From Columbia to culinary start-up: A bagel-shaped journey
Think ‘munchkins’ are so last year? Tired of trying to finish a super dense Nussbaum bagel that’s five parts bread and one part cream cheese? I thought these things and more, until I stumbled across Bantam Bagels on a visit to Bleecker Street. This tiny, albeit adorable, bakery is run by Columbia alumni Nick, CC ’08, and Elyse Oleksak, CC ’07, who moved from high-intensity corporate careers to to making miniature bagel balls filled with an assortment of innovative cream cheese-based fillings.
Move over cronut and ramen burger, there’s a new kid in town, and it’s sweet and savory. Oh, and invented by Columbia alumni. The ‘Bantam’ is the name of this little delicacy, filled with sugary or sweet goodness—regular or flavored cream cheese—with cute but appropriate names like “The Jack” (Halloween special filled with pumpkin cream cheese, duh), “Box Lunch” (PB&J filling) and “French Toast” (maple syrup cream cheese). You can now officially have the guiltless pleasure of eating six different bagels in one sitting, and be spoiled for choice while you’re at it.
On my second-time not-so-spontaneous visit to Bantam Bagels, I talked to Nick and Elyse to find out their story. Columbia-graduated bankers-turned-bakers, Nick and Elyse were both athletes at Columbia—Nick played baseball and Elyse was a lacrosse player. Right out of Columbia, both started in corporate jobs: Elyse worked in advertising and then at Morgan Stanley and Nick started as a credit-broker, a job he still does. They didn’t choose to make the switch from corporate to cooking out of a sense of frustration, though.
“It’s important to know what it feels like to be a cog in the system, if you have a goal to be the guy spinning the wheel someday,” Nick mused.
So what inspired the move from boardroom to bakery?
“We watched Shark Tank all the time and wanted to be entrepreneurs. My first idea for a business—a Tater Tots food truck,” Nick said
unabashedly. He said the idea of the bagel ball came to him in a dream, the first one he ever wrote down. From then on, they sold their pitch to businesspeople, rented out boardrooms, and went door to door with their business plan, in what Elyse describes as their “roadshow.”
When I asked them about any formative food experiences they had at Columbia, Nick reminisced over “eating a lot of John Jay with occasional trips to Hewitt.” Sounds about right for the Columbia dining life—but for the more romantic dinners, they frequented the erstwhile Radio Perfecto on Amsterdam. And they’ve begun catering to the Columbia community’s bagel weakness: Bantam Bagels are sweetening Columbia’s palate bit by bit, with a catering order to the Athletics Department that went out the day I met with Nick and Elyse.
The Oleksaks’ Bantams made a delicious little explosion onto the NYC culinary scene pretty soon after it opened up, and they’ve been featured on The Today Show, in the Wall Street Journal, and other press sources. They are pretty flattered by comparisons of their Bantams to food “phenomena” like the cronut, which gained fame around the time Nick and Elyse were building the store.
With their simple, sweet (or savory) mission to “change the way you bagel,” these young Columbia grads have chosen a different way to make people happy. Because when life gives you bagels, you just gotta Bantam.
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