Ultimate Bagels’ Alex Weinstein Looks Back After First Year in Biz

 Originally published Nov. 5, 2010 in The Daily Sound.

Next Thursday, November 11, represents two important anniversaries for Alex Weinstein. Not only is it his 25th birthday, but it’s the one-year anniversary of when he opened Ultimate Bagels for business.

While turning 25 is certainly a significant event, successfully opening and keeping a business going on ever-shifting State Street is a milestone in its own right. It’s a challenge that Weinstein has tackled with an energy that’s indicative of his youth, coupled with a dedication to customer and community that perhaps belie his age.

Early Prep

Weinstein starts his days at 3 a.m.

“I have three alarm clocks, strategically placed around the room,” he told The Sound. “The bagels are on an automatic timer. I can’t afford to come in late, or the bagels will be ruined.”

By 3:30 a.m. he’s at the shop, firing up the ovens, after which he bakes “a few hundred bagels,” places them on racks to cool, and starts prepping bags for his wholesale customers. Many of these orders are heading out to Isla Vista locations, including on-campus UCSB locations. It’s an interesting callback to the origins of Ultimate Bagels.

Weinstein, as a sophomore attending UCSB, was often a customer at Bagel Café, the very popular Isla Vista bagel shop. The shop, deservedly, had huge crowds—but sometimes more customers than it could handle at a high level of service. Accordingly, Weinstein began thinking that there was room for more than one bagel vendor in Isla Vista.

“Friday, Saturday, and Sunday you could easily wait half an hour for a bagel,” Weinstein said. “The original thought was to open out there and give Bagel Café a run for its money.”

From that point on, Weinstein was brainstorming ways to make his entrepreneurial aspirations come true. As a valet at the Four Seasons, he’d draw diagrams of how he envisioned his bagel shop between customers. He started talking to bagel-makers from Los Angeles to Palo Alto, bouncing ideas off of them and trying to learn their philosophies. He also took advantage of UCSB’s Technology Management Program, through which Weinstein earned a Technology Entrepreneurship Certificate. Through this program, Weinstein made contacts with local business leaders and entrepreneurs, and considers their guidance an invaluable part of his business education.

“Every student who I talk to, I always tell them to take those classes,” he said. “They are taught by the some of the best people, not even professors, just businesspeople in the area who want to help young entrepreneurs succeed. I still use some of those resources today.”

As Weinstein was prepared to graduate from UCSB with a degree in business, he was planning ahead to make this dream a reality. But he had another daunting step before he could open his bagel shop: he needed to learn to bake. The place to attend was the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kansas (“the little apple,” Weinstein joked). The only problem? The six-month program’s prerequisite was to have two years of professional baking experience. Weinstein managed to waive this requirement through a correspondence course with the institute. The paperwork arrived spring quarter, senior year, and he managed to complete it, and his schoolwork, simultaneously.

Once he made it to the Institute for the six-month program, Weinstein learned how to bake bagels, as well as just about any other bread product you can think of, from croissants to tortillas. He learned shoulder to shoulder with bakers from large conglomerates to shops like his own pending small business, from locations around the world.

“It was a joy,” he said of baking school. “I love learning something new.”

Not only does Ultimate Bagels bake its own signature products, the shop also blends its own cream cheese in multiple flavors.

Facing the Customer

After taking care of his wholesale accounts, which he typically finishes by 5:15 a.m. (Zizzo’s being the location furthest away from home base), Weinstein is ready switch into retail mode.

“I’ve kind of put a hold on setting up more wholesale accounts,” he said. “I really want to build the retail. Not that I don’t want to grow both, but I’ve been devoting more of my energy lately to build the retail. I think we have a lot of potential to grow the retail right now.”

He takes a quick trip home to shower and feed his dog, and then it’s to the shop, which opens for customers at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays and 7:30 a.m. on weekends.

While many businesses pay lip service to customer service, it’s clear that Weinstein thinks it though a little more than most. He quickly credits his father and grandfather for impressing the importance of customer service on him. Both were entrepreneurs in their own right, though Weinstein is the first in the food business. Still, the lessons of focusing on a customer’s needs straddle most industries. From subtle moves, like placing a dog dish of water near the outside seating, to more obvious practices like greeting a customer and engaging in conversation, Ultimate Bagels has a welcoming feel where it’s clear the consumer is king.

