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Faith, social activism and a bit of ‘mazel’ made Noah’s Bagels founder a success

Noah Alper, founder of Noah’s Bagels, talks to students at Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island on Thursday, April 15. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Noah Alper, founder of Noah’s Bagels, talks to students at Northwest Yeshiva High School on Mercer Island on Thursday, April 15.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

At first, it might be hard to understand the twin identities of Noah Alper: the businessman behind Noah’s Bagels, and Alper, the man of faith. But last Thursday morning, Alper, the highly successful founder of Noah’s Bagels and other businesses, spoke to students at Northwest Yeshiva High School about how both aspects brought him success and enlightenment.

The Yeshiva students were eager to hear every morsel of advice.

Raised in Brooking, Mass., Alper told the students more than once that he grew up in a Jewish but secular household. However, it was the influence of a father, who was definitely spiritual but somewhat of a nonconformist when it came to any organized religion, that shaped his life.

But first, he said, a little ancient history.

Alper said he had to start at the beginning. His generation, that of the 1960s, was the “loud” generation, he said. “We were called the Boomers for good reason.”

“As we came of age during the 1960s, we were concerned about social and political causes of the time,” he explained. “Then, as we grew older and gained responsibilities, we took those values and gave them a twist.”

Alper began his retail ventures just as Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream took off. He credits Ben and Jerry’s with starting the movement that helped him in his own ventures by way of introducing the concepts of social or issue marketing — an evolution of the activism of the 1960s.

Alper also founded six other ventures, including the Massachusetts grocery store company, Bread & Circus, once the Northeast’s largest natural foods chain and now part of Whole Foods Market.

But it was Alper’s brother who got him thinking about bagels, he said. His brother had seen a bagel shop in Berkeley, Calif., in 1988 and told Alper that he should start one.

He did not start out thinking that the first store would lead to a chain. “I just wanted it to become just one great store.”

It became kosher after an extended trip that he took to Israel where he finally began to embrace his faith. He had a wish that his rabbi could come to his business and have a kosher meal with him.

Besides, he added, the kosher aspect would be good for business.

“Customers — Jewish or not — would know that an authentic bagel was one that was kosher and from New York.”

By 1995, Noah’s had expanded to 38 stores primarily in the western United States. Starbucks bought in at 25 percent, bringing additional capital for expansion.

Then the skies darkened.

A bagel start-up called Einstein Brothers, formed by the growing food conglomerate, Boston Market, had entered the growing western U.S. market for specialty foods.

The financing behind Einstein Brothers was too big to ignore, Alper said. Einstein wanted to buy Noah’s. But Alper and his partners hesitated to sell.

“Our business was like family to us,” he remembered. After holding out for a year while still building the chain, Alper and his partners agreed to sell Noah’s to Einstein for $100 million in 1995. At that time, it was the largest kosher retailer in the United States. Einstein now owns 77 Noah’s stores, but only one remains kosher: the store at University Village in Seattle.

After the sale, Alper — who holds a degree in economics — moved to Israel for a year to study at a yeshiva. “It was the best year of my life,” he told the students.

Alper repeatedly referred to the lessons and values passed on by his father. Also important, he said, were the lessons he learned from the 1960s and beyond. He considers the role of social entrepreneur as the key to a successful business. If you take care of the community, the community will take care of you.

“Cause marketing,” he said, the promoting of ideas, such as cutting down on waste, “gives similar results.”

Alper said his businesses rode these concepts, fairly new at the time, to success.

Noah’s promoted ‘ride your bike to work day,’ ‘bring a book day,’ and ‘send a kid to camp day,’ telling customers that “we will give you something for your efforts.”

The accountants wrung their hands, he smiled.

“They worried if we would be getting a return on our investments on the dollars we gave away. But we did,” Alper said. “We gained immeasurable loyalty.”

“The corporate world has to be part of the global community, a full citizen. We [the corporate world] have had to admit that we have been part of some problems. Incorporating social values is the only way to perfect the kind of society we want to live in,” Alper said. Encouraging those values is not inconsistent with making money.

“We do good because it is good for business.”

Yeshiva juniors, Sarah Varon, Molly Dubow and Elie Aboulafia hung around after the talk to have their photo taken with the business mensch. They were impressed how the stores dealt with closing on Jewish holy days. Others marveled how often Alper had changed businesses and adapted.

Alper was impressed by how attentive the students were. “They just didn’t think, ‘who is this old guy,’” he commented.

Alper himself has invested in Jewish education. He is part of a group that has begun a community day school in San Francisco called Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

He told the Northwest Yeshiva students more than once: “this education, this place — it is a jewel.”

Alper has written a book about his experiences and what he has learned, entitled, “Business Mensch.” It is available in both book form and on Kindle. For more information, go to www.businessmensch.net.

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