Alex Brandwein began selling homemade bagels in August 2019 at Midway Community Kitchen on West Rosemary Street. In February, just five months after the establishment of Brandwein’s Bagels, he signed a lease to make it the business’ permanent location.
Brandwein, a native New Yorker, came to UNC in 2018 to pursue an MBA at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and intended to concentrate on real estate.
Before coming to Chapel Hill, he completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then worked in real estate private equity and investment banking for eight years in Chicago and New York City. However, he got "New Yorked-out," as he put it.
“There were thoughts of becoming a high school teacher, and I even went to meet with my old social studies teacher and he said, ‘Just, before you become a shepherd and start growing avocados, take a pause, go to business school; there are other ways to do business besides what you’re doing in Midtown Manhattan,'” Brandwein said.
In December 2019, Brandwein was accepted into the Adams Apprenticeship, a program of UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Entrepreneurship Center. Each year, 20 to 30 students are selected for this year-long program that provides support for entrepreneurially-minded students.
“These are folks who are really committed to an entrepreneurial career path," Jill Willett, director of the Adams Apprenticeship, said.
When Brandwein arrived in Chapel Hill, he said he was shocked that there was no local bagel shop off campus considering he was used to eating a bagel every day.
He noticed how well Bodo’s Bagels in Charlottesville, Virginia had done, and since Charlottesville has a smaller population than the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, he pondered opening his own shop.
“I didn’t know what it meant, I didn’t know if I was the one to go do it, I just thought it was a good idea," he said.
Brandwein said he made his first batch of bagels from a pre-packaged mix in November 2019, and then began researching recipes and making bagels from scratch.
For his MBA internship, he said he chose to work at a bagel shop instead of taking a more traditional, high-paying corporate path.
“It was like an unsexy decision, it was a decision to sling bagels at 3 o’clock every morning,” Willett said.
Brandwein said his experience at his internship showed him that he wanted to launch his own bagel business.
“I love being in the kitchen, I love being behind the scenes, I love that feeling that you finish and you’re sweaty and you’re tired, but it felt like a job well done at the end of the day and that sort of meant everything to me," he said.
At his first pop-up, he baked all the bagels himself and had a team of friends and advisers helping him distribute them. He sold out of 625 bagels.
Willet said there was a line out the door for four hours.
“It was a crazy day,” Brandwein said.
After the first pop-up shop, Brandwein’s Bagels held two more in the following weeks. He also began selling bagels in the Pit and Fraternity Court at UNC. He called the pop-ups at Midway Community Kitchen ‘full pop-ups’ because they boast full menus, whereas the pop-ups in Fraternity Court and the Pit mainly sell bagels with cream cheese.
Brandwein’s Bagels has also staged pop-ups where portions of the proceeds go to charitable organizations, like Camp Kesem and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
UNC junior Caroline Norwood volunteers with these organizations and has since worked at regular pop-ups as well.
“Students come out, families come out, and Alex is just so great with everyone. Everyone loves him, everyone loves the bagels, and it’s just so fun, I’m so excited for it to be a permanent thing,” Norwood said.
Brandwein’s Bagels has two full-time employees, including himself, and he sources a lot of help for pop-ups from volunteers.
“People like Caroline that, taking time out of her day to wake up at six in the morning and to come here just to help, I will never be able to thank her and those people enough,” he said.
Brandwein said he wants the shop to be a pleasant experience for customers, with a focus on the atmosphere as well as the bagels.
“It’s been such a good mix of students and people, locals from the community and you see parents with children and you see retirees, it’s just this sort of community gathering place,” he said.
Brandwein said he has also been embraced by the local business community, including Purple Bowl manager Paula Gilland and Scott Maitland, founder of Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery.
“It’s felt like a big hug,” he said. “Every single person I connect with, it feels like they have two other people they want to introduce me to and they follow up and they follow through. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
At the last pop-up, he said Brandwein’s Bagels sold out of 1,200 bagels in a little over two hours. He said he is holding off staging pop-ups for a while and focusing on catering while he renovates the shop space. He hopes the shop will open full-time this summer or fall.
“I can’t believe it," Brandwein said. "Even just seeing the logo gives me chills because it feels like a dream.”
Willett spoke to his drive, persistence and commitment as sources of his success.
“There’s just no ego there," she said. "He just wants to be the best person and entrepreneur and make the best bagels that he can."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.