People 20 December 2018
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."
Mid December with the holiday season on the horizon and having read too many pieces about social media addiction, I was ready for a break. Every time I reached for my phone, I had a Pavlovian instinct to click on the Instagram icon and that's when I knew it was time.