Interview with the Founders of Shark Tank Food Startup Bantam Bagels
Former Wall St. bankers Nick and Elyse Oleksak talk entrepreneurship
“Find the hole, bite the hole.” That’s the recommended way to eat a Bantam Bagel, the same way you’d devour a jelly doughnut. The brand that shot to fame on ABC’s reality business TV show Shark Tank has penetrated over 16,000 grocery stores nationwide in addition to retailing at over 7,700 Starbucks cafés.
The mini stuffed bagel balls are also served to first class customers on select Delta Airlines flights and at hotels like Hyatt, Hilton and Four Seasons properties.
“Food is so personal and we feel lucky to be able to connect with our customers every day in the most personal ways through the products we take so much pride in making,” the husband-and-wife co-founders, Nick and Elyse Oleksak, wrote on their website.
After their Shark Tank episode aired, the brand was approached by a Starbucks regional director to supply three flavors of their bagels in 500 stores across New York City. The Oleksaks spent that game-changing summer in 2015 visiting various branches, handing out samples and hearing feedback firsthand from their customers.
Arguably, their vast retail network and Shark Tank-facilitated brand reputation no longer necessitates such legwork, but the entrepreneurs have maintained their habit of meeting retail buyers personally, stocking grocery store shelves each time the product debuts under a new retailer and meeting customers in the process.
In October last year, the company was acquired for $34 million by T. Marzetti, a specialty foods business and subsidiary of Lancaster Colony Corp., but Nick and Elyse say their day-to-day running of the company hasn’t changed.
“People like to connect and see the reality behind what they’re consuming,” Elyse told CCW Digital. “Stories that are told on TV feel very big, but when we’re in person we like to be the authentic story behind everything they’re seeing.”
On a recent visit to a Wegmans Food Market in New Jersey to meet with the manager of frozen foods, they were approached three times while stocking their product in the freezer by shoppers who recognized them from the Emmy-winning TV show.
“We just engaged them in regular people conversation,” said Elyse. “Being authentic about our product, about what we were doing – they caught us in action, practicing what we preach.”
It’s part of their approach to put a face and a story to the brand – namely, that of two passionate entrepreneurs who relinquished six-figure jobs on Wall Street to bank on a product they’d spent two years feverishly tinkering with in their Brooklyn kitchen. Neither of them had any experience with culinary or baking, so the first thing they did after Nick woke up one morning with a business idea that would change their lives was Google how to make bagels.
“We were looking to take something iconic and keep it iconic and preserve what makes a bagel great,” Elyse explained. “We just wanted to repackage it in a way that’s easier to eat, is portion-controlled and gives you a little burst of excitement.”
Shark Tank mogul Lori Greiner, who invested $275,000 in exchange for a 25 percent share of the business, clamored to change the ‘Bantam’ brand name to the more colloquial Bagel Stuffins, but the name underperformed when test-marketed. It lacked the familiarity and imagery of ‘bantam,’ which means small yet combative. Notably, the bantam rooster is a diminutive breed of chicken known for its aggression.
“We’re the little guys that pack an extra punch,” Elyse explained. The racquet ball-sized bagels are available in nearly two dozen flavors, the most popular one being the everything bagel stuffed with vegetable cream cheese. The couple also added stuffed Egg bites and stuffed pancakes to their product line.
The ‘Shark Tank effect’ is a well-reported pop culture phenomenon where even business ideas unanimously rejected by the Sharks go on to become at least quasi-successful brands from airing on a Friday night, prime-time TV slot. Common sense rules that there’s no such thing as an overnight success, and that’s exactly why the Shark Tank effect is so fascinating. Thirty seconds into the airing of their segment, the Bantam Bagels website crashed from an excess of site visitors.
Before the show, their bakery ovens cranked out between one and two thousand stuffed mini bagel balls per day; but within five minutes of their TV slot, they had sold 100,000 of them.
Fulfilling every last customer order in the wake of their TV appearance was a make-it-or-break it juncture for the entrepreneurs. Pregnant at the time, Elsye quit her job at Morgan Stanley to focus on Bantam full-time, while Nick kept his job as a credit broker and worked from 3am-6am in the bakery and again from 6-9pm, when he would drive bagels out to Long Island in a frozen truck.
In the first nine months of doing business, the Oleksaks raked in $200,000 in sales. In the eight months after Shark Tank, they bagged $2.1 million in sales. Today, they’re averaging around $20 million per year, notching their place as one of the most successful food startups from the show.
“The Shark Tank effect is definitely real,” said Nick. “Something that we took away from that experience was that the Shark Tank customer is the best customer out there. They see you on the show and they just believe in your product and they want to support you.”
He attributes it to a growing acceptance of and reverence for the entrepreneurial lifestyle, evidenced by a surge in venture capital investment of $148 billion in 2017.
Currently, the couple are renovating their Bleecker Street bakery to put it at the center of the Bantam experience. Already something of a tourist attraction for NYC tourists and locals alike who’ve seen the couple on Shark Tank, the bakery draws customers into the fold of “where it all began and experiencing the motivation that lit up this journey from the beginning.”
Listening to Elyse explain the” “Bantam experience” it’s hard not to be roped in, and easy to see why it’s often said that food is a culture.
“The Bantam experience is a moment of Saturday morning coziness,” she said. “We take things that are iconic, that feel like Saturday or like a snow day, like a bagel, pancake or breakfast sandwich, and we take that iconic food and shrink it down and make it in the palm of your hand and accessible so you can bring it with you on your way to work or whatever you’re doing.”