Noah’s arc: How Berkeley bagel shop launched an empire

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Say the name Noah Alper in Bay Area Jewish circles, and many people will associate it with Noah’s Bagels, the chain of successful West Coast bagel stores that the longtime Berkeley entrepreneur launched in 1989 before bagel stores were even a thing around here.

Noah Alper in his Berkeley home, sporting a vintage Noah’s Bagels T-shirt photo/cathleen maclearie

Though the stores still carry his name, he’s not peddling bagels anymore, having sold the business in 1996. In the two decades since, Alper has had his hand in many other projects, including helping to establish San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay and opening a short-lived kosher Italian restaurant in Berkeley. Now 69, Alper works as a consultant, does philanthropic work, speaks frequently about his book “Business Mensch: Timeless Wisdom for Today’s Entrepreneur” and, with his wife, Hope, is an active member of Berkeley’s Orthodox Congregation Beth Israel.

But to most locals, he’ll always be the guy who put Noah’s New York Bagels on the map.

Alper shared his story on Nov. 13 in Berkeley at the opening of “The Bagel and the Archive: Celebrating Noah’s Bagels’ Legacy,” an exhibit of memorabilia he donated to the Magnes museum. The artifacts, which include newspaper clippings, early TV commercials, photos and promotional items like a Noah’s T-shirt, offer a nostalgic look back at a particular period in Bay Area Jewish life.

The collection has since gone into the Magnes archives, where it will be held and available for research.

Alper’s road to bagels and beyond was a wandering, adventurous one that included several other business ventures and a meaningful trip to Israel when he was in his late 30s.

Posters touted the store’s Jewish pedigree and sensibility.

Long before he was Noah of bagels fame, he was Norman Alper, a boy growing up in the 1950s in Brookline, Massachusetts, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Boston. His parents were strictly secular Jews, and both were Communist sympathizers.

Discussion around the family dinner table often focused on the oppressed, and young Alper wondered where he and his parents fit in. “The sympathy made sense, but even as a kid, I wanted to know more about who we are, and I never got that,” he said.

Though he had a bar mitzvah, in high school he decided that would be the last of his formal Jewish education. In fact, when he and his classmates were done with Hebrew school, they defiantly threw their books in the river.

While in college at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late ’60s, one of his roommates  — a Zionist activist and president of Hillel — tried to get him interested in Israel. “I didn’t even know where the Hillel [house] was,” Alper recalled.

Instead, much of his energy went toward demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. “There were tanks and soldiers with bayonets keeping the campus open because of student protests,” he said. “It was intense.” So intense, that he had a breakdown that required nine months of treatment in a mental health institution.

After college, where Alper studied economics, he started working for his brother-in-law in a bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Then one day in 1971 he happened to see some rustic wooden bowls at an acquaintance’s house and was so enamored with their unique look that he decided to go into business selling them. He made frequent trips in his VW bus to a supplier in Vermont, and would lay out the bowls on an Indian blanket outside the bookstore in Harvard Square.

When he offered to pay rent for the space (which technically belonged to the bookstore), his brother-in-law told Alper to give something to charity instead.

“That made an impact on me,” he said. “That this is what you do when you’re successful.”

He later moved the business to his hometown in Brookline, and in 1973 he opened a natural foods store called Bread & Circus, identifying this food trend early on. (The business was later acquired by Whole Foods.) He and his first wife had a son, then divorced, and Alper spent the next decade selling housewares on the East Coast.

The wheels for his next adventure were set in motion on Yom Kippur 1984, a day he spent stoned on a Massachusetts beach. He found himself thinking about his college roommate, the Hillel activist, who was killed in a car accident shortly after graduation. It struck him that he had to visit Israel.

The trip changed his life. He started in Cairo, making his way to Tel Aviv by bus. “As soon as I crossed the border, I had this incredibly visceral feeling that I was home,” he said. “That this was my people and this was my land. I got so excited, and that feeling has never left me. It was very emotional.” He spent his two weeks traveling throughout the country and took one class at a yeshiva. (He continues to make frequent visits today and owns an apartment in Jerusalem.)

After returning to the United States, Alper moved to Berkeley, where his brother lived. Always on the lookout for his next business venture, he decided he wanted it to also benefit Israel. He heard about the growing number of born-again Christians in America and figured they would be a good market for a business selling Israeli food and Christian-themed knick-knacks, so he opened Holy Land Gifts.

“I understood, very clearly, the irony of a Jewish guy selling crucifixes, so in my marketing I was careful to fit into the born-again Christian world,” he wrote in “Business Mensch.”

“Aware that a Berkeley, California, address might raise eyebrows in the Bible Belt, I rented a post office box in El Cerrito. It sounded like a suburb in Conservative Orange County.”

In Berkeley, he was drawn to the crowd at the fledgling Chabad house — a bunch of ba’alei-teshuvah guys around his age, including a young Rabbi Yehuda Ferris, leader of Berkeley Chabad for 30 years now.

“He was young and impressionable, and had just been to a yeshiva in Israel and was looking to continue in his Torah studies,  and we just hit it right off and became fast friends,” Ferris said of Alper.

“It’s all his fault,” Alper retorted, blaming Ferris good-naturedly for shepherding him to greater religious observance. “He was funny, and it resonated with me.”

Also during this time, he met his wife, Hope; Ferris officiated at their wedding, and the couple went on to have two sons.

Hope and Noah Alper

Holy Land Gifts, however, was not a success, even though it stayed afloat for a few years. “I didn’t understand Christianity or my customers; there was nothing that was right about any of it, except that the catalogs looked good,” Alper said. “I had items that were guaranteed to offend every branch of Christianity, all in the same catalog.  … My biggest seller was a Jesus video, which I sold three of.”

