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 some water on the stove for pasta, he grabbed the tea kettle.
Now he is the brains and brawn behind Brandwein’s Bagels, bringing classic New York-style bagels to Chapel Hill.
Soon after starting his studies at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in 2018, Brandwein noticed a void in Chapel Hill. “I couldn’t believe that a college town like Chapel Hill didn’t have a local, downtown 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 in a New York suburb, and then a regular 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 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, he 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 the School offers.”
In looking for “entrepreneurial ways to activate real estate,” Brandwein applied and was accepted into the Adams Apprenticeship, a selective program that accelerates the entrepreneurial careers of UNC’s highest potential student leaders. He intended to pursue real estate entrepreneurship, but when 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 was 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 my retail operations course was the perfect place to think about scaling a business,” says Brandwein. As he explored a brick-and-mortar location, Hartzell’s Real Estate Process class and connections helped enormously.
Brandwein built the business from the ground up. After early trials using boxed ingredients, he researched making bagels from scratch, experimenting with recipes, and perfecting his own. Refining recipes and creating new offerings continues to be an important part of the business.
His initial big plunge into his entrepreneurial dream was forgoing 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 between your first and second years,” says Brandwein. “I decided to see what it would actually be 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 that summer. The fellowship, a project of the Eship Center’s Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club – for which Brandwein served as VP of Entrepreneurship – helps MBA students commit to entrepreneurship and VC summer internships that 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.
Brandwein also put the Carolina network into action, sourcing from Lindley Mills, a family business whose VP of sales and marketing is Caroline Lindley (BSBA ’14, MBA ’17), and TOPO Distillery, founded by Scott Maitland (JD ’95). He’s sought counsel from alumni and earned 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.”
At the outset, Brandwein’s Bagels focused on pop-up experiences along with 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 received and the diversity and support of our customers,” says Brandwein. “With music and games for all ages, we created a fun experience along with a top-quality food concept.”
That incredible reception was followed by many more, and culminated in Brandwein’s Bagels’ decision to take over the lease at 505 W. Rosemary Street in February 2020. The corner location, midway between downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro, with room for outdoor tables and chairs, seemed “right” – matching Brandwein’s vision of creating a place for building community.
No sooner than the ink was dry did COVID-19 hit, and Brandwein was faced with the decision of whether to delay opening or stay on track.
He decided to proceed.
“I was terrified,” says Brandwein, “to open with no experience in what was undeniably the worst possible time for a small business. The challenges of the pandemic added a layer of complexity that was beyond scary.”
Counterbalancing that fear, a number of established bagel shop owners/mentors echoed Brandwein’s belief that bagels are a staple food product – a “comfort” food – that could be enjoyed fresh or frozen, and packaged and delivered to meet strict health protocols. In addition to adapting his business model to accommodate the necessary operational and logistical adjustments, Brandwein focused on transparency in his communication with the community regarding the shop’s best practices and health protocols.
And, once again, the community came through with full support. Brandwein’s Bagels officially opened its doors on August 7, 2020 – and sold out on its first day. This whole-hearted community reception has allowed Brandwein’s Bagels to establish itself as a permanent shop in town, and even grow its business during an incredibly challenging period.
The shop is open seven days a week and now employs over 30 people on a full- or part-time basis. Its “Fundraiser Fridays” contribute 15% of all sales proceeds to select non-profit organizations in Orange County. The team regularly contributes dozens of early morning bagels to Emergency Room workers at UNC Medical Center.
Event catering is a challenge in the current environment, but by adjusting systems – substituting platters and spreads with individually wrapped and bagged bagels and individual-sized cream cheese containers – Brandwein’s is accommodating catering orders safely and in full compliance with health requirements. Brandwein continues to innovate and grow by adapting to the changing times and finding new ways to engage with the community. “Even though we don’t see UNC and Kenan-Flagler faculty, staff and students as much as we would like,” says Brandwein, “we know they are behind us, supporting the team all the way.”
As he pursues his passion, 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,” he says. “It’s been emotional, scary and really, really hard – and I love it!”
“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?”