A born and raised New Yorker, Alex attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and found himself in investment banking for eight years. Somehow, while deciding to get his MBA in Chapel Hill, he opened a bagel shop in August of 2020 – in the middle of the pandemic.
“We’re all about trying to make people’s day a little bit better.”
Two years later and Alex is in the middle of expanding the bagel footprint, from 1200 to 3600 square feet. While doing so, he contacted us to help him think through his strategy for hiring and supporting his employees.
What’s your vision for your employees?
Alex: This growth means more team members, more ideas, more functions, and more departments. I started to realize that a few things were happening:
- I was beginning to bottleneck our growth and development
- We needed to grow our executive team and build out structure.
We’ve seen a lot of patterns in the restaurant industry. It can feel like a dead-end: no growth and development. That’s not the company we’re trying to build.
We want this to be a place where you feel like you’re getting somewhere. If you do certain things, you can achieve more in your career and in your life.
We want to support that. If we want to form a company that’s fair and cares about our employees, we need to create good systems and good processes and do it in a way that feels authentic.
And we need help getting there. So, I reached out to Matt and Greg.
Mike: We started with aligning vision and values with your hiring patterns. What’s this process been like?
It’s been so eye-opening for me and also challenging. Until we can articulate what our values are, what our vision is, and what our mission statement looks like, it’s going to be really hard to define who fits underneath the umbrella that we’re building.
Matt: What is your typical age and experience for the people that you’re hiring?
Alex: It’s so varied. We have everything from part-time high school workers to full-time workers that have been in the industry for 20 or 30 years.
We want to create processes that allow for advancement, whether you’re part-time, full-time, or somewhere in between. We need to have systems in place for all of those candidates.
Mike: A lot of people in the restaurant industry hire “second job type” people that are going to stay with you for six months, eight months, twelve months, whatever it may be.
But you’re going a step further than that and saying, not only do I want you to be here, but I also want to put some time and effort into developing you.
Alex: It matters where you spend your time and what you do matters. We need to invest and support and grow because every single person in that shop matters. Whether you’re there for a two-hour or eight-hour shift, your impact and the culture that we’re trying to build is important.
Every single person needs to be bought in and understand and feel like they are part of it. If you’re throwing some people off to the side and telling them they don’t matter, it creates friction. We really want to make sure that everyone’s treated the best.
Ultimately, I want people to be happy. If they want to come work with us, we’re going to support it all the way through. Whatever happens, is not in my control, but we need to do our part and go to the full extent with everybody to give them the best experience possible.
Matt: I’ve talked to Greg a couple of times since you guys met and did your first couple of sessions. What would you say was the big takeaway you got from your values?
Alex: No matter how many bagels we sell, we’re trying to build something sustainable. We might have this amazing day where we sold a lot of bagels. But how did our team feel? Were they completely driven into the ground? Are they feeling good and confident and excited?
I want my team to feel like they’ve done something awesome and feel accomplished. A balance between those things is how I view success. I care about every single person in the shop. How we treat one another is so important.
Matt: Our value at Whirks that comes to mind is a passion for our purpose. It means that you care about what you’re doing and you love what we’re doing. If not, it’s just a job.
One of the things we modeled after in our minds when we talked to you was the Chick-Fil-A mindset. We’re hiring people that work and we’re going to grow them as employees and as people.
The fact of what they do there isn’t necessarily as much as how they do it, why they’re doing it, and how we’re developing them.
Alex: Before you hire and train, you have to understand what motivates your team and what experiences they have.
I always ask questions like, what’s their favorite customer experience that they’ve had? Are they remembering experiences and the little things where someone did something extra for you?
It shows me that they are aware of those little things. Those little intangibles have to be there. I tell everybody in the shop that I want the environment to feel safe, happy, and supported.
I don’t care if someone’s been with us since the very beginning or been there a day. We can train, we can teach, we can learn.
Mike: How is your team structured that ensures these values?
Alex: Right now, it’s me, our director of operations, our baker, our executive chef, and our front-house manager. Those four departments cover everything.
We meet once a week to do two things:
- We check in to see how everyone is doing, going around the room and asking where everyone’s at and how they’re doing.
- Next, we jump into what’s happening with each team and the message.
These meetings let the other departments know what’s happening. We all share with each other, I think what’s hard about our company is we’re open seven days a week, so there are different people in the shop all the time.
When you’re constantly running the business, as well as trying to grow and manage it, be proactive and implement new things, it’s difficult when you’re constantly open.=
Mike: Do you guys participate in any team-building or get-togethers?
