After 47 years, famously gruff sandwich hero Jason Wang is retiring, leaving a hole in Seattle hearts and stomachs.
“Forty-seven years,” Jason Wang says. “That’s a good run, right?” He’s behind the cash register at his downtown sandwich shop Bakeman’s, talking to a regular with gentle, good grace. He’s known as Seattle’s Sandwich Nazi — after the “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi character — famous for curtly hurrying any indecisive or otherwise hesitant customers along. He’s not shouting now, as he thanks patron after patron for their well wishes. He’s retiring. Bakeman’s last day is December 22.
When Wang took over in 1970, the place had been open just a few years. Now, he says, “It just seems like it’s time.” He was on the cusp of selling the business, meaning it’d stay open under new ownership. Then, he says, the landlord wouldn’t give the interested party the lease without committing to improvements, to make it “nicer than this kind of hole-in-the-wall place.” Bakeman’s door is down some worn marble steps on Cherry between First and Second Avenue. Inside the semi-subterranean space, you push your plastic tray along a blue counter with three chrome strips for a track. The lighting’s fluorescent, the decor is minimalist, and the sandwiches cost $5. All the bread, rolls, cornbread, cake and pies are made in-house.
They don’t make them like Bakeman’s anymore.
Wang asks a customer if he’d like anything else. “I think that’s it,” the man says. “You think that’s it?” Wang chides, more joking than not. He used to yell a lot more, he notes. “People say I’ve mellowed out quite a bit!”
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Avoiding his mostly humorous wrath is easy: Be ready with your order. Also: “Don’t ask me so many not-very-smart questions. ‘What do you have? Do you have pickles, do you have tomato?’ I mean, what restaurant doesn’t have that? We don’t have time for that,” Wang says. “Back in the olden days” — by which he means the 1970s and ’80s — Bakeman’s served “literally 600, 700 people a day. That’s how it started. If you don’t want it, somebody else will eat it!” He says he “kind of” makes a joke out of haranguing people, looking happy about that. “They don’t know if I’m joking or not. [Some people] got pissed off and just said, ‘I don’t want to come back anymore.'” He didn’t have a problem with that.
Back in the day, Wang says, he used to get an extra 100 customers every time the “Seinfeld” Soup Nazi episode used to run. “I take that as a compliment,” he says, “because he made the best soup in the world. So I make the best sandwich!”
Lunches now — Bakeman’s is weekdays only, lunch only — still bring 300 or 400 customers. “I know half the people by their first names,” Wang says. Being a regular here can mean 20, 30, or 40 years, including judges, lawyers, the denizens of City Hall. Wang caters weddings, then they bring their kids in. And then he’s catered some of the kids’ weddings.
He’s never been sick a day, he says, open rain or shine or snow. He’s almost 66 now. “Isn’t that retirement age?” he laughs. He’s been working full-time since high school, including during college. “I want to have fun…” he says. “Go goof around a little bit.” Then he says it’s possible, maybe, that he’d restart Bakeman’s in a smaller space. “For a restaurant, it’s good hours,” he says, meaning starting at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday “to bake everything… and then you’re done at 3 o’clock!”
“It was always really, really fun for me,” Wang says. “It’s been a really good run.”