Recently I had the chance to speak with Noah Alper, founder of the eponymous Noah’s Bagels. Noah, who sold Noah’s Bagels in 1999, has been in the food business since the 1970s, when he started Bread and Circus, the East Coast natural food chain (bought by Whole Foods in 1992). He’s kept kosher since the early 1990s, and at one point Noah’s Bagels was the largest kosher retailer in the country. (For those on the prowl, there’s still one kosher Noah’s Bagels, in Seattle.) Nowadays, he’s committed to preaching the gospel of socially responsible business practices, and to that end he’s come out with a book called Business Mensch that aims to connect Jewish principles to good business practices and convince business leaders that community values are good for their bottom line. Basically, it’s a Jewish business handbook for the post-Madoff world. Noah and I chatted about how the food movement has changed since his days as a natural foods grocer, how the Hazon food conference stoked his interest in eco-kashrut and why the Bay Area is a foodie mecca.
Q: What drove your interest in going into the food business?
Noah Alper: My father was a manufacturer’s representative for main brand food brands in the New England area, so I grew up with it as a kid. It was a kind of logical transition.
Q: And how did you become interested in natural foods?
N.A.: In the early 70s, the natural food movement was just beginning, and my former wife was very interested in natural foods. Through her I got an understanding that this was something important. In those days, it wasn’t so much of a sustainability issue, but it was more about health, getting rid of processed foods and what alternatives were available. There were also almost no natural food stores, so it interested me as a business opportunity.
Q: How has the food movement and the public’s interest in organic and sustainable food changed since you opened Bread and Circus?
N.A.: When we were getting started, brands like Celestial Seasonings and Tom’s of Maine were just beginning. Now they’re mainstream American items, as are natural food stores themselves. Natural food went from Ma and Pa stores to a Whole Foods in every neighborhood across America. It’s like a whole generation of people came to see the importance of eating natural foods and leading a healthy lifestyle. Probably around the early turn of the century, I saw the sustainability issue becoming more important. I think that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth movie was a major influencer in people’s understanding of their impact on the earth. The ecological movement kind of merged with the health movement, and also with the gourmet movement, which I was also involved in the late 80s. For different reasons, Americans were going to fresh ingredient meals, partially for taste and aesthetic reasons, and that merged in with the natural foods movement as well.
Q: Why did you choose to open Noah’s Bagels as a kosher chain? Did it add complications from a business perspective?
N.A.: It was about making a whole community feel comfortable eating there. It had a perception amongst the population at large that there was a higher level of inspection, and we attracted kosher eaters, travelers, and so forth who were drawn to the restaurant because it was kosher. There were complications in certifying the stores, but most of the ingredients, like bagels and lox, are kosher anyway. We also had an image and reputation, by closing for Passover and keeping kosher, that this was authentic, this was the real deal. It was good for business.
Q: Do you feel that your kosher practice has an ethical as well as a ritual meaning?
N.A.: I think it should, and I think that things like Magen Tzedek [the Conservative movement’s forthcoming eco-kosher hekhsher] and these new movements are trying to make that connection, which I don’t think has typically been made. I’ve long felt that way regarding unhealthful ingredients. They may be within the letter of the law, but they’re certainly not in the spirit of the law, which should be offering healthy food that is kosher. Not to mention recent discussions about fair trade and ethical treatment of workers. We’re getting beyond the previous narrow definition that’s just about being ritually correct.
Q: As a businessman, do you think that Magen Tzedek will be successful in attracting producers to pay for certification?
N.A.: I think on the consumer end of it, there’s a big demand and interest. On the part of the producers, I think they have to be convinced that it’s important enough for their clientele to spend the money. I think it’ll take some time, but I think it will catch on. You’re already seeing fair trade coffee being a gold standard now. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be across the board in the food milieu. I think it will be up to Magen Tzedek or whoever leads to pack to demonstrate there’s enough interest on the part of the consumer to make the manufacturer interested. It’s up to anyone who’s going to do this to appeal to the non-Jewish audience as well. Something like 70 percent or more of people who buy kosher are not Jewish. It’s because they’re vegetarians or they eat halal or they think there’s a higher level of inspection, and I think likewise Magen Tzedek has to make that case to the manufacturer at large.
Q: How long have you lived in the Bay Area? Why do you think this area is so energetic about food issues?
N.A.: I’ve lived here for 25 years. We’re so close to the food source here, many, many food sources. I don’t know what percentage of the country the Central Valley feeds in terms of fruits and vegetables, but I have to believe in the winter it’s pushing the 80 percent level. I think the other thing is the Bay Area has always been a nexus of fresh ideas and new ideas that have socially redeemable values at the core of it, from civil rights to gay rights to 60s antiwar stuff. Again and again and again, California leads the way. Also, in the late 80s the whole gourmet thing started in San Francisco. You get all of those things impacting one another and you come up with the origins of new movements.
For more about Noah Alper and his book, Business Mensch, go to his website, www.businessmensch.net.