How This 'Shark Tank' Champ Is Building a Bagel Balls Empire
If you walk into Bantam Bagels' cozy store in New York City's West Village, you could easily make the mistake of thinking it is just another mom-and-pop bagel shop. However, that would vastly underestimate the drive of the owners, Elyse and Nick Oleksak, and – most importantly – the power of the stuffed bagel ball.
"I just saw you on TV!" one customer says to Elyse, who is working the counter, shattering any illusion that this is just another neighborhood bagelry.
Elyse, who has heard at least three people make variations of this comment in the last half hour – including a tourist from Texas and a dad buying bagel balls for his daughter – just smiles back and starts talking up the different flavors. Bagel balls are essentially the bagel-version of donut holes, filled with a variety of spreads.
"This one is Oprah's favorite," she tells the customer, pointing to a salt-sprinkled bagel ball with a cream-cheese filling.
While Elyse still sometimes works behind the counter and Nick hasn't quit his day job in finance, Bantam Bagels is a much bigger business than it would appear. It's a thriving catering service, a huge online company and is angling to become a wholesale supplier to stores like Walmart. And, it's only getting bigger: last week, Elyse and Nick appeared on Shark Tank and walked away with a $275,000 investment from Lori Greiner in exchange for 25 percent of the company.
A little over two years ago, Shark Tank also helped spark the creation of Bantam Bagels. "We both came from backgrounds on Wall Street and have always been interested in… entrepreneurial opportunities, mostly – and this sounds crazy – but, mostly inspired by Shark Tank," says Elyse. "We both love that show and were always trying to come up with, 'What can we do?' and 'What's our idea?'"
Nearly every day, Nick would tell Elyse his ideas for a Shark Tank-worthy product. She vetoed them all, until one morning he called her about a concept he had quickly typed on his phone in the middle of the night. The product: mini stuffed bagel balls.
"It was the first time I actually stopped and said, 'I love that,'" says Elyse. "Actually, more, 'I want that.'"
Once the idea was born, the Oleksaks couldn't stop working on it. They immediately began testing recipes for bagel balls, filling homemade bagels with cream cheese in a store-bought pastry gun. At night, the pair would test different recipes, and the next day Nick would bring them into work. With hungry coworkers' encouragement, the couple decided to take the plunge and write up a business plan. Soon, Nick and Elyse were raising capital from investors and planning the opening of the West Village shop.
"Once you raise the first dollar, you're in," says Elyse, who quit her job in finance in summer of 2013 to focus on Bantam Bagels full time.
While the New York City bagel shop, which opened in September 2013, was a huge business boost, it was never the end goal Bantam Bagels. With the lessons learned from watching countless hours of Shark Tank (Elyse says they've seen every episode), Elyse and Nick knew if they wanted to make Bantam Bagels big, they had to create a business that was more than simply a bakery. So, the duo started selling frozen bagel balls online to customers around the U.S.
"We always knew [the bakery] was going to be our starting point," says Elyse. "Inspired by Shark Tank, we were always envisioning big, huge."
The Oleksaks' dreams of a Shark Tank appearance came true in the summer of 2014. The pair entered the tank, nervous, but armed with countless Excel spreadsheets, study guides and a concrete game plan. They knew they wanted to attract the attention of QVC queen Lori Greiner and that they couldn't afford to give up more than 26 percent of the company, since other investors already owned 23 percent of the Bantam Bagels. While all of the judges loved the concept, Greiner fell hardest, paying up $275,000 for a fourth of the company and coming on as a strategic adviser.
"We talk to [Lori] nearly every day," says Elyse. "From the day we closed our deal with her, she said, alright, let's have a strategy call, what are we targeting, what are we doing?"
Since the episode was filmed last summer, Greiner's investment has led to huge changes at Bantam Bagels, even though her involvement had to be kept under wraps. The Oleksaks, knowing that a Shark Tank customer bump was coming when the episode aired, but not sure of the exact date, made increasing production capacities the No. 1 priority. Having bagel balls to spare paid off big when Oprah named the filled bagel balls one of her favorite things in 2014, leading to an avalanche of orders due to the "Oprah Effect" that Bantam was luckily prepared to fill.
Now that the Shark Tank episode is out for the world to see, Bantam Bagels is ready to undergo another business growth spurt. Today, the Oleksaks are focusing on expanding efforts to reach customers directly via online sales and getting into the wholesale market. Seeing as the business has gone from a note on Nick's phone to a multi-faceted bagel ball empire in less than three years, don't be surprised if you soon start seeing Bantam Bagels in your local Walmart.
"I'll put it this way: having a baby felt really easy [compared to starting a business,]" says Elyse on the astronomical rise of Bantam Bagels. "But, it's also the most rewarding thing in the world."
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