From Psych Ward to Bagel Mensch

by Sarah Henry on February 25, 2011 · 3 comments

in berkeley bites,food books,food businesses,sfgate site

Bagel baron Noah Alper./Photo: Tom Lux

Noah Alper started his bagel business with a single storefront on College Avenue in Berkeley back in the summer of 1989. Six years later the company, Noah’s Bagels, had expanded to 38 West Coast outlets and was sold to Einstein Bagel Bros. for $100 million dollars.

Talk about a rocket ride from start up to stunning success.

Truth is, though, Alper is a self-described serial entrepreneur who has launched six businesses with mixed results. Early on in his career back East he did a roaring trade selling rustic salad bowls out of the back of his VW bug. And a homewares operation he began in 1971 did well, as did a natural food store he started in 1973, Bread & Circus, now a chain owned by Whole Foods.

But Alper’s venture into the mail-order catalog market, Holy Land Gifts, which sold religious handicrafts imported from Israel to evangelical Christians, was a total bust in the mid-80s. And his kosher Italian Ristorante Raphael lasted only four years in downtown Berkeley before calling it a night in 2007.

So the 64-year-old business consultant knows a thing or two about the ups and downs of an entrepreneur’s life. He shares the lessons he’s learned in his recent book, Business Mensch: Timeless Wisdom for Today’s Entrepreneur, written with Thomas Fields-Meyer.

Part memoir, part motivational manual, and part homily to the Jewish traditions that have informed how he lives his life and conducts business, Alper’s book is an antidote to a post-Madoff Ponzi scheme world. In its pages he stresses spiritual values such as honesty, integrity, and ethics.

All this from a man who survived a nine-month stint in a mental institution following a breakdown during his student days at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where drug experimentation, coupled with the violence and stress of the antiwar movement, proved too much for his fragile psyche.

Raised by secular parents in Brookline, Massachussetts, a suburban Jewish community, Alper is now a devout Jew who has spent significant chunks of time living in Israel. He moved to Berkeley in 1984 and helped launch the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco in 2001.

Alper was among a slew of writers recently honored at the Berkeley Public Library Foundation’s Authors Dinner. We met this week for a chat at his North Berkeley home, which boasts panoramic views of the Bay.

Why start a bagel business in Berkeley?

It was my brother’s idea. The bagels in the Bay Area at the time weren’t good, and this is the gourmet capital of the country. There was demand.

Can you describe the early days?

I used to love driving to the College Avenue store and seeing the line beginning to form in the morning. For Jews and gentiles this was the real deal, their temple for New York-style lox and bagels.

What accounts for the success of Noah’s Bagels?

It was the right product at the right time. Bagels were beginning to become mainstream in America, in the way that pizza had become a staple.

We treated employees with respect and my brother, who joined the business, and I knew what we didn’t know and found excellent people to plug those gaps in our skills or knowledge.

And people really responded to our commitment to the communities we were in.

How important was it to you to run an authentically Jewish business?

I wanted  everyone to feel comfortable in the store, from the most orthodox to the most secular Jews, as well as gentiles too, of course. So we had challahs on Fridays, closed for Passover, and had a tzedaka [charity] box in every store. We were also the largest kosher retailer in the U.S. when we sold the business.

What is a business mensch and why this book?

Mensch in Yiddish means a decent, upstanding individual. The fundamental message of my book is that doing good is good for business. These things are not mutually exclusive. I wrote the book because I had a story I wanted to share, business principles I wanted to pass on, and a legacy I wanted to leave for any grandchildren who come along.

Can you give some examples of doing good from your days running Noah’s?

In the beginning, I would personally drop off leftover bagels in People’s Park. As the business grew, we developed a more sophisticated donation system.

My employees were encouraged to eat as much food as they wanted and I asked for their input.

Before we opened a store we did community service in the area. Employees got paid for the day. It built bonds between workers and created goodwill in the community. We had half the employee turnover of any other quick-service retailer here.

Did your father, a food broker from New England, influence your work?

My dad taught me to give to the community and it will give back to you. He’s my model for a business mensch. His mottos included “retail is detail” and “repetition is reputation.”

How did your time in the psychiatric hospital inform who you are today?

I was a wreck when I got there: delusional, manic, paranoid. I couldn’t figure out if I was a campus radical who was going to be part of the revolution — during the Vietnam War there was a war at home too — or whether I was going to sell tuna fish like my father.

I came through that experience with greater inner strength, more confidence, and a drive and determination to rebuild my life. They’re all good skills for business.

What advice do you have for budding food entrepreneurs?

Follow your passion but be practical too. If it’s a retail endeavor: location, location, location. If it’s a product, ask yourself the tough question: is this a hobby or a business? And don’t quit your day job until you have a business plan in place.

What do you think of the bagels sold at Noah’s now?

They’re too soft and too pale. Bagels should be crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and dark. We used a premium, high-gluten flour for our bagels.

People ask me if I care about what’s happened to the company but the truth is, it’s not my company any more and they’ve gone from 38 stores to 77 and they’re doing well.

If I mind anything about the new ownership it’s not that they’re not kosher or that they sell bacon it’s that they screwed up the bagel. Why mess with success?

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was cross posted on SFGate.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane Boursaw February 26, 2011 at 7:47 pm

What an amazing, inspiring story. I love that he came through the psychiatric experience with strength and drive and determination to rebuild his life.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Apollo 18- Creepy- Terrifying- Awesome

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Sarah Henry February 26, 2011 at 10:12 pm

And I love how matter-of-fact he is about the experience, which I think is a service to folks everywhere who have faced mental illness.

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Melanie Haiken March 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I love learning the background of someone I only know as a name on a shop I frequent. And I appreciate your mentioning his early experience with mental illness. I’m currently researching the connection between pot and onset of schizophrenia and wonder if that’s what happened to Noah?

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