream cheese guy, so you can put that on the record. We’re doing bagels, and I don’t do cream cheese, but I’ll do like a blueberry one with butter and then a little cinnamon sugar, too, and it almost tastes like a blueberry muffin.

SP: Do you do cream cheese on your bagels, Jeff?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I do. Cream cheese on the everything and then avocado on top of that. Then sprinkle a little extra more everything seasoning on top of that.

Bagel chips for sale on a black tableclothed table.
Alyssa Buckley

SP: Okay, lastly, I want to know if you have any favorite local restaurants?

D Thomas-Wilhelm: When we first moved here, I would say the two first places we kind of fell in love with were Big Grove Tavern in Downtown Champaign.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: And that one is fun because in Iowa City, there’s a Big Grove, but it’s like brewery. It’s a different business. But we liked that there’s a big grove here, too.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: There, then Punch! Bar with their rotating menu. It’s somewhere we always take people when they come to visit. We adore Downtown Champaign in general.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: We also like to go to Collective Pour. It’s fun, and we love Art Mart.

SP: Anything else you want to share with readers?

J Thomas-Wilhelm: I’m just happy that the community has accepted us — at least the people that visit the farmers market. It’s nice to have those people because if they weren’t stopping by, we would have ended this a while ago.

D Thomas-Wilhelm: I will never forget our first farmers market. We packed everything in half-dozens because we thought that was the way to go. But, we took so many home.

But, Jeffrey’s right. The people who have become our solid customer base are wonderful people. And we like to see them week after week at the market, buying our bagels. Even if they don’t buy, they’ll stop by and say hi. As transplants, that really makes us feel like we’re part of the community. And I can’t believe the number of people that thank us for bringing boiled bagels to town.

J Thomas-Wilhelm: Shout out to our customers because you’re cool.

A menu board with prices for Good Judys' Bagels at the market.
Alyssa Buckley

Good Judys’ Bagels

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