Is it Ben? Is all this hoopla by customers gushing about the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery really about Ben, who at 15 months doesn't even really like bagels?
Blond-haired Benjamin Luther, son of the Severna Park bakery's co-owners, has become something of a symbol of hospitality. Patrons who have unexpectedly won free meals are told it's "On Benjamin."
Restaurant patrons have begun to watch for the little boy, whose parents John and Jeanne Luther own the restaurant with Charles Cockrill. They're also watching for the bakery's unusual edible promotions.
In the last month alone, the bakery in Park Plaza has given away more than 8,400 bagels and 243 pounds of cream cheese to public school teachers at 89 schools during the bakery's "Teacher Appreciation Month."
In the year since the Ritchie Highway bakery opened, the owners have delivered free bagels to election poll workers, supplied bagels for county hospital fund-raisers and handed over a free bagel and soda to every local youngster who showed up with a ribbon from a swim meet.
Starting in October, local police officers and firefighters will be the beneficiaries of the "free bagels and cream cheese" promotion.
"We wanted to invest in our community," says Mr. Cockrill. "Also, the conventional means of advertising don't get anyone to taste our product," he said.
The trio installed a gigantic bubble-gum machine with a sign that says whoever gets one of the green gum-balls wins a free bagel. On three randomly selected but unannounced days in June, every person who walked through the door won a free meal in Benjamin's Outrageous Bagel Giveaway.
"We think we're unique in the system," says Mr. Cockrill. The bakery is one of a 21-store Washington chain, but Benjamin's personal stamp of edible advertising has worked. One promotion increased business by 20 percent, Mr. Cockrill says.
"Benjamin says: 'We have the world's best bagels.' You can't argue with Ben," Mr. Luther jests.
The three owners also say their Christian faith motivates them to show appreciation for "public servants who don't get the credit they deserve," Mr. Luther says.
"All three of us are Christians, and our faith is a focal point of our business," he continues. "It's a basic philosophy of life to treat people the way we would like to be treated.
"We want customers to feel comfortable. We don't want people to eat quickly and leave; we want them to get to know one another."
The bakery, a big, light-filled room with newspapers and dozens of art prints, uncramped tables and a complete wall dedicated to community announcements, invitesvisitors to take their time.
"We want to be servants to our community," says Mr. Cockrill. "We say we're not in the food business; we're in the hospitality business."
The food is there, of course, from the fancy cream cheese with walnuts, carrots and raisins, to the best-selling cinnamon raisin bagel. Mr. Cockrill's favorite is the seven-grain bagel, but Mrs. Luther prefers the E. T. -- a bagel loaded with garlic, sesame, cheese and poppy-seed.
John Luther likes them all, but until three years ago he had never eaten a bagel in his life.
He and Mr. Cockrill, both Severna Park natives, worked in real estate in the same office. But Mr. Cockrill loved bagels, and he wanted to sell them. He brought his friend some garlic bagels.
"I didn't eat them. I put them in the cupboard and they stunk up the house," says Mr. Luther. Now, he tastes his product every day.
Benjamin, who was born one week before the shop opened a year ago in June, initially was allergic to bagels. Only in the last two weeks has he begun to eat wheat bagels, says Mrs. Luther.
It's time for Benjamin to munch on his own giveaways.