A recipe for success

ByTOM TUGEND
September 30, 2009 15:56

A recipe for success




Business Mensch Timeless Wisdom for Today's Entrepreneur By Noah Alper with Thomas Fields-Meyer | Wolfeboro Press |167 pages; $14.95 In the age of Bernard Madoff and disembodied option menus in lieu of personal customer service, the term "business mensch" may strike most consumers as an oxymoron. Yet Noah Alper - as in Noah's Bagels - has dared to use the words as the title of his book, clearly following the advice of his first chapter heading, "Have a Little Chutzpah." Alper's guiding philosophy is "doing the right thing is good for business," and he coins aphorisms as easily as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. But in contrast to the hapless milkman, Alper is a born entrepreneur. He opened his first eponymous bagel store in Berkeley in 1989 and within six years expanded it into the US's largest kosher retailer with 38 stores. He sold the chain for $100 million and "retired" at 50. Obviously, you don't become that kind of success merely by being a decent human being, and among Alper's other useful sayings are: "A mensch is not a pushover" and "Be a mensch, but watch the bottom line." Somewhat in the style of the seven Noahide commandments, Alper divides his book into seven chapters, or seven guidelines, for the would-be business mensch. Chapter headings for the book, written with Thomas Fields-Meyer, include "Discover Yourself," "It Takes a Shtetl," "Come Back Stronger" and, finally, "Remember the Sabbath," on the importance of taking a regular break from work. Being a mensch, in Alper's view, is to treat your employees respectfully, focus "like a laser beam" on customer service and keep things kosher, literally and figuratively. Simple enough precepts, the only problem being how to practice them in an increasingly globalized and impersonal world, where the gap between the floor clerk and the CEO, maybe living on another continent, yawns wider every year. A difficult challenge, but it can be done, Alper says in a phone interview, citing as an example Trader Joe's stores. "You have great products there, but the real difference is an attitude of service," Alper says. "That probably doesn't come from higher pay, but from an attitude nourished at the top and all the way down the line." Alper used all these precepts and ingredients in opening the first Noah's Bagels in Berkeley, which was an immediate success, and subsequent stores. As a recognized expert on the topic, Alper puts little stock in the urban legend that the only real bagels worth chewing are made in New York and that it's the water that makes the difference. "I had a chemist analyze water samples from New York and Berkeley and there was no difference," he says. "What makes the difference is competition, with each bagel maker trying to top the other and develop his own specialty. That, plus high-quality ingredients and attention to detail." Before Alper founded Noah's Bagels he had established Bread & Circus, featuring natural food and wooden kitchen utensils. He sold this enterprise profitably, but he had his failures, too. After selling Noah's Bagels, Alper took his family to Israel for a year, studied at a yeshiva and returned determined to help the Jewish state economically. He opened a store and catalog service, Gifts from the Holy Land, catering especially to evangelical Christians in such items as crucifixes, holy water and other religious artifacts. The concept was a failure, and Alper analyzed the causes. "I didn't know my customers, I didn't invest enough money and I let my emotions cloud my business management." He never made the same mistakes again. Alper is still amazed how the humble bagel, like pizza, has evolved from an ethnic import into an all-American staple. "I was in Kotzebue, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle, I walked into a coffee shop and there they served me bagels," he marvels. He dates the spectacular ascent of the bagel to the 1980s and attributes it to three factors: The introduction of frozen bagels in supermarkets across the US; the carbon load craze of the time; and the fact that Americans are always looking for something new. At 62, Alper is applying his business savvy and menschlichkeit to other endeavors. He founded the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in Berkeley and serves on its board, advises start-up entrepreneurs, lectures widely, is a student adviser at Stanford and is a biking enthusiast. But he is still an entrepreneur, and, as for most everything else, he has a definition. "To be a successful entrepreneur, you don't need to be an expert," he writes. "You don't have to come up with an invention or create a new computer. All you need is a good idea at the right time - and the hutzpa to get it off the ground."

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