By 1989, Alper was ready for his next venture. His brother Spike had just come back from Montreal, where he experienced that city’s style of bagels, and he told Alper he should consider opening a bagel store in the Bay Area. (Alper gives Spike all the credit for his later success, insisting he could not have done it without his tremendous help.)

Knowing of just one bagel store on Telegraph Avenue, Alper saw a niche that needed filling.

“I like to use a surfing analogy,” he said. “You can’t be too late, or too early, you have to catch it exactly, and I saw bagels becoming huge, like pizza.”

He opened his first shop on the corner of College Avenue and Alcatraz on the Oakland/Berkeley border, covering the walls with old pictures of the Lower East Side. (Much of that décor still exists in the shops today and is an important part of its brand.) More significantly, Noah’s Bagels opened as a kosher shop.

Local newspapers, including J.’s predecessor, the Jewish Bulletin (above), made hay of the new commercial venture that brought kosher bagels to Berkeley.

That came as a direct result of his friendship with Ferris, Alper said. “Making the shop kosher entailed some effort, but it was worth it,” he wrote in “Business Mensch. “Noah’s wasn’t just going to be a bagel shop. It was going to have a set of values. One of them was Jewish pride. Another was Jewish community. I wanted to create a place where all kinds of Jews — secular, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, gay, straight — could feel comfortable eating. I had been learning with a Chabad rabbi; I wanted this to be a place where he could eat as well.”

It was also Ferris who suggested that Alper adopt the moniker Noah’s for the business (and, as it turned out, for himself) instead of using his given name. “It would have been Norman’s Bagels, which is much less authentic sounding,” Ferris joked.

It took “heroic measures” to obtain kosher certification, Ferris said, including permission to keep it open on Shabbat, something Alper felt was a necessity.

“There’s a leniency in the Talmud that if there’s an important communal need, some [kosher] strictures can be loosened,” Alper said.

Noah’s Bagels soon became a kind of Jewish symbol in the Bay Area, something that Alper traded on with his advertising campaigns, including brochures boasting turn-of-the-century photos of New York. One ad from the early days featured a picture of matzah next to the statement, “Since we can’t make unleavened bread, we’ll be closed for Passover.”

“It had so many different branches, and people were able to encounter their Judaism and spirituality there,” said Ferris, noting that the chain’s strong Jewish sensibility earned it a nickname among regulars as “the synagogue of the Bay Area.”

“At Noah’s,” Alper wrote, “I came to see myself not only as a business owner, an employer, or an executive. I saw myself as a salesman for Jewish pride. When we lit a Chanukah menorah in a store, when I put a tzedaka box on a counter, when I distributed explanations about Jewish holidays, I wasn’t just selling bagels. That is not to say I was proselytizing; I wasn’t. I was educating Jews and putting a positive sense of my own traditions on display.”

He believes he is the one who introduced the word “schmear” to the Bay Area.

Alper did step away from tradition when he started adding new flavors like blueberry, chocolate chip and oat bran. He drew the line at serving sprouts on a bagel, however. And he took some flack from New Yorkers for steaming rather than boiling his bagels (he did it to improve shelf life, he said, noting that a boiled bagel can, by lunch time, be used as a door stop).

Plenty of his customers loved the product, he said. “Some had no idea what a bagel was, much less a good one. We could put out anything and they’d be happy.”

From that first store on College Avenue, in just six years Noah’s New York Bagels grew to 38 stores, including more than a dozen in the Bay Area and others from Seattle to Los Angeles. At one point it was the largest kosher retailer in the country.

Alper never forgot the lesson in giving back he learned from his brother-in-law. He handed out free bagels at the end of the day in People’s Park and gave day-old bagels to local food banks. He donated money to local Little League teams and paid his employees to clean up a nearby park or do community service before a new store opened in the neighborhood.

“We got a reputation of being communally involved, and it was good for business,” he said. “There were a lot of reasons to do it and not a lot of reasons not to.”

After six years, Alper had had enough. He sold the chain to Einstein Bros. Bagels for $100 million (Noah’s Bagels is no longer kosher) and went to Israel with his wife and two sons for a year to study at Pardes, a co-ed yeshiva for English-speakers in Jerusalem. When he came home, he spent four years helping to get the Jewish Community High School off the ground, and then turned again to the kosher food world, when in 2003 he and some partners opened Ristorante Raphael, an upscale kosher Italian restaurant in downtown Berkeley.

It lasted barely four years, sharing the fate of most other kosher eateries that try to make a go of it here.

“While the Bay Area has a large Jewish community, it does not have a tremendously large community that’s interested in kosher, that’s the short answer,” he said.

Still, he’s not giving up. It may be hard to sustain a kosher restaurant locally, but that doesn’t mean it can’t, or shouldn’t, be done. “What I said at Raphael’s closing dinner was that I still believe that a viable kosher restaurant will rise again in the Bay Area, it’s just a question of time. The form might be different, the food might be different, and the location might be different, but it will rise again,” said Alper. “There’s too much demand for it not for happen, and it’s too important as a community-building enterprise for it not to develop.”

His friends take him seriously.

“Noah is a visionary and he delivers on what he promises,” said Isaac “Yitz” Applbaum, a Bay Area entrepreneur who partnered with him on Raphael’s. “He’s a great communicator and an absolutely wonderful partner who led by example.”

“He is unstoppable, he’s always moving, exercising and talking about his next business move and how to do better for the Jewish community,” added Ferris. But no matter what else he does with his life, as he approaches his seventh decade, Alper is at peace with the fact that his name will always be associated with bagels.

“When people tell me they love Noah’s Bagels, I say ‘I sold the business 20 years ago.’ If they tell me they hate Noah’s Bagels, I say ‘I sold the business 20 years ago.’ Either way, I’m off the hook.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."