MOUNT VERNON – To keep up with Navin Ajodhya is to sprint, sometimes several directions at once, maintaining at all times the enthusiasm of a young boy on Christmas morning.
His favorite word is “opportunity.” He sees it everywhere.
He sees it now, hunched over the glass counter that will eventually hold muffins and scones and Carribean sweet coconut rolls.
“Every community, in my opinion, needs that local, small-town bakery,” Ajodhya says on a sun-soaked afternoon in late March.
There’s excitement in his voice, and for good reason. In just a matter of days, he and his wife, Rebecca, will be bringing that to downtown Mount Vernon.
The couple will open Half Baked Café and Bakery, located at 3 W. High St., on Friday at 12 p.m. The Ajodhyas purchased the marquee Mount Vernon storefront from the owners of Ferrari Baking on March 1. Since then, they’ve spent long hours remodeling the interior and finalizing menu plans.
If the Ajodhyas sound familiar, it’s because they are; the husband and wife also own Trucking Delicious, a food truck and catering service based out of Centerburg. They began the business in 2015 and will continue it after Half Baked opens. The bakery is just the next step, an addition to what could very well become a burgeoning local portfolio, if all goes according to plan.
“We’re very blessed and privileged to be working on this project, as well as two other brick-and-mortars,” said Navin, adding that the future eateries will be in the Knox County area as well. “We’re trying to do some big things.”
Half Baked will evolve over time, Navin said. When it opens on Friday, there will be several signature items available, such as eclairs, scones, French croissants, chocolatines, Carribean sweet coconut rolls, cakes, cream puffs and a wide variety of muffins. There will also be more traditional bake shop fare, such as cupcakes, brownies and macarons.
The shop will offer drip, flavored and espresso coffee drinks, as well as a specialty brand of extract coffee from California.
But there’s more on the way, Navin said. The couple plans on bringing “lighter, fresher snack and meal options” to the store sometime this summer; no timeline has been set.
“Basically, our concept behind that is, if you eat good, you save room for dessert,” said Navin, shrugging as he threw his hands up in the air. “It’s just like, if you eat good, you can have some of this stuff. You know, it’s all about balance, right?”
Half Baked will be open Tuesday-Thursday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The shop will be closed Sunday and catered items will be delivered on Monday.
The Ajodhyas want to continue what Denise Davis started at Ferrari Baking Company years ago – a bakery and cake shop that works hard to meet community needs – but at the same time, they want to put their own stamp on things. That includes their cream puffs, which have the color and flavor of a macaron, as well as their rugelach, a Polish pastry with a triangle-shaped piece of dough wrapped around a cream filling.
They’ll offer their muffins, which Rebecca claims have attracted “food truck stalkers.” When the couple parks their truck at Tanger Outlet Mall events, Navin says, they will typically make several batches of muffins ahead of time for their most faithful followers.
The Ajodhyas will also offer their famous “Granny’s Ugly Bars,” which consist of a chocolate chip cookie base topped with layers of peanut butter, caramel, peanut butter crumb, more drizzled caramel, and a hand-made vanilla bean whipped cream.
“Yeah,” Navin says, his eyebrows raised. “It’s so good.”
But what could set Half Baked apart is something that’s not on the menu. It’s standing behind the counter, radiating energy through expressive hand gestures and confident superlatives. It’s someone who puts a premium on good conversation – hopefully ending in laughter – and who genuinely cares about the person on the other side.
“I’m sorry, if you’re having a bad day, I’m going to have to try to make you smile before you leave. Even if it’s laughing at me,” Navin says, as his wife does just that. “Because you know what, energy begets energy. You know what I mean? Before you know it, it’s 3 o’clock. ‘Oh man, we gotta go.’ I love that.”
It’s the same guy who, 15 years earlier, spent long nights working at a food cart in Jamaica, Queens. He loved it – even during the cold, New York winters – and he was willing to work the night shift after spending the day as an IT engineer.
“Rain, sleet, or snow, we’d go out if we had a catering gig,” Navin recalls now, laughing.
It was a passion, sure. A nice side hustle. But did he ever think he’d end up here, in Ohio, getting ready to open his own brick-and-mortar bakery?
“Not at all.”
Navin’s family immigrated to the United States when he was 10 years old. He was born and raised in Guyana, a country on South America’s northern border that is considered part of the Carribean region.
