Nick and Elyse Oleksak hadn't turned off their oven in days. It'd been running nonstop-just as they were-to fill an off-the-charts order from QVC. As the owners of the fledgling company Bantam Bagels, the couple had been used to making 1,000 to 2,000 of their mini stuffed bagel balls a day, but within five minutes of appearing on the network, they sold 100,000. And those had to be shipped out to customers ASAP.
It was a terrifying, make-or-break order, but the Oleksaks handled it with the same approach they took to landing two Today show appearances to show off their bagels-before they even had a storefront. It was the very same tactic that brought them to TV screens everywhere on NBC's Shark Tank, and as of this summer, to Starbucks stores nationwide: Say yes, then roll up your sleeves and figure out a way to make it work.
"There was no not making this," Elyse explained. "It was our first big chance."
The Oleksaks set up shifts around the clock in their shop off of Bleecker Street in Manhattan, a spot chosen for its authenticity (If you want a great bagel, you go to NYC. Fact.) and constant foot traffic, yet so narrow you could practically stretch your arms and touch both walls. It was close quarters, and there wasn't much oven space, but the pair realized that if they cranking out bagel balls for 24 hours a day that entire week, they might just manage it.
Elyse had quit her job at Morgan Stanley to focus on the company full-time, but Nick was still working in finance, since the two were expecting a baby and wanted to have one reliable income as the business got off the ground. Still, that didn't mean Nick was any less committed.
"I would work from 3 in the morning to 6 in the morning at the shop, then again from 6 to 9 at night," he said. "There was no stopping. The lights were always on. I was driving bagels out to Long Island in a frozen truck. It was insane."
"There was no not making this. It was our first big chance."
The duo hit their first major deadline-one that would prove crucial for taking the business from a $200,000 a year, modest Mom-and-Pop shop to a $13 million empire built on carbs. And all of it may never have happened if it weren't for the Oleksaks' Friday night tradition: Watching Shark Tank.
It Was A Literal Dream Come True.
The Oleksaks dreamed of being on the reality show, where entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to four "sharks," or potential investors, all with the hopes that the right funding-and TV show notoriety-could help their startups become household names. All throughout the week, Nick would brainstorm business ideas, pitching them to Elyse, but nothing ever stuck until the day he woke up dreaming about bagels the size of donut holes, stuffed with cream cheese.
It was the sort of simple, brilliant idea that made them wonder why it didn't exist already-and what it'd take to create it themselves. That next night, they got to work, whipping up their first test batch. "We had to Google, 'how to make bagels' that first night, because we didn't know," Nick said.
Every night, after work, the pair would test out different bagel recipes in their Brooklyn kitchen, making use of every square inch of available space, which often meant using their laundry room as a space to let the dough sit before baking. Finally, they came up with a recipe they loved, so they started making bigger batches, testing them on friends, relatives and coworkers, until they came up with the mix people raved about well after they'd finished snacking. At that point, they put together a business plan and started searching for the ideal spot for what would become their Bleecker Street store.
"People asked us why we'd start with retail, but to us, there's no better way to see if this has legs than to test it in this market," Nick explained.
"If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," Elyse added.
Just four months after opening, QVC came calling with its 100,000-bagel request. Filling that order gave the pair the confidence that they could tackle even bigger ones. At the same time, they focused on figuring out ways to increase their orders without compromising quality-or keeping their ovens running 24 hours a day.
Early on, the pair tapped a friend, Erica Gianchetti of Slash PR, to help them drum up publicity, sending batches of stuffed bagels-in flavors ranging from cinnamon bun to the Grandma Jo Jo, an Italian seasoning-topped bagel stuffed with pesto cream cheese-to media outlets all over New York, eventually catching the eye of O, The Oprah Magazine, which named it one of Oprah's Favorite Things in 2014. It also didn't hurt that less than a year after they launched, the New York Daily News deemed it one of the top three bagels in New York.
"It's not enough to have a good idea. A creative idea will get someone to try something once. If you want someone to buy from you again, it's got to be good-really good," Nick said.
With each new flavor, the team focused on trying to make it the most surprising, can't-have-just-one combination they could think of. That often meant putting subtle spins on old favorites, like adding seasonings to their veggie cream cheese so it wouldn't seem bland by comparison when stuffed in an everything bagel ball. (The pair also studied what bagel and cream cheese combinations sell the best, which is what inspired the aforementioned bagel, called Everybody's Favorite. It's Bantam Bagels's best-seller, hands down.)
Turns Out, Sharks Love Mini Bagels.
By early 2015, it was their turn to stare down investors on Shark Tank. Elyse was six months pregnant and had quit her job to focus on growing Bantam Bagels. With a baby on the way, they decided Nick should stick with his 9-to-5, but that all changed after inventor/investor/QVC Queen Lori Grenier offered the pair $275,000 in exchange for 25 percent of the company.
When the show aired, people from all over the U.S. and Canada started flooding the Bleecker Street store. "Shark Tank fans are committed to supporting companies featured on the show, which has been amazing," Nick said. On the business end, Grenier's helped Bantam Bagels secure business deals and advised them as they've strategized how to build the company into an instantly recognizable brand. That means finding bigger deals ... and figuring out a way to fulfill those orders.
"The old 'fake it till you make it' adage is the core of our approach to business," Elyse said. "It's this blind, pure belief in yourself, your product and your business."
The Oleksaks started scouring LinkedIn to learn who the buyers were for major chains, sending out cold emails with the hopes of snagging a meeting. One such email caught the attention of a regional director at Starbucks, who invited them in for a chat. That little conversation led to a deal to supply three flavors of their bagels in about 500 stores in the New York City area. (Everybody's Favorite, Classic-AKA plain with regular cream cheese-and French Toast, in case you're curious.)
"Every time we walk into a Starbucks and see our Bantams in the pastry case, we can't help but get that full heart and butterflies in your stomach feeling that every entrepreneur works for," Elyse said when the snacks first launched in stores.
In the meantime, the duo had found a co-packing plant in Brooklyn that could help them bake and stuff bagels on a larger scale, jumping from a couple thousand bagels a day to 1 million baked each week. The Starbucks partnership proved so successful that the coffee chain expanded its deal to serve the flavors in stores nationwide.
Now, the Oleksaks are setting their sights on your grocery aisles, with the goal of selling frozen Bantam Bagels at every supermarket in the U.S. by the end of next year. It's a lofty goal-particularly with all of the layers of buyers, brokers, distributers and suppliers-but the couple's up for the challenge.
"When you have an idea that you believe in as much as we do with this, you don't need another reason to dive in," Elyse said. "You just do it."
Clearly, that approach has been working well for them so far.
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