Another prime example of this philosophy is the menu, where every choice of ingredient— from bread to vegetable to cream cheese to meat—is laid out in detail.

“I wanted people to be able to create their dream bagel, however they draw it up,” Weinstein shared. “I didn’t want people to be restrained by a menu.”

Recently, however, Weinstein has decided that this abundance of choice may not be for everyone.

“Some people don’t want to be creative — they just want to say ‘make me something,'” he said. “A menu like this is overwhelming to someone who just wants to say ‘give me a number one’ or ‘I’d like a BLT.’ So we’ve been trying to incorporate more set items by advertising sandwiches on our menu board, outside.”

Indeed, Weinstein isn’t afraid to change things, and points to his the constant refinement of the bagel recipe as an example of lessons he learned in the past year.

“We changed the type of yeast we were using, which made a huge difference,” he said. “We started out using fresh yeast, but switched to instant dry. It gave us more consistency on the product; there’s a lot of science in baking, and you’re subjecting yourself to far more variances [with the fresh yeast].”

Location, Location, Location

Weinstein’s initial idea to open as a direct competitor to Bagel Café dissipated with time. In fact, he was looking at locations up and down California, including near where he grew up in Sebastopol . He ended up downtown after Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf vacated the space at 1226 State Street.

“I never even though about opening on State Street,” he said, owing to his perception of expense. But when he signed his lease in June 2009, there were “six open spaces on this block alone, and rents were so low.”

He subleases from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and was fortunate to negotiate a reasonable rate, as well as four months of free rent up front, which basically meant that his construction period turned out to be free. But he considers inheriting the space from Coffee Bean to be extremely fortunate. The space was already equipped with nice bones, like the tile and oak trim, as well as two fully ADA-approved bathrooms, which he says can cost $25,000 to $40,000 apiece to do yourself. As a similar business to what came before, Ultimate Bagels was able to use the existing space as a sort of template. Still, Weinstein had decisions to make, and he made them with an eye toward keeping people at the shop and making them feel welcome.

“I wanted it to be a more comfortable shop, not ‘get-in, get-out,’ Weinstein said. “We have the Wi-Fi, we have the flat screen, we have the couches.” He even put a lot of thought into the chairs, which are padded. “A little thing like that makes [the shop] a little more inviting.”

Some of the challenges associated with opening a business, especially in a vital corridor like State Street, may be surprising to non -entrepreneurs. For example, Weinstein needed to apply four times for his extremely limited outside seating; once, it was too many; then, it was the chairs themselves that were the problem. The shop’s sign can only be so big and must hang at a certain height.

“I understand it,” he says, “this is State Street, and there’s a reputation, and I want it to be as good as it’s ever been.”

Weinstein is part of the Chamber of Commerce, but one way he’s integrating himself and Ultimate Bagels into the community. He gets local produce, courtesy the Berry Man, and a local coffee roaster, Green Star, supplies his beans for both drip and espresso drinks. At the end of the day, Weinstein regularly brings his remaining bagels to Unity Shop, the homeless shelter, or the Boys & Girls Club.

“I like to meet the community, I like to know my neighbors,” he said. “That’s the fun part about it; that’s I love most about being a business owner in this town—I’m part of a community that wants to see [each other] succeed. People will do whatever they can to help each other out.”

Plugging Away

Weinstein’s personal “Ultimate Bagel” is a doozy.  An open-faced melt with pesto garlic cream cheese on one half of the bagel, sundried tomato cream cheese on the other, then “a bunch of veggies” including, but not limited to, bell peppers, onions and avocado, and then with melted cheddar cheese and lemon pepper on top. Or he recommends a “pizza” version with pepperoni, and using provolone instead of cheddar.

Weinstein was never a coffee drinker until he opened Ultimate Bagel.

“Now I drink coffee every day,” he says. “When you get up at 3 o’clock in the morning . . .”

He tries to be asleep by 9 p.m. every night, so he can attack the next day.  He admits his schedule doesn’t leave him much of a social life.

“I try to get out once a week,” he admits, “but I like to say I got enough partying in at UCSB to last me the next four years. I really enjoy working hard, and plugging away.”

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