Ultra Lessons Propel Agbay, Bakery to Find Opportunity, Optimism Amid Pandemic

Christopher Agbay stood at the trailhead and stared into the woods ahead of him. The sun was still rising, gradually illuminating the trail he was about to take on. On good days, the Wapack Trail packs a serious punch. On days where conditions aren’t so great—days like this—it can be downright grueling. Thunderstorms had recently soaked the area for several hours. Now here he was, at 6:45 a.m., ready to embrace whatever the trails had in store for him.

“The trails were sloppy and wet from the get go,” he recalled. “There was really no point in even trying to avoid it. So I willingly went through a puddle 50 feet in just to get it over with.”

It was Saturday, April 4. Agbay was supposed to be in North Carolina right now, closing in on the finish line of the Hellbender 100, a gnarly 100-mile trail ultra with more than 24,000 feet of vertical gain. The race was postponed until November as the COVID-19 global pandemic expanded its sweep across the United States.

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Christopher Agbay enjoys a moment at the summit of Mt. Watatic with his dogs. Photo courtesy of Christopher Agbay.

With Hellbender on hold, the 42-year-old resident of Jefferson, Mass., came up with a backup plan. That’s what brought him here, to the northern terminus of the Wapack Trail. The route he’d chosen would start here, eventually connect to the Midstate Trail and continue onward to the Echo Lake parking lot at Wachusett Mountain where he’d left his car the day before. If all went well he would cover 45 miles before sundown.

The puddles and mud were ominous signs of the challenge that lay ahead, but he was ready for it. Agbay knows all about enduring hardship on the trail, focusing on the positives and persevering to the finish line. That recipe has helped him complete at least 20 100-mile ultramarathons, including the Hardrock 100 in Colorado twice and the Grindstone 100 in Virginia seven times.

It’s the same recipe that he has tapped into on a daily basis for the past month while dealing with the challenges that the coronavirus has wrought on the cookie company he shares with his brother, each day staring down fear and uncertainty, finding opportunity amid adversity, and fighting like hell to still be standing when this moment passes.

Belt Buckles and Baking Cookies

When he’s not collecting shiny belt buckles for his 100-mile finishes, Agbay spends his days on his feet as the lead baker and co-owner of Wicked Good Cookies in Boylston, Mass. He started the business more than 20 years ago at the urging of his father and the guidance of his mother.

Christopher Agbay-Jason Gray
Christopher Agbay, left, shares some miles at the TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra with his friend and co-race director of the Wapack and Back ultra, Jason Gray. Photo by Chris Wristen/MassUltra.

Armed with his mom’s recipes and bolstered by his father’s investment, Agbay got to work with help from his girlfriend and eventual wife, Denise, beginning what has blossomed into a more than two-decade career of fulfilling work built on flavor, family, and spreading joy. After treading water for a few years, Agbay’s brother Peter came on board. A graduate of Babson College with a degree in Entrepreneurship and Marketing, Peter brought sales savvy to the company and took over day-to-day business operations while Christopher handled the baking.

“Probably my smartest move ever,” Agbay said of bringing his brother on board.

In 2003, a direct-to-cookie printer revolutionized Wicked Good Cookies’ business. Agbay could now print photos, logos, and other images directly onto cookies, giving the handmade treats and their all-natural ingredients some personalized pizzazz. It was a game-changer that sparked a long run of successful years for the family business.

Crushed by Coronavirus

Agbay expected another good year as 2020 began. When he wasn’t baking the custom finisher’s cookies for the Trail Animals Running Club’s TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra,he and his kitchen crew were busy filling orders for corporate events, parties, and other special occasions. Business was humming along steadily … and then COVID-19 unleashed its wrath on the United States and brought most of everyday life to a halt. Congregating in groups was prohibited; schools were shut down; college students were ordered to leave campus; non-essential workers were instructed to work from home. In an instant, cookie-eating classic events like birthday parties, business meetings and backyard barbecues were canceled.

“The cookie shop was crippled by COVID-19,” Agbay admitted. “We had to lay off several employees unfortunately, but we were fortunate to be able to keep some on though. We watched our business go from having 200,000 cookies on our production list for the month to zero in two days (with) all events being canceled or postponed. Hopefully when this is all over we will be able to regain some of that business.”

