From psych ward to bagel mensch

Mensch Noah Alper believes that doing good is good for business./Photo: Tom Lux

Noah Alper started his bagel business with a single storefront on College Avenue 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?

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

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  • http://twitter.com/Weezus Rachel A.

    Thanks for the article. I’m particularly grateful for Mr. Alper’s (it’s hard not to call him, chummily, “Noah” as if we’re old friends) frank assessment of the current bagel at “Noah’s Bagels”. Amidst a world of “spin” I’m always glad to hear someone speak truth to (fl)our. Those bagels are so bad.

  • Daniel M.

    Where does one go for a good bagel in Berkeley?

  • Bruce Love

    @Daniel: to a travel agent.

    (Kidding. :-)

  • gtp

    While the article was a good, compelling one, I am offended by your terribly conceived title. I almost expected the subject to be a raving lunatic whose otherwise good karma ensured his rise to bagel king. Members of my family have had mental illness or emotional instability or clinical depression and I know that they would have been offended by the cutesification of their situation. I strongly suggest you change your title.

  • Jean-Marie

    Alper’s story is a compelling story. Thanks for the article. But: the title of the article is a little hyperbolic, don’t you think? How much does it really have to do with his story? The title gets clicks for Berkeleyside, but is it really central to Alper’s narrative?

  • tizzielish

    I am glad I read this story all the way to the end. As others have pointed out, the title of the article, referencing the psych ward, is unappealing, to say the least.

    But reading the story had great rewards. I did not know Noah’s got started in Berkeley. And I didn’t know that Noah’s used to sell good bagels. I am glad to read that the founder of Noah’s does not like the bread rolls Noah’s sells today.

    Where to get a good bagel in Berkeley? I expect a bagel to be hard on the outside, chewy and dense on the inside. I have not found such a bagel in Berkeley but finding a great bagel is not important to me. There is a bagel shop in downtown Palo Alto, on their main drag, but almost at the far end (walking from Caltrain east, i.e. away from Stanford) that sells what I consider real bagels. That’s the only bagel shop I have found in five years of living in the Bay Area that tastes like a real bagel to me. I don’t really know what a real bagel is but I know that the rolls sold at Noah’s these days called bagels are not bagels: they are cheap bread rolls made with cheap ingredients: you can taste the cheapness, feel the cheapness.

    Thanks for this story. It’s a great one.

  • Simon

    I miss Ristorante Raphael. I’m surprised it went under. The food was fantastic and I saw it crammed full of customers many times.

    @ Daniel
    I like the bagels made at Berkeley Bagels located at Gilman and Santa Fe Aves. Although the service there can be hit or miss, the bagels are good. They are the closest to what tizzielish describes as a “real bagel.” The best bagels in the bay area, though are in Santa Cruz at the Bagelry!

  • http://lettuceeatkale.wordpress.com/ Sarah Henry

    Folks:

    I asked Noah Alper about where to pick up decent bagels in the Bay Area and he mentioned a kosher place in Palo Alto (assuming it’s the same one @tizzielish references above) on California Avenue called Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels: http://www.izzysbrooklynbagels.com/index.php

    As for the headline to this post: If you’ve read Alper’s book you’ll know he writes matter-of-factly about when his parents committed him to a psychiatric hospital. He talks about it without stigma, too. He even mentioned that he thought a good subtitle for his book might have been something like from Meshuga [crazy] to Millions. So no offense was meant in choosing the title for this story. It was simply an indication of the journey he’s taken and the obstacles he’s overcome.

    In my experience interacting with people dealing with mental illness they’ll often use terms bandied about in the wider society — like crazy — to describe themselves to strip the language of negative connotations in the same way some gay or lesbian people freely use the terms fag or dyke.

    A dear friend who has spent several stints in what she jokingly calls the “loony bin” effectively takes the sting out of that term by choosing to claim it as her own.

  • Dan Alpert

    I’m with you, Sarah, but if you thought the title got people’s dander up, wait til they start commenting on your explanation! Anyway, in my view, another great story — thanks!

  • Robert

    I agree with Simon: Berkeley Bagels, formerly Boogie Woogie Bagels, has the best in the East Bay that I’ve tried. They may not be traditional New York style, but they are dense, chewy, and delicious. I especially like their many varieties made with whole wheat flour.

  • rikkitikkitavi

    I’m recovering from severe mental illness, and the title doesn’t bother me. Very much to the contrary, in fact. I like it when people, especially successful people, are open about the mental health challenges they have faced and overcome – it goes a great way towards destigmatizing mental illness.

  • merr

    Ah! Noah’s bagels…we are fans. There used to be a store near our house…a long time ago. I didn’t know the rest of the story, about Bread & Circus and more. Sounds like the book will fill in the pieces. It sounds like such an interesting journey/story.

  • laura menard

    mental illness stigma- past time for such nonsense to end

    mental illness is simply the dis-regulation of neurotransmitters
    which is why treatment is usually effective, and a psych ward is necessary

  • Sheryl

    I’m used to good old New York bagels (none others like ‘em) , but am willing to try a Noah’s bagel the next time I’m in California (even though they’re too soft and pale according to Alper). I’m very curious!

  • Joan

    Responding to Simon and Robert, I also think Berkeley Bagels is the best. Before it was Boogie Woogie Bagel Boy (an unfortunate name) it was for years Brothers Bagels.
    I have a tad less sympathy for Noah, since I heard he puts his dog in the trunk of his car, but I’m sure he’s basically a good guy.

  • Allyson B.

    Thanks for the article…I enjoyed it.

    As for bagels, I am very picky and I agree that Berkeley Bagels on Gilman is the best in Berkeley. They sell individual Berkeley Bagels at the Beanery on College Ave, if you are closer to there. And Marin Bagel Company, which you can get at Berkeley Bowl, also makes great bagels!

  • http://mothering.com/jennifermargulis/ Jennifer Margulis

    I enjoyed Noah’s Bagels when I lived in the Bay Area, though I didn’t find them as good as New York City’s (I’m an East Coast Jew, what can I say?). This back story about his life is so interesting…

  • DA

    I believe Berkeley Bowl no longer carries Marin Bagel Company bagels, but Berkeley Bagels instead. There are some pretty good bagels in Walnut Creek on Locust Street, “House of Bagels”…a lot closer than Palo Alto!

  • Gin1423

    The bagels from Marin Bagel are still available at Andronicos and I had half a one, sesame seed this afternoon.
    Other than that I really prefer the bagels from North Sore Bagel and Bialy in Skokie, Illinois.

  • Shawn

    House of Bagels are the closest to real New York Bagels. You can get them at Cafe Zoe on College Avenue. 

  • Shawn

    Where to get a good bagel in Berkeley? Cafe Zoe on College Avenue just started serving House of Bagels out of San Francisco. Marin Bagel Co is now a part of them. They are great New York style (boiled) bagels.