The audacity of shmear: Noah Alpers bagel brilliance revealed in new autobiography

He made a fortune selling bagels, one sesame, garlic and poppy seed beauty at a time.

In his new book, “Business Mensch,” Noah Alper shares some of the wisdom that helped turn a modest Berkeley storefront into America’s No. 1 bagel retailer.

Noah Alper

Part memoir, part Jewish homily, part how-to manual, “Business Mensch” tells the tale of a scrappy Jewish kid from Boston who hit the jackpot with Noah’s Bagels.

How big a jackpot? In 1999, after less than eight years in business, Alper sold the company — lox, stock and bagels — for $100 million.

It’s quite a tale, and in his book Alper tells all, including a few less-than-flattering admissions about his business mistakes and even a time in his early adulthood when he checked himself into a mental institution.

Alper will talk about himself and the book at the opening lecture of the East Bay Jewish Forum on Sept. 17.

“I’ve read business memoirs where they have lip gloss over the whole thing,” Alper says. “ ‘I was fabulous, I did this, celebrate with me.’ I found those boring. People learn from their mistakes more than from their successes.”

He learned, all right. The day the first Noah’s Bagels shop on College Avenue opened in 1989, lines wound around the block. Customers loved the fresh bagels (steamed, not boiled, so they’d last longer), the cream cheese (dubbed “shmear” by Alper, a term now ensconced in the Bay Area lexicon) and the haimish New York City Jewish vibe.

Alper remembers the long hours spent testing various recipes for bagels, scooping shmear by hand, hanging mezuzahs on the doors of each new Noah’s Bagels store that opened (38 in all by the time he sold the company). He built Noah’s Bagels into a powerful franchise, yet kept a close watch on every aspect of the company.

As for the “mensch” part, he took seriously both business ethics and the need to do charitable deeds. He attributes both to his Jewish upbringing and, especially, his becoming more religious later in life. Alper spent time studying Torah in Israel, keeps kosher and observes Shabbat.

Peppering his book with quotes from Hillel, the Talmud, Pirke Avot and other sacred texts, Alper tempers his business approach with an ethical framework, based on Jewish values.

So, would non-Jews get it?

Alper asked himself, “How much Torah knowledge and Jewish references do I put in and still keep it universal? I erred on the side of more rather than less. I did not want it to be Judaism light. I wanted people to engage with more Judaic knowledge.”

He built his own over time. In his book, Alper recounts a childhood where his entrepreneurial spirit revealed itself early on. He learned a lot about business (and being a mensch) from his father, and after a rebellious hippie period, he started a string of businesses.

Some of them, like a wooden bowl company and a Boston health food store, took off. Others, like marketing Israeli products to evangelical Christians, did not.

Finally, he hit on his million-dollar idea: build a better bagel. It worked for him, but Alper emphasizes businesspeople need not be the next Warren Buffett to make it or to conduct themselves honorably.

“You don’t have to have the next Google,” he says. “You can have a lot of downturns and personal challenges and still succeed.”

While writing his book about Jewish business ethics, Alper couldn’t help but notice two of the biggest business scandals in American history — the market crash and the Bernard Madoff debacle — unfolding at the same time.

“What was kind of a sidebar at the beginning became a major theme,” he says. “I wanted to say not all Jewish businessmen are genuvim [thieves]. We have a strong ethical tradition and here are the teachings that inform that.”

After selling Noah’s Bagels, Alper opened Berkeley kosher eatery Ristorante Raphael, which closed in 2007. He was also one of the leaders in building and sustaining the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. Today, he enjoys business consulting, especially when it comes to helping young entrepreneurs develop ideas.

It all starts with an idea, but it won’t go anywhere without a measure of Alper-style energy. He likes to tell the story of another bagel mogul, Murray Lender, who long after making his millions would personally refill the coffee cups of customers in his restaurant.

“This man did not need to be pouring coffee,” says Alper, adding of his own career, “The shpilkes that drove me to do these things in the first place continue to drive me forward.”

“Business Mensch” by Noah Alper (176 pages, Wolfeboro Press, $14.95)

Noah Alper will speak 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 17 at Temple Beth Abraham, 327 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. Admission: $10. Information: (510) 318-6453. He will speak 10:30 a.m. Oct. 18 at the JCC of the East Bay. Information: (510) 848 0237.

 

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.