When the Ajodhya family came to New York City, Navin was immediately immersed in a diverse, fast-paced culture. They lived in Jamaica, Queens, a “Carribean hot spot,” near the neighborhood where ‘Coming to America’ was filmed. Navin spent his most formative years in a place that prioritized food, music and heritage as ways of bringing people closer.
“It was a huge melting pot – cultures, people, foods – and kind of a rough neighborhood,” he said. “But as I mentioned, it really showed us the power that food, and really music as well, has on breaking down those barriers… It’s part of that getting to know each other, and that’s what I really liked about getting into the industry.”
Navin went to college in New Jersey and pursued a career in technology. He worked as a Windows infrastructure engineer during the day and followed through on his passion for food at night by working for a downtown food cart. He remembers how quickly time seemed to pass when he was out on catering runs; even though bathrooms were scarce and conditions were sometimes brutal, he loved every second of it.
“You forget about those biological needs,” he said. “You’re dealing with a constant rush.”
Ten years ago, Navin’s former employer offered him a corporate telecommunication position in Westerville. After coming out for an interview, he liked the area and decided to leave the Empire State. That’s when his life changed.
Around the same time Navin was pulling double-duty in the Big Apple, Rebecca was doing the same in central Ohio. After graduating from Ohio State with a degree in actuarial science, Rebecca launched a career in corporate accounting and finance. She also helped her sister run a bakery in Pickerington. It was a way to carry on the family tradition, she explained.
“Baking has always been, like, a huge deal in my family,” said Rebecca, a Zanesville native whose grandmother sets up a separate table at Christmas strictly for desserts.
As fate would have it, Rebecca and Navin – once separated by half a globe – found each other eventually. Navin ended up working alongside Rebecca in Westerville, and the two instantly hit it off. They began dating and would marry shortly thereafter.
The baking gods rejoiced.
When Navin worked at Nationwide Children’s Hospital as a Windows systems engineer, he lived in Blacklick, just 20 minutes from downtown Columbus. It was a time of remarkable economic growth for the city, and Navin saw it all first-hand.
But by the time he began dating Rebecca, he had grown weary of the traffic and lack of “elbow room.” The corporate grind had also started to take a toll.
Rebecca felt a similar fatigue, and they decided it was time for a change. They turned to the place that brought them the most comfort: the kitchen.
They began crafting menus and dreaming of food truck concepts. They eventually launched their first business together, called Cook-Up, which offers private catering to this day.
The couple moved to Centerburg in 2014, where they could own more land and remain close to Rebecca’s family. They also moved there for the sense of community. Navin recalls living in subdivisions outside of Columbus that lacked the camaraderie he seeked. Centerburg had that, and then some.
“The sense of community is really what really sold it for us,” Navin said.
Shortly after moving to Knox County, Navin and Rebecca took their next big career leap. They started Trucking Delicious.
It was their first time owning a food truck, and it wasn’t easy.
“We got our butts kicked on a few things,” Navin recalls now. The couple struggled at first to grasp how local food truck rules and regulations worked. They also tinkered with their menu, eventually expanding it to include their famous chicken and waffles, jerk chicken sandwich and sweet plantains.
It took time, and the Ajodhyas learned plenty of lessons along the way. But they believe it was worth it. They’ve achieved what they set out to do when they moved to Knox County five years ago, Navin said: bring a different flavor to the community.
“When we first started looking at houses in Centerburg and the area, it very much seemed to be a food desert, you know?” Navin said. “Obviously out here in Mount Vernon there’s a higher population, there’s a lot more space, there’s a lot more food options. But a lot of it is your traditional, big-box chains. Well, that’s great, but we wanted to offer some of our flare.”
Since they launched their first two food businesses, Rebecca and Navin have maintained jobs in their respective fields. Rebecca still works in corporate accounting and finance, serving several small-business clients. Navin provides private IT services on the side as well.
But given the success of Trucking Delicious – the business has a five-star rating on Facebook, Yelp and Google, and Navin said the local feedback at festivals and events has been “very encouraging” – the couple felt it was time to take the next step.
When they saw in December that Davis intended to sell the bakery on W. High St., Rebecca said they met with her and “we instantly clicked.” The Ajodhyas bought the shop and retained the three employees from Ferrari, who will help open Half Baked on Friday.
“They obviously enjoyed working here, they enjoyed what they’re doing, and any time we do recruiting, that’s at the top of our list,” Navin said. “I want to put you where you’ll be happy because you’ll do the best job.”
