Brandwein’s Bagels offers authentic NYC flavor

MBA graduate Alex Brandwein turned his love of New York-style bagels into a local business.

The staff of Brandwein's Bagels posing for a group photo in the shop.
“Our company’s mission is to make people’s days a little bit better with good food done well,” said Brandwein '20 (MBA) (center). (Innovate Carolina)

The grand opening of Brandwein’s Bagels in 2020 was a great triumph from the outside but teetered on disaster for founder Alex Brandwein by day’s end. That’s when the shop’s walk-in cooler stopped working.

Before hitting “send” on an email to customers letting them know the shop wouldn’t open the next morning, he tried one more idea: cracking open the freezer and shifting product around so that the cooler could be at the perfect temperature. It worked.

“You may feel backed into a corner by a problem or think something won’t work,” Brandwein said. “But I’ve found again and again that you can figure out anything. There’s always a solution.”

A couple of years earlier, Brandwein had used the same problem-solving skills as a budding entrepreneur and MBA student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. The New York native, who spent the first seven years of his career in investment banking and private equity, noticed that this college town had bagels, but not real New York-style bagels.

Was he the only one looking for authentic bagels or was there a greater demand? Brandwein returned home that summer to test out his idea. He traded his tie for an apron and spent the season sweating in the kitchen of a New York bagel store.

“I needed to know what it was like to turn the corner and yell out, ‘Hot sesame!’ I wanted to learn how the operations worked and if I actually liked waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning and staring at a 500-degree oven for eight hours a day,” he said.

He perfected his recipe, using the classic five ingredients of New York bagels (flour, water, salt, yeast and barley malt syrup) and a boil-then-bake method that creates a crisp outer shell to protect the airy interior. “If I couldn’t give these bagels to my mom, who is a born-and-raised New Yorker from Queens, it wouldn’t work,” he said.

Alex Brandwein standing by bagels.

Alex Brandwein (Innovate Carolina)

Brandwein selects ingredients with the thoughtfulness and detailed discernment of an artisan fully committed to the craft. He sources organic flour locally from Lindley Mills, a 10th-generation specialty flour mill and manufacturing business led in part by fellow Kenan-Flager MBA alumna Caroline Lindley. And while many bagel shops cut corners using brown sugar, Brandwein said he only uses barley malt syrup shipped from a New Jersey distributor — the “kicker ingredient that gives the nutty flavor you really look for.”

That attention to detail has paid off. During breakfast and lunch, Brandwein’s Bagels bustles. It’s a downtown destination for droves of Carolina students, Chapel Hill locals and professionals. Just months after opening, Brandwein added a full-scale catering service to keep up with growing customer demand.

“At first, people were asking for just a dozen bagels and some coffee,” said Brandwein. “And then it was, ‘Can we get a smoked salmon platter?’ And then it was, ‘Can we get a fruit platter?’ and ‘Can we also get boxes of bagel sandwiches and a cookie?’ So the catering department took on a life of its own, which led to the expansion of the company.”

Brandwein makes bagels but also wants to make a difference in the community. “Our company’s mission is to make people’s days a little bit better with good food done well,” he said. “We’re not launching rockets into space or curing diseases, but a good bagel shop is one thing you can hopefully count on. We want to make everyone feel welcome, with a smile and a great bagel that hits the spot.”

Read more about Brandwein’s Bagels’ journey.