Keeping a bagel business fresh

Robert Tattenbaum, 46, owner of Stuff N' Bagels, Robert Tattenbaum, 46, owner of Stuff N' Bagels, in Oceanside, behind the counter on Aug. 22, 2014. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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At Stuff N' Bagels in Oceanside, owner Robert Tattenbaum believes that new offerings aren't just niceties but necessities in a town with five other bagel joints, including a store that opened last year. But after decades of creating new menu items, Tattenbaum is beginning to run out of ideas.

"I'm not in jeopardy of going out of business," said Tattenbaum, 46, whose firm generates "six digits" in annual revenue, "but profitability wanes every year."

Experts say Tattenbaum can strengthen his business in many ways, including appealing to the health-conscious set with protein-rich fare.

LONGTIME FAMILY BUSINESS
Tattenbaum said challenges are no stranger to the company his grandparents started 40 years ago and struggled to keep afloat. In 1977 they stepped aside and his parents took over, introducing a breakfast menu and wholesaling bagels to luncheonettes and diners to salvage the operation. In the early 1990s, Tattenbaum tried to grow Stuff N' Bagels' delivery efforts by dispatching employees with takeout menus to local companies.

"But it never took off," said Tattenbaum, who started working in the store 34 years ago -- after school, on weekends and during vacations. He assumed ownership in 2009, and today his daughter, Julianne, 18, a college student, is among the firm's three employees. Since its inception, the 40-seat eatery has called home a 1,400-square-foot shop in a strip mall that now houses Marshall's, Kohl's, Staples and Michael's.

"The location is great," said Tattenbaum.

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This summer, as part of his openness to "trial and error," he added croissants, coffee crumb cake, chopped salad and new cream cheese flavors, including bacon chives and jalapeƱo.

While his retail business generates more than 90 percent of his revenue and is nearly back to 2011's levels, thanks largely to many Sandy-devastated stores reopening and locals returning to their restored homes, his wholesale business has dropped 20 percent since the storm, Tattenbaum said. Sandy permanently shuttered three major accounts, and with his hand-rolled, water-boiled bagels running $2 a dozen higher than mass-produced offerings, scoring new wholesale customers hasn't been a cakewalk, he said.

Erica Chase-Gregory, acting director at the Small Business Development Center at Farmingdale State College, applauded Tattenbaum's relentless introduction of new products. But she said he should "rethink" his wholesale prices, since neither deli owners nor their customers will be able to justify paying more for a bagel. "A bagel is a bagel," she said.

Tattenbaum said he offers a short-term discount on the wholesale price for new accounts.

Chase-Gregory also suggested offering a 10 percent discount to employees in the strip mall's stores, and believes Tattenbaum should personally meet with business owners to pitch his delivery service.

RELATIONSHIP-MAKING
"Everything in business is about relationship-making," said Chase-Gregory.

Tattenbaum should also take advantage of health food trends, said Kate Edwards, owner of a food service consulting firm that bears her name and an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education, both in Manhattan. She recommended adding homemade hummus; protein-rich nut butters, such as almond and cashew varieties; and "grab-and-go" containers of tuna and fruit salad stocked in an open-air refrigerated unit.

While giving a thumbs-up to personally marketing his delivery service, adding hummus and providing discounts to employees of mall tenants, Tattenbaum nixed nut butters, because of customers' allergy concerns, and grab-and-go items. In the past, such products moved slowly in the winter, which made it difficult to ensure their freshness, he said. He now sells fresh fruit cups and berries and whipped cream -- but in an ice tray located on the counter.

Tattenbaum acknowledged that his store needs updating; its last renovation was 20 years ago. With the funds he is to receive from New York Rising, which provides financial support in communities hit hard by Sandy, he intends to install a new ceiling and bagel bins.

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"It's simple stuff, but it needs to be done," he said.

AT A GLANCE

NAME: Stuff N' Bagels, Oceanside

OWNER: Robert Tattenbaum

ESTABLISHED: 1974

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EMPLOYEES: 3

WEEKLY BAGEL PRODUCTION: 4,920

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