Blindsided by the pandemic and uncertainty of how long it will last, the family responded to the adversity with creativity. They’ve been nimble, transitioning to offering cookie deliveries through GrubHub and Doordash, and developing make-at-home cookie decorating kits with raw dough and toppings. Each of those efforts have helped, but it was another idea that brought more buzz to the bakery’s kitchen.

Overcoming Adversity and Honoring Heroes

There might not be office parties and birthday gatherings right now, but surely some segment of the population could use moral support and a snack while working long hours in hazardous conditions with no end in sight. Just like that, the Thanking Our Heroes cookie donation initiative began.

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Creative thinking allowed Wicked Good Cookies to use its baking skills to bring smiles to first responders.

“We have been trying to find the positives in this crazy situation,” Agbay said. “The idea for the first responders seemed to fit perfectly to not only keep us busy but it was a great opportunity to support in any way we could.”

The idea that Peter came up with was simple: for every cookie that customers purchased to send to doctors, nurses, and other first responders, Wicked Good Cookies would match 1:1. Customers could also submit drawings, photos, and other messages of thanks and support to those on the front lines of the crisis, and Christopher would print them directly onto the cookies with his custom cookie printer.

The community quickly embraced the idea, and Agbay rallied his kitchen staff as orders came flooding in.

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The community responded to the effort, sending cookie care packages to several hospitals in Massachusetts.

In the first 24 hours, 222 cookies were donated by customers, meaning Agbay baked 444 custom cookies for those on the front lines of the pandemic. Five days in the cookie tally had climbed to 2,428 cookies for first responders. They surpassed 3,000 cookie donations by the end of the first week, and the orders kept coming.

“We’ve made 4,000 cookies and delivered to local hospitals,” Agbay said. “For every cookie someone buys to donate, we match it and send them out. It has made it so we can keep busy and keep a few employees going. I called two more employees to come back to work (on April 8). I am super happy about that.”

They’ve delivered orders to several hospitals throughout the state, including UMass Memorial Medical Center and St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester. They’ve also made deliveries to Children’s Hospital, a place that took care of Agbay after he was hit by a car as a 6-year-old and where the bakery has taken its cookie printer for special events with patients.

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An up-close look at one of the cookie care packages sent to hospitals from the Wicked Good Cookies bakery. Photo courtesy of Wicked Good Cookies.

“My brother had brought the printer to Children’s Hospital several times, but one time sticks out the most,” Agbay recalled. “We would host painting parties for the kids and print the pictures the kids colored onto cookies right there, and also take their pictures and print them, too. A mother came up to my brother with tears in her eyes. She had explained that her daughter hadn’t had the energy to get out of bed in weeks, but when she heard about the cookies she sprang to action. I was floored. It has been truly touching and totally rewarding.”

While the Thanking Our Heroes donations have helped keep Agbay busy, it has done even more to warm his heart in much the same way Wicked Good Cookies is doing so for those on the front lines of the pandemic.

“I am the one that fills out the shipping so I see who orders. I can’t even come close to explaining how much it has meant when I see friends of mine and people that I know only from races placing orders,” he said. “Honestly (it brings me) to tears. I’ve never really thought about how it can lift someone’s spirits.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Part way through his Hellbender 100 replacement run, Agbay was in a dark place. The miles were slow and the trails were wearing him down.

“I went through some moments where I just wanted to call to be picked up, as I was really struggling to ramp up any kind of jog or ugly shuffle,” he said. “I sat and took a break at a nice view and ate like a maniac, stretched a little and started moving again. Thankfully my legs woke back up and my bummer mood I was in turned around as well.”

As he continued he discovered a friend who lives along the Wapack Trail had left him water, banana bread and a sliced orange. Another friend left him a water drop further down the trail. They were small gestures, but the impact was huge. Each surprise brightened his day and kept him going, one step at a time. Eventually, after 13 1/2 hours of enduring, focusing on the positives and digging deep, he emerged from the woods, found his car and took a seat. He would be back in the bakery tomorrow for another long day on his feet, designing and baking and spreading cheer. He was excited about that, but he was excited about this moment, too. It had been a hard day, but he finished what he started. He rose to the challenge and persevered, and that was something worth celebrating.

“All in all I really enjoyed the day,” he said. “It was planned and executed pretty well; also my furthest effort solo. I figured I was all trained for Hellbender and should do something. I had a real good time.”

The Wicked Good Cookies Thanking Our Heroes cookie donation campaign continues. If you would like to make a cookie donation to first responders, click this link and follow the instructions.

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