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From Wall Street To Startup: Bantam Bagels’ Co-Founder Shares Her Post Shark Tank Success Story

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In a world of fresh and organic, the concept of frozen food seems relatively taboo in the expanding culinary industry, yet still, as a $50 billion industry within the United States, this aisle of the grocery store is actually more relevant than you'd think.


Co-founder of Bantam Bagels, Elyse Oleksak realized this relevancy, while simultaneously recognizing how little development the frozen food sector had in the past ten years. Thus, from a one-off dream her husband had, the couple left Wall Street and pursued the disruption of the frozen food industry.

"Frozen breakfast is brand new to this renaissance in people looking for better food," says Oleksak. “It's an uphill battle fighting against some of the largest brands in the world--the Eggos and Jimmy Deans, but we're bringing that authenticity and uniqueness."

What began four years ago as a small storefront selling mini stuffed bagels on Bleecker Street has since developed into a deal on Shark Tank, a partnership with Starbucks as a national account and the release of their second product, Pancake Balls, to continue the line of frozen breakfast, which Oleksak describes as, “Saturday morning comfort, without feeling too indulgent."

"We thought our strategy would be franchising the shop, but we realized it was less about these little shops and more about creating something that's accessible," says Oleksak. She explains that even though the concept of Bantam Bagels stemmed from the lack of innovation in their hometown of New York City, they realized that there was an untapped market throughout the nation.

So, after only six months into building their brand, the Oleksaks went on Shark Tank to gain national presence, as well as quality guidance.

“We went to Shark Tank for another layer of expertise, and of course, the capital," says Oleksak. “We would quiz each other walking through the park with every question ever asked on Shark Tank. We had eye signals on how we would respond to deals."

Oleksak continued to explain that even though the duo kept an open mind on accepting offers, they entered the show knowing who they wanted to take a deal from, Lori Greiner. And this is exactly what happened.

"The partnership with Lori is incredible," shares Oleksak. “She's with us every step of the way, and I feel so lucky that she is what we hoped and expected her to be." Oleksak also notes how empowering it is to be coached through the company's founding years by another woman, saying, “It's also fascinating to see how females view business as a series of relationships rather than transactions."

From the early days of Bantam Bagels to expanding the brand's product, Oleksak remembers the differences of running the company as a female, even with her husband as a business partner.

“I spent my first pregnancy entirely in the shop," she says. “There came a time when I was at nine months and had to step sideways because no one could get past my belly."

Yet, even as Oleksak reflects on this as one of the challenges of leading as a female entrepreneur, she adds that it's just another layer of the business that helped her create an authentic brand which reflects both her and her husband's similar mindset.

“I'm a doer and a mover, and it was almost easier having something that I was so passionate about; creating a future for the family that we were creating."

It's this mindset that also gives way to Oleksak's theory of existing as a female entrepreneur. For her two boys, she says that “they're seeing me as an equal in a man's world." "The food world is definitely still male dominated but it's what drives me to work so hard. So when they grow up, an imbalance between males and females in the workforce isn't even a thought."

Bantam Bagels celebrated their third product release in July--mini stuffed bagels with egg and sausage in the middle--and their steady growth in more than 16,000 stores nationwide.

“For us, developing the authentic brand and developing that connection [with customers] while we blow out and grow our distribution is our main focus," says Oleksak. She notes that each week they may be in a new grocery store, and still will respond personally to emails and social media as part of who they are as founders. “Food is so personal. You have a choice, you can either cook something and make it personal to you, or you can invite an external food into your home—and I think you need to earn that as food brand."

Update: According to Entrepreneur, the couple recently sold the business to T. Marzetti Company (owned by the publicly traded Lancaster Colony Corporation) for $34 million.

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Fresh Voices

My Unfiltered Struggle of Introducing a Product to a Neglected Market

Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses

Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.


I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".

Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.

I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.

I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.

The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony

The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.

I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.

I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.

I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke

I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".

It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.

I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.

From Paper to Digital

We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.

The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.

I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.

I second guessed myself all the time.

A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.

I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.