UNC alum Alex Brandwein opened a bagel shop on Rosemary Street in August 2020, and it’s now doubled in size due to its widespread popularity
By Amber Watson | Photography by John Michael Simpson
For founder Alex Brandwein, growing up just outside New York City, bagels were always a personal favorite. After high school, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and spent seven years working in investment banking and private equity, first in Chicago, then back in New York. His path to owning a bagel business started when he felt the urge to pursue something entrepreneurial and enrolled in UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA program in 2018.
Alex immediately fell in love with the local community here in Chapel Hill but was disappointed there wasn’t a downtown bagel shop to grab a bacon, egg and cheese. This craving prompted him to start playing around with the idea of bringing New York-style bagels to town. “After one test trial using boxed ingredients, I was hooked. I began researching how to make bagels from scratch, ultimately coming up with my own recipe for authentic New York-style bagels,” he shares.
As the time approached for his MBA summer internship, Alex decided to forgo a corporate job, choosing instead to work at a bagel shop, learning the ins and outs. He visited stores across the country, talking to successful owners to better understand the business and learn how the best bagels are made.
In conjunction with his academic focus on entrepreneurship and real estate, Alex developed the business model and recipe for Brandwein’s Bagels. He says the reception and ongoing support from the community has been incredible from day one. “It’s mind-boggling how quickly it all unfolded,” Alex admits. By the end of summer 2019, he held the first Saturday morning pop-up; in February 2020, he signed a lease for the shop, finished his MBA in May 2020 and opened the store in August 2020. “The turnout was amazing! By noon, we had sold out. It was crazy, and it was so encouraging,” he says.
In the beginning, the business was run by Alex and a lot of volunteers (from classmates to UNC faculty members who showed up to help support Alex’s project). The shop is now open seven days a week and the staff has grown to about 45 team members, many of whom have been there from the start, including a deep bench of part-time college and high school students. Of special note are Sean Monson, executive chef; Christy Savage, head baker, and Melissa Sieffert, director of operations and a former Kenan-Flagler classmate.
Each recipe is carefully tested and refined with attention to flavor and texture, using flour from Lindley Mills out of Graham, North Carolina. Every day, the bagels and bialys are made in-house from scratch. “After proofing overnight, the bagels are boiled for a few minutes before baking,” Alex says. “This extra step is what makes the outside thin, crispy and glossy while the inside stays light and airy.”
The bagel and deli sandwich menu favorites include anything with egg and cheese and the fully loaded classic lox. There’s also a variety of housemade cream cheese flavors, plus plenty of bagel chips, deli salads and homemade cookies. For beverages, Brandwein’s Bagels has its own house blend coffee, specially brewed by Carrboro neighbor Gray Squirrel Coffee Co.
The catering side of the business has really taken off – offering an array of made-to-order platters as well as individually wrapped and/or boxed breakfasts and lunches. It is currently pickup only, but Alex hopes to provide delivery service for individual orders in the future.
In February 2022, Brandwein’s Bagels expanded into the adjacent property on Rosemary Street that once housed Bread & Butter Bakery. The additional space allows them to bake more bagels, provide parking for customers, and offer more catering and an expanded menu. Brandwein’s customers will use the original bakery entrance on the corner of Graham and Rosemary streets.
“As a new business, my approach is to focus on doing a few core things really well,” Alex says. “So, bagels are the heart of the menu with some specials along the way. The expansion of our shop gives us the opportunity to not only keep doing what we are doing – hopefully, even better – but also to introduce new offerings.”
The vibe of the shop is cozy, modern and welcoming. It carries that familiar comfort and pleasure of being with your people at your go-to spot, and that is what’s special about bagels in the first place – how something so simple can be so enjoyable.