Alex Brandwein (MBA ’20) never expected to be in the bagel business.
His background is in finance – not the food industry. In fact, a running family joke is that when his mom asked him to put water on the stove for pasta, he grabbed the tea kettle.
Now he is the brains and brawn behind Brandwein’s Bagels, which is bringing New York-style bagels to Chapel Hill.
Soon after starting his studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Brandwein – who grew up in a New York suburb – noticed a void in Chapel Hill. “I couldn’t believe that the middle of a college town didn’t have a local bagel shop where you could grab a bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel,” says Brandwein.
Bagels were a staple in Brandwein’s life growing up and a big part of his routine while studying business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He started his career in investment banking in Chicago before returning to his native New York to work in investment banking and real estate private equity.
But the urge to pursue something entrepreneurial tugged at him. So Brandwein decided to invest in his career and pursue an MBA. Serendipitously, while attending the wedding of friends who are UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni, Brandwein met Dave Hartzell, Steven D. Bell and Leonard W. Wood Distinguished Professor in Real Estate, who connected him with Jim Spaeth, executive director of the Leonard W. Wood Center for Real Estate Studies. They were major influences in Brandwein’s decision to come to Chapel Hill.
“I came to UNC Kenan-Flagler because I wanted to be in a college town with a tight community where I could meet and bond with people,” says Brandwein. “I intended to follow the real estate concentration, but I also was intrigued by the smorgasbord of choices that the School offers.”
In looking for “entrepreneurial ways to activate real estate,” Brandwein applied and was accepted into the Entrepreneurship Center’s Adams Apprenticeship, a selective program that accelerates the entrepreneurial careers of UNC’s highest potential student leaders. He originally intended to pursue real estate entrepreneurship, but by the time the interview came around, the idea of creating a bagel business was calling him.
“Food is a great way to bring people together,” says Brandwein. “I want to put smiles on people’s faces and connect with people every day.”
He is grateful for the opportunity to use his MBA classes as a laboratory for developing the business. “Ted Zoller’s Entrepreneurship Lab class created a really nice, safe space where we could pull back the curtain and talk about what it’s like to create a business,” he says.
“My Marketing class made me think about customers and branding while Retail Operations is the perfect place to think about scaling a business,” says Brandwein. As he explores a brick-and-mortar location, Hartzell’s Real Estate Process class and connections have been enormously helpful.
To start, Brandwein Bagels is focusing on pop-up experiences and catering. Working out of Chapel Hill’s Midway Community Kitchen, Brandwein’s Bagels quickly sold out of 650 bagels at its first pop-up in August 2019.
“As cheesy as it sounds, my heart skips a beat from the reception we’re receiving and the diversity and support of our customers,” says Brandwein. “With music and games for all ages, we create a fun experience along with a top-quality food concept.”
Brandwein is building the business from the ground up. After experimenting with baking bagels using boxed ingredients, he researched recipes and continues to perfect his own. But his initial big plunge into his entrepreneurial dream was forgoing the pursuit of a corporate summer internship and instead working part-time at a national bagel chain.
“In MBA life, a big thing is what are you doing for your summer internship in between your first and second years,” says Brandwein. “I decided to see what it was like to work in a bagel shop – starting at 4 a.m., understanding the flow and getting the experience.”
While his forearms became riddled with burns, Brandwein was passionate about the work. “I loved the feeling of working hard, sweating and feeling ‘job well done’ at the end of the day,” he says.
The money Brandwein received from the Carolina Startup Fellowship helped support him over the summer. The fellowship, a project of the Eship Center’s Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club – for which Brandwein serves as VP of entrepreneurship – helps MBA students commit to entrepreneurship and VC summer internships, which typically pay less than other fields.
In addition to working 15 to 20 hours a week baking bagels, Brandwein spent countless hours working on his business plan, creating a brand image, forming an LLC, consulting accountants and doing the myriad of tasks necessary to start a small business. He continued this momentum by entering the Eship Center’s internationally recognized accelerator, Launch Chapel Hill.
Bradwein putting the Carolina network into action. He is sourcing from Lindley Mills, a family business whose VP of sales and marketing is Caroline Lindley (BSBA ’14, MBA ’17), and Firsthand Foods, co-founded by Tina Prevatte Levy (MBA/MCRP ’09) and Jennifer Curtis (MS ’98). He’s seeking counsel from alumni and earning enormous support from classmates, faculty and staff.
“It’s been both humbling and fulfilling,” he says. “This community – Kenan-Flagler, UNC and Chapel Hill-Carrboro – is amazing.”
As Brandwein pursues his passion and his studies, he’s working just as many hours as he did in investment banking, but life is a lot more fun and rewarding. “It’s pushed me, it’s been emotional, scary, and really, really hard – and I love it,” he says.
“The bagels are the driver but the real focus is bringing people together,” he says. “I’m so happy that I get to share this little bit of myself and am so excited to see where this goes. I have so many people supporting me – how often does that happen?”