Archive for August 2009

20 Years Ago Today

Noah Alper at the 20th anniversary of Noah's Bagels

Signing books at the 20th anniversary of Noah's Bagels

Today I helped Noah’s Bagels celebrate “20 Years of Bagels and Shmears.” I sat at a table outside the original store on College Avenue & Alcatraz in Berkeley for three hours signing Business Mensch at a “preview” event, and had the pleasure of interacting with a diverse cross-section of people coming to Noah’s for their Sunday morning bagels.

Sitting outside in the cool morning, I was warmed by the friendly people who stopped to talk with me. I talked at length with a pediatrician who was working with child obesity and whose son was an aspiring entrepreneur. She bought a book from the stack we had on display and had it inscribed especially for her son. An older gentleman came over to the table and called me by name. I did not recognize him until he explained that his wife was my sister’s college roommate some 55 years ago!

I spoke with teens, young adults, dads with babes in arms, moms with toddlers in tow, joggers, and seniors. I spoke with Noah’s equipment repair people who make sure that Noah’s equipment is functional in the entire state of California every second of every day who were happy to meet me and be part of the “team.” I spoke with a former Boston Red Sox outfielder who came by with his wife and baby in a stroller, and we talked about healthy snack items he is trying to bring to market. A friendly Asian woman told me how much she loved the store, and how thrilled she was to meet me.

My son David, a talented musician, provided some background guitar and chiranga tunes. A gentleman with a Caribbean accent stopped to talk with me and buy a book, and he then borrowed the guitar and sang us a little ditty from his native Trinidad and Tobago.

My brother (who was involved with me in Noah’s Bagels) and his kids, who worked at various Noah’s locations during their high school years, came by for a visit. So did parents of Noah’s employees from years and years ago. One of these parents reminded me that there are many young adults in the Bay Area and beyond who spent at least some time as Noah’s employees while in high school, and/or college. When I sold the business, we had 38 stores, and 1000 employees. The company now has 77 stores, and presumably almost twice that many employees. The average employee lasts approximately six months. If you do the math, it equates to thousands and thousands of employees over the twenty-year span.

One important residual effect of a successful business is that it puts a lot of people to work. Not that big business is necessarily good, but… the bigger the business grows, the more people it puts to work. As I talked with the Noah’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Brad West, and Gina Russo, Area Hospitality Manger, they told me that creating a community feel was the #1 priority for the company. I was encouraged by their dedication, and the focus on people. It is certainly harder to create a “high touch” environment in a big company, but it seems like a serious attempt is being made. Brad commented that when a customer in Sacramento thought that the entire chain was the six stores in her region, he was thrilled. This is what I want, he said, “that people think of us as a neighborhood store.”

When I operated the College Avenue store almost 1000 customers a day would come in, each and everyone as unique as California itself. It is gratifying to realize that something I created and operated has continued for almost 14 years without me, and that many people– employees, customers, vendors, and community members alike still feel a connection and affection for the company. Sometimes you get a chance to kvell.* Today was mine.

P.S. Next Sunday Aug. 30, I will be at the Noah’s store in Lafayette, CA. Come by and say hello if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Kvell: (Yiddish) To be extraordinarily proud, rejoice

What the Jewish World Needs Now

Like most members of the Jewish community who read the news or saw the photos on Friday regarding the New Jersey corruption sweep, I was ashamed and embarrassed to see Orthodox rabbis taken away in handcuffs. Just a few weeks earlier, we were similarly horrified by images of the public disgrace of another member of our community — Bernard Madoff — who was sentenced to 150 years for the most heinous financial crime in history.

The combined force of these two high-profile scandals gives infamy a Jewish face, supporting anti-Semitic stereotypes, providing fodder for those who believe that Jewish law somehow enables dishonesty.

Greed is indeed an ugly and powerful force, however Jewish law and wisdom does everything to preach against it. “If one is honest in business and earns the esteem of others,” the rabbis of the Talmud advised, “it is as if one has fulfilled the whole Torah.” Adhering to Jewish values in business leads only to doing the right thing: serving the community, treating employees and customers with fairness and respect, dealing honestly and openly and helping those in need.

In business, as in life itself, temptation abounds, often coloring the judgment of well-meaning people. Being steeped in Torah knowledge does not insure honest behavior, as has been tragically demonstrated. Though the inextricability of ethics and religious practice might seem obvious to some, the sad reality is that many people who lead lives with rigorous attention to ritual observance nevertheless violate the ethical underpinnings of our tradition.

Therefore, it is necessary to approach the challenge of living ethically in a proactive manner. Let us no longer assume that people are born with an internal ethical barometer. Let us acknowledge that Torah teachings alone cannot prevent dishonesty. Instead, let us merge our moral tradition with a strict daily regimen as a prescriptive to getting lost in the sea of immorality. Such a practice is akin to putting on ritual garments in the morning or a disciplined athlete’s exercise program.

For instance, every time a decision comes up that may in any remote way impinge on immorality, the individuals must immediately “observe” themselves as if being judged in a court of law. Before an action is undertaken, it is necessary to ask — is this the right thing to do? Could there be ramifications unseen at this time that may result in the action being misinterpreted by others, and as a result transforming the action into an undesired and unwanted consequence?

If people undertook a brief yet disciplined time-out to reflect upon and analyze even the slightest questionable act, I am convinced that much immorality could be avoided.

At the end of the day, Judaism is all about being accountable for our actions. We are not judged by how much we study or how much we know. We are not judged by how much faith we have or even how much charity we give. We are judged by the large and small interactions we have with other human beings and whether we made the right choices.

In business as in life, decisions made in split seconds create consequences that last a lifetime. The Jewish community needs to redouble its vigilance in the ethical arena and make sure that our eternally valid ethical teachings line up with our worldly behavior. Otherwise the morality we have been teaching the world for 3000 years is for naught and the anti-Semites of the world have a valid case against us.

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