Shark Tank appearance: Jan. 9, 2015
Investor: Lori Greiner
Deal: $275,000 for a 25 percent stake
Results: Sales increased from $200,000 in the nine months before Shark Tank to more than $2.1 million in the first eight months after the episode aired.
It was a bagel debacle. In September 2015, two years after Nick and Elyse Oleksak launched Bantam Bagels at a storefront in New York City’s West Village and nine months after their appearance on Shark Tank, the couple had reached a crucial point. They were introducing their mini cream cheese-filled snacks at 32 Starbucks stores. To meet the new demand, the couple had moved their wholesale operations to a new commercial kitchen.
But as they worked to fill that first order, something was seriously awry. The bagels weren’t rising to perfect spheres, and their taste and texture were off. “We were throwing out batch after batch after batch,” Elyse says. “We couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Yeast is a living being. It reacts to every tiny thing, and the humidity levels, air conditioning and ceiling height were all different at this new kitchen.”
Working nonstop beside the bakery staff and tweaking things like the water temperature, Elyse and Nick got the bagels to behave barely in time to meet their delivery deadline. It felt as arduous and terrifying as climbing Mount Everest, Elyse says: “There’s nothing scarier for entrepreneurs than feeling you might miss the boat on a big opportunity.”
That incident serves as an example of managing growth, which Nick says is the biggest challenge for small businesses, especially the ones lucky enough to nab a spot on ABC’s Emmy-winning reality business show. “From the very beginning, we’ve been focused on how to manage growth smartly,” Nick says. “We’re always so nervous about the next decision that we don’t sleep. Every decision that Elyse and I make is gut-wrenching and scary.”
“If we’re going to take the next steps to expand the business, each one of those steps has to be done right.”
There have been missteps. For example, when Bantam Bagels was just 2 months old, the company introduced a frozen version in two independent grocery stores in Brooklyn. “We thought, This is it! We’ve made it!” Nick recalls. But the product was placed in the refrigerated section rather than the freezer aisle, the packaging was difficult to read, and there was no product promotion. “That taught us that if we’re going to take the next steps to expand the business, each one of those steps has to be done right,” Nick says.
Their Shark investor, Lori Greiner, has helped them avoid problems. “Lori can really help you through the muck of growing your business,” Elyse says. “She’s navigated these waters before, so whether it’s avoiding certain fees that distributors might otherwise charge you or making your product stand out on the shelf, Lori has incredible expertise.”
Greiner, whose background includes building retail brands such as Scrub Daddy, Squatty Potty and Drop Stop, has been an open and collaborative partner, say the Oleksaks, who met at New York’s Columbia University and worked on Wall Street before becoming entrepreneurs. Greiner had felt very strongly that the name Bantam Bagels needed to be changed. “I don’t like the name because I don’t think it describes what it is,” she told the couple. Nick and Elyse want to see their compact snacks in the freezer section of every supermarket and big-box store. In that competitive environment, Greiner says, you have only seconds for the public to understand what you’re selling.
But the name she favored, Bagel Stuffins, demonstrated weaker impact when test-marketed. “Customers really preferred the heritage and authenticity of Bantam Bagels,” Nick says. Instead of changing the name, they changed the packaging to include photography that shows an inside view of the stuffed snacks. Greiner was fully on board this journey with us, Elyse says. “What makes our working relationship so great is that while we have our opinions and Lori has her opinions, we make decisions as a team, and we approach them with an open mind.”
Today some 60,000 Bantam Bagels are produced daily. They’re sold at 1,500 Starbucks locations on the East and West Coasts, in first class on some Delta Airlines flights, and at hotels such as Hyatt, Hilton and Four Seasons properties. The tiny Manhattan shop has become something of a tourist destination, and it also drives a healthy catering business that provides bagels as well as yogurt parfaits and fruit salads for events such as corporate breakfasts. Sales on QVC, which began before Shark Tank, remain strong.
Still, the Oleksaks say this is just the beginning. “Our goal is to be in our customers’ everyday lives,” Nick says. “We want to see people stopping in at Starbucks in the morning for a Bantam Bagel with their coffee and then making another stop at the grocery store on the way home from work to pick up a package of Bantam Bagels for the family.”
Related: 10 Steps to Achieve Any Goal
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.