To say that Bantam Bagels has gone through some growth in the last three years would be a massive understatement. The New York City-based company had already seen its business skyrocket since owners Nick and Elyse Olesak quit their jobs on Wall Street and opened the doors to a small retail shop in the West Village neighborhood in September of 2013.
Then, last month, the Olesaks announced they had struck a deal to put Bantam Bagels in more than 7,700 Starbucks locations nationwide.
“We’re really excited,” Nick says. “It’s a huge step for us, and we see it as the real beginning of where things can really go for the company.”
Announced at the same time were deals to put the bite-sized bagel bites in more than 600 grocery stores, including Kroger, Safeway and Fred Meyer.
The way the Olesaks and the company have adapted to this rapid growth is a lesson in flexibility, a willingness to learn and networking.
‘Get it done’
The Olesaks made the first batch of Bantam Bagels in their apartment, after Nick awoke from a dream with the idea that bagels should be bite-sized and filled with cream cheese. They tested the recipes on friends and family until they felt comfortable opening a retail shop.
Even after an appearance on Shark Tank, which led to a spot on QVC, the couple was doing everything themselves, “working 27-hour days,” as Nick says.
“When we got our first QVC order, the way to get it done at that moment was just to bake it out of our tiny retail shop and hustle it around the clock,” Elyse says.
They bought extra freezers and drove batches of the product to warehouse space in Long Island where they waited for shipping. At the same time, the couple was networking, laying the groundwork for expansion and looking for co-manufacturing partners.
“Once you get those things done, you figure out the infrastructure for getting it done better the next time,” Elyse says. “The first step is to get it done with what you have and figure out how to do it, and while you’re doing it, you can visualize what would be a more efficient way to do this.”
That mindset has helped the business thrive over the last year of blinding growth.
In the summer of 2015, Bantam struck its initial deal with Starbucks — a partnership that began with an email to the company’s regional director and resulted in the bagel bites being sold at three NYC locations. The couple began delivering their product to those three locations themselves. A few months later, Starbucks wanted to expand Bantam to 32 stores.
“At that point, Elyse, myself and our head of operations were delivering at 4 a.m. on Saturdays,” Nick says. “We did that for a couple months.”
The next expansion — this time to 400 Starbucks locations — meant finding a logistics partner was no longer a want, but a need. Bantam not only found help with transportation, the company also moved into a co-manufacturing space in Brooklyn, where it still calls home and now uses about 20,000-sq-ft and more than 40 employees to produce nearly a million bagels bites per week.
“We formed a partnership with another co-manufacturer and since it’s in Brooklyn we still get that New York City water, which is so important for bagels,” Elyse says. “We have been, piece by piece, upgrading the way we produce by investing in equipment, all while staying true to the original bagel and making sure the flavor and the consistency and everything is as good as that first one we made in our apartment. That’s not an easy feat.”
How does the company maintain that taste and quality now that it is producing for a nation-wide consumer base? It all goes back to the recipe, Nick says. It hasn’t changed since the couple finally perfected the product in their apartment kitchen.
Now that recipe is assembled in the Brooklyn production space. The entire process — from mixing, forming, depositing and baking — is completed in the facility before the bagels are flash-frozen and shipped to retailers. The quality ingredients and production process, Nick says, maintains the freshness through freezing and transportation.
“That’s the same recipe we still use in our large facility today,” he says. “For us, quality is the backbone of everything we try to do. You’re only as good as your next bagel. We’re trying to not only gain a lot of new customers, but also retain the amazing customers we’ve been able to get over the last three years.”
Neither of the Olesaks have a background in the culinary nor baking worlds. They both worked on Wall Street after graduating from Columbia University, only delving into the bagel world after Nick’s midnight revelation, and doing so relatively blindly.
But that lack of food production knowledge, Nick says, ended up being a huge key in the success of the final product.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but not really having any background in baking or the culinary world was an advantage,” Nick says. “Coming at creating this product from a very simple, broken-down, almost bare-bones approach allowed us to create a product that, at its core, is simple, authentic and unique. It’s a real New York bagel.”
The company has maintained the attitude of learning throughout its boom, remaining very cognizant of what it knows and even more cognizant of what it doesn’t, Nick says.
“Any great entrepreneur and anyone trying to be successful and go out on their own has to be very aware of that, and know that they need to ask for help,” he says. “You want to say ‘yes’ to every single thing you’re asked and accept every offer and take every deal. But it’s often better to be more selective. Every single day we’re learning something new, and I think we’ve been able to surround ourselves with a network of people and mentors that have helped us every step of the way.”
‘A real partnership’
While Bantam is actively moving into supermarkets and drug stores and has aspirations to increase their offerings in retail foodservice, it is evident that their partnership with Starbucks is paramount.
Not only has the massive corporation provided support in bringing Bantam Bagels to consumers across the nation, the Olesaks say they have received invaluable guidance over the last year.
“For us, it has become a real partnership,” Nick says. “Starbucks has been a very valuable partner in helping us grow the business. They’ve obviously delivered to us tremendous growth in terms of point-of-sale, but they’ve also been our mentors along the way and helped us grow and position ourselves to be the big business we want to be.
Because it found such a solid partnership, the company has been able to succeed with that selective mindset when it comes to business decisions. “Working with Starbucks, we’ve been able to step back and be a little more strategic about the decisions we make and focus on what it means for the brand and the company overall,” Elyse says.
It has led to a blazing start toward the company’s goal of hitting as many retail channels as possible and, perhaps a bit more grandiose, re-shaping the nation’s perception of a classic baked good.
“We have always had a vision for changing the way America looks at the bagel,” Elyse says. “We knew we wanted to ultimately be in retail and be in every channel we could get into. We took opportunities in front of us and figured out how to get it done when more opportunities came to us.”