Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
Jeff Bunting and his partners are the big bagels on campus.
Bunting credits Vanderbilt University with putting Alpine Bagel Co. on the map. Vanderbilt was the first university to invite Alpine to open a location on campus. It didn’t take long for Duke University to follow. In addition to being on or near campuses, Alpine operates two bagel cafés in hospitals.
“We love the market,” says Bunting, who worked in advertising before going into restaurants.
When they hatched a plan for their business, Bunting, his brother, Marc, and Chris Sullivan agreed they wanted the concept to focus on healthy fast food at a reasonable price. While researching the competition, the partners discovered there were plenty of bagel shops but not many near college campuses.
“We wanted to be the MTV of bagels,” Bunting says. “We got lucky. Our timing was good in some places.”
Since the first store opened in 1997, Alpine has added “new and better items,” Bunting says, and that could explain some of the growth in breakfast sales. Bunting speculates students also might have gotten the message about the importance of eating breakfast. The morning daypart generated 50 percent of sales for Alpine in the beginning and now accounts for 65 percent of sales, with lunch and afternoon business bringing in the rest. The average check is $5 to $7, Bunting says.
Alpine offers 10 bagel flavors and 12 varieties of low-fat cream cheese including unusual flavors such as: Honey Cinnamon, Artichoke Parmesan, and Three-Alarm Jalapeño. Each restaurant has its own kitchen. Employees boil and bake the bagels fresh on site at all but a couple of locations that lack the space.
The Good Morning Campers, a bagel with egg and choice of breakfast meat, is the top-selling item. The shops also sell a lot of bagels with vegetable cream cheese.
The competitive landscape has changed dramatically since Alpine opened its first café. Many restaurant operators who hadn’t offered breakfast have ventured into the business. Like Alpine, many owners also promote healthy menu items.
“Everyone and their mother has jumped into the breakfast category,” Bunting says. “Everyone’s trying to get healthier whether it’s a major chain or a mom-and-pop operation. Clearly you can be married to your brand but need flexibility and foresight to be able to change quickly.”
While bagels remain the core of the business, Alpine’s founders have branched out into other foodservice concepts. They closed an Alpine and replaced it with a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise they operate on the campus of the M.I.T. Through a joint venture partnership, the partners also operate a Café Spice and a brick-oven pizza concept called Cambridge Grill, also on the M.I.T. campus. Even at Alpine stores, the founders have diversified the menu. On weekends, stores set up omelet stations.
“We diversified because diversification is good,” Bunting says.
For a business that caters to college students, it helps to have a sense of fun. Alpine cultivates an irreverent image in the shops and on its Web site. Customers see bold, colorful graphics and hear upbeat tunes from different musical genres playing in the stores. The founders don’t take themselves too seriously judging by their corporate titles. Bunting refers to himself as “El Presidente,” “bagel maestro,” and “chief of internal health.” Menu items have catchy names such as Uncle Jed’s Lite Strawberry Special, a light cream cheese containing fresh strawberries, and Presidential Pardon, a turkey sandwich with roasted red peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, and tangy sauce—“smuggled out from the White House kitchen.” The John Wayne is piled with ham, turkey, and roast beef on a bagel.
“There’s nothing too serious about a bagel,” Bunting says. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
Alpine also appeals to the social conscience of its customers. When possible, the company uses Fair-Trade and organic roasters to make its cappuccinos, lattes, espressos, and frozen coffee drinks.
Ranging in size from 1,200 to 2,200 square feet, the cafés have 40 to 70 seats. At some locations, Alpine shares the seating with other foodservice providers in the student unions. About 60 percent of sales come from the dine-in business, Bunting says.
All the stores are company owned. Franchising hasn’t been ruled out, but Alpine isn’t pursuing that option any time soon.
“Franchising is a distinct possibility, but it won’t happen in 2008.” Bunting says. “We like to have our finger on the pulse and have control over what we’re doing.”