The Ajodhyas plan to hire six to nine individuals by the end of 2019 to work in various jobs across each of their platforms – from food catering to financial and technological consulting. As they build, Navin and Rebecca want to bring the community along with them.
“Now, across all of our brands, our new definition of success is, ‘Creating and retaining jobs,’” Navin said. “That’s our way of saying, yes, we’re hoping to grow, but we need great people in order to make that happen. We’re not going to be able to do that ourselves.”
He paused to make eye contact.
“It’s bigger than us, you know?”
“Dude. I swear, we did not plan this,” Navin pleads. Rebecca is cracking up on the other side of the counter.
He’d just finished explaining this predicament: that their shop is called “Half Baked,” and it sits on “High Street,” right next to “The Joint.” Passersby have chuckled and given him a thumbs-up on occasion.
He swears it wasn’t intentional; both Navin and Rebecca say the name comes from the idea that half of the store’s inventory will be bakery items and the other half will be light lunch options. But he also doesn’t mind the effect. If it makes people laugh, well, isn’t that a good thing?
“I mean, we like to have fun,” Navin says with a shrug. “If nothing else, we want to instill some emotion, you know what I mean?”
This is the light, upbeat atmosphere that Navin and Rebecca envision for Half Baked. It will be fun, casual and engaging. Navin, an avid rock-and-roll fan, plans to play Iron Maiden and ZZ Top over the speakers. The couple recently painted a chalkboard onto the shop’s east wall (using chalkboard paint) so that local artists and community members can draw seasonal themes.
The shop will offer a slightly larger menu than before, and specialty items will rotate frequently in order to “keep everybody on their toes.”
“I can’t do normal. I won’t do it,” said Navin, a skydiving advocate and a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. “You’ll see, when we start stocking up, we’ll get funky with it. It’s fun, you know? It’s an extension of ourselves."
Certain things will stay the same about the bakery on W. High St. Half Baked will still produce scratch-made cakes for all occasions, including weddings and graduations. Seating will still consist of three tables on the east side of the shop, which are close enough to the counter for Navin to strike up conversation.
The shop has been repainted, however, and most of the equipment is new. Navin and Rebecca are also working to become “more sustainable” across all of their food services, cutting out styrofoam and introducing plant-based, biodegradable packaging to lessen their ecological footprint. This will cost more, Navin said, but he believes taking such action is “part of being a responsible business owner.”
“We don’t have a timeline for that, but I’m hoping sometime in 2019 we have transitioned most of our things to that,” Navin said.
Navin and Rebecca look forward to joining a downtown corridor that has seen several new restaurants and bars open within the past year. The most important thing, they believe, is building partnerships with other businesses. Navin considers other restaurant and bake shop owners to be his peers, not his competition. By working together on certain things, he believes they can actually make each other stronger.
“Anywhere that we can partner up and give a little back, we truly do,” Navin said, “because it all starts with people.”
That being said, Navin and Rebecca do have competitive goals for their new shop. They want to be a destination for families, downtown workers and the community at-large. They hope people will appreciate a different flavor in the community – a rotating selection of specialty pastries, a wide variety of beverages, and healthy, light lunch options.
“I would just love to be considered a top option,” Navin said. “And we’re going to bust our butt to get there.”
On that sunny, late-March day, just two weeks before the grand opening, Navin and Rebecca took a moment to catch their breath. They thought about how far they’ve come in the food business in such a short amount of time – six years, to be exact – and how improbable it was that they’d be opening a brick-and-mortar shop this soon.
They rationalized that the addition of a brick-and-mortar business seemed like a natural next step in their career together. It would allow for a more stable day-to-day operation; they could build a staff here, and establishing a downtown storefront could increase brand visibility within Knox County.
But these were never considerations when Navin was slinging hamburgers in Queens, or when Rebecca was making pastries in Pickerington, or even when the two began private catering in the Columbus region. They always thought their primary careers – the ones they went to school for – would be more sustainable. Food? Just a hobby.
Now, the script has been flipped.
"At no point did I think food was going to be No. 1 and IT was going to be No. 2," Navin admits.
But at some point, passion took over. They took something they loved and they ran with it. On Friday, the next chapter of their culinary journey begins.
Rebecca and Navin Ajodhya aren’t looking back.
“You look back just to check in, not to stay,” Navin quipped. “You know what I mean?”