Alex: It’s been difficult with COVID, but also, if I’m being honest, I feel like if you overdo big outings, it can feel less genuine. So we try to do gatherings in small groups.
Twice a month, we meet with each department, sit in a circle, communicate what’s going on and get feedback. How do we keep the soul of what made us great?
Mike: How do you equip your leaders to love on their teams? Do they suggest ideas to you or do they have the autonomy to choose?
Alex: They have full opportunity to do whatever they think is right to take care of their team, even if it’s just picking up smoothies for everyone on a hot day.
I value communication and transparency. I want them to reach out and talk to me, message me, call me. In order for us to be successful, it comes down to trust..
Matt: You mentioned you were a bottleneck. I feel that same way a lot. One of those struggles is the dilution of your vision to the team.
For example, we’ve talked about “gut hiring,” like having a feeling that someone is going to make a good fit for your team. You have to trust your leaders to have that same gut instinct – if they’re in the hiring process and you’re not.
That’s one reason we decided to discuss objectifying the hiring process. Where do you see this being a problem?
Alex: I see it in a lot of places. I see it in hiring. I’m still the one that’s doing all the initial screening, but that’s because we don’t have the tools or the time to invest in training our senior team.
My leaders do the second and third rounds of the interview, so ultimately, it’s their decision
whether or not they want to hire someone.
But I’m still the person that’s initially screening them: asking questions, speaking with them, getting feel for who they are and if they’re going to possess our values. We want to empower our team members to do the searches, research, and contact you guys for help.
Matt: Trusting your team and letting them fail is the hardest thing. I want them to do it right – I want to do it the way I want to do it. I also don’t want them to have the battle scars that I have. So I jump in where I shouldn’t.
Alex: It makes me want to invest even more time in my team, making sure I set them up for success, even though I know the failures are still going to happen.
From a hiring perspective, I’m really excited to work with you guys and ask questions that will get me where I want to be – when sometimes I don’t even know myself.
Mike: We’ve coached, trained, and communicated our desire to hire people who are hungry, humble, and smart. This is the same kind of internal language you’re going to use and communicate with your leadership team, so they can identify those qualities.
Ultimately, it’s unleashing your leaders, letting them fail, and coaching them.
Alex: I have an ideal development track for my employees. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to see the future of their role, but also identify the roles you need them to fill as they continue to grow in their path.
Mike: What are some of the paths that you see an employee potentially going down aside from making and selling bagels?
Alex: You can grow vertically on the people-facing side. There are so many different components to becoming a manager. I think there’s a ton of opportunity on the catering side, too.
I want to give people the opportunity to see every facet of Brandwein’s Bagels in terms of working in different positions.
Maybe you do some work in front of the house, but you really like coordinating. Or maybe you really want to get your hands in the dough, or maybe you want to do some prep work.
There are opportunities on those sides, too. Where you’ll be able to get involved will continue to grow as the company grows.
For me, it’s about keeping people that are talented and making sure that they’re getting what they want out of their life experiences. We need to continue to create opportunities for them to
Matt: How many people do you hire where this is their first job?
Alex: Quite a bit.
Matt: I would think you would. This is a customer-facing role. Dealing with people, conflict, responsibility, teamwork – those are skills. Without the, you can’t get hired at any white-collar job.
I’m assuming that’s a skill that you need people to possess. People who care and want to take care of the customer right away and are passionate about helping others.
They have to be able to work with different personalities and conflicts. Any time you’re a face to face with the customer, there’s always the potential for you to give them the wrong change back.
Alex: But those are the awesome moments, right? You turn those moments into special ones. We’re training people to embrace it and be like, we see you. We feel your frustration. Who knows what’s going on in their life?
We train our team members to think on their toes, to be compassionate, to be understanding, and work to resolve the issue. It can be fun turning those frustrating moments into a special one with a great memory and outcome.
It’s been fun bringing on people that have never worked before and guiding them towards a way to be productive, thoughtful, and truly care about people.
Matt: That empathy is important. Conflict resolution is a valuable skill.
Mike: One last question: what’s the secret sauce of Alex Brandwein?
Alex: The secret sauce for me is that it’s never bad to have a conversation, talk it out, be transparent, and be vulnerable. Whether it’s a customer or a team member, taking an extra moment to step outside, listen, and communicate makes everything better.
People want to be seen. I think it’s important that we provide that. It’s been really helpful as we’ve grown.
And you guys have been incredible. Accounting and getting people paid is HARD. There are so many different elements that come up. I feel so, so, so lucky to work with you all and learn from you all.
The fact is, I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m making a million mistakes every day, probably more than anyone at the company. But you guys having our back has been truly a blessing. So thank you.