Ess-a-Bagel’s Melanie Frost Shares How Restaurants Can Build a Cult Following [Podcast]
- 15 Min Read
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Every restaurant’s dream is to build a cult-like following around its food, but how do you make customers feel that deeply about your brand and products? In this podcast, we go inside the mind of Ess-a-Bagel’s Chief Operating Officer, Melanie Frost, whose family started the famed bagel company in 1976. Melanie shares ways to grow a loyal customer base for your catering business, from crafting a strong social media presence to using local marketing tactics to create a cult-favorite restaurant.
Melanie Frost is Chief Operating Officer of Ess-a-Bagel. Her family started the business in 1976 and Melanie officially took over as COO in 2013.
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Genevieve Babineau: Welcome to The Catering Feed: The Catering Growth Podcast, a show about growing your catering business and restaurant industry trends. Powered by ezCater. I’m your host Genevieve Babineau.
I’m here today with Melanie Frost from Ess-a-Bagel. Melanie is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Ess-a-Bagel. It’s a family business. And Melanie has about 25-plus years in marketing and sales with a finance background. Just about five years ago, she took over leading Ess-a-Bagel.
I’m delighted to have you here today, Melanie. How are you doing?
Melanie Frost: I’m good. How are you?
Genevieve Babineau: I’m great. Happy to be in New York with you.
Melanie Frost: Happy to have you here. Excited.
Genevieve Babineau: So Melanie, Ess-a-Bagel has a cult following. The first time I walked into an Ess-a-Bagel, I had to kind of push through the crowd to find you because there was a line out the door and wrapped around the corner. Is that a normal occurrence?
Melanie Frost: I have to say yes. And really, it started many years ago. I mean, Ess-a-Bagel is a New York institution and my aunt really started the business over 40 years ago and created that.
Genevieve Babineau: I’m so excited to have you here today to talk about how independent business owners, who maybe run a smaller chain, can take that cult evangelism and totally scale it through the power of catering and creating a digital presence. So we’re so happy that you’re here.
Before we dive in, as always, we have to start off with some news. And the hottest news trending right now is about “Bagelgate.” And I can’t think of a better person to put this in perspective—just to keep our listeners updated. Recently, a man from St. Louis posted on Twitter about the St. Louis secret of vertically sliced bagels. And New Yorkers were outraged. Twitter went ballistic. So this is our moment to hear the Ess-a-Bagel COO’s official comment. What are your thoughts?
Melanie Frost: I was appalled. Absolutely appalled.
Genevieve Babineau: So walk me through that. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, was tweeting about it. The New York City chief of detectives wrote “Thank you for reporting this crime” to all his Twitter followers. What is with the fervor around bagels? Talk to me.
Melanie Frost: I’ll tell you. Bagels are literally, like I said, a New York institution and people love their bagels.
Genevieve Babineau: It’s a way of life!
Melanie Frost: It is! It’s really part of society here in New York specifically. And we take our bagels very seriously. So when, you know, you slice a bagel straight down the middle, that’s it. Vertically, with a little schmear and some lox, and that’s the way it goes. So where do you start to change that? I mean, it’s like a loaf of bread when you slice it that way! We just don’t do that!
Genevieve Babineau: So here’s the question. Is all press good press? Or was that, if you become associated with the wrong bagel etiquette, was that probably a bad move from a brand’s perspective?
Melanie Frost: Well, you know, it depends. I guess, you know, New Yorkers feel very strongly about their bagels. And actually the truth is, we’re a little bit, you know, proud of them and we feel we are the experts on it, quite frankly. So when someone goes—and, I mean, we do feel, that very often out-of-state people are not as familiar with the New York bagel.
Genevieve Babineau: So after Bagelgate erupted on the internet, what was the backlash for Ess-a-Bagel? Did you hear anything as a result?
Melanie Frost: Absolutely, we were [overwhelmed] with calls and we had different news stations calling us. They came in, they wanted to interview us, what was our feeling on it. They wanted to speak to the customers and get their thoughts. Yeah, it was crazy.
Genevieve Babineau: Well, this really is a perfect transition because our whole goal for today’s podcast is to share how, in your career, you’ve built fervor. How your family has created an evangelism and a cult following—and I think it’s pretty clear already that people care a lot about bagels. So it’s a great opportunity for us to talk about why they care so much about Ess-a-Bagel. So, I’d love if you could share just a quick background on how this has been a family business since 1976.
Melanie Frost: So my aunt started the business many years ago. My uncle, who was her brother, had a doughnut shop in Brooklyn and they weren’t renewing the lease. He had three kids to support and my aunt said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to figure this out.” And literally they combed the papers and as they were going through the papers they found a bagel shop. And my aunt said, “Doughnuts? Bagels? They both have holes. We’ll figure it out.” Really, that’s how it started.
Genevieve Babineau: That should be on a T-shirt.
Melanie Frost: Not a bad look. Yeah, that’s not bad for the logo…
I was working on Sundays but really got very involved with the business about five years ago when, unfortunately, my aunt passed away and my mom and I stepped in. And this has been, you know, a family business for years. My cousins are involved. My sister has worked there. It’s really just been all about family and that was my aunt’s legacy as well. When I stepped in, it was a matter of taking it to the next level.
Genevieve Babineau: I have to say the first time I walked into an Ess-a-Bagel, that was so obvious from the way your team members all treat each other like family. It’s like walking into a New York family reunion, when you walk to the back of the line. To the way your team treats the customer, to the way that you’re so proud of your food. I mean, it’s really evident that, in all three areas, you bring that love to everything you do. Do you think that the New York community responded to that and that’s how that word of mouth spread?
Melanie Frost: You know, I think it’s a combination of things. I think, first of all, [my aunt] definitely started that local, you know, everybody in the neighborhood coming by. And then the word spread and we [now] get people from all over the world coming, and we’re very fortunate. And so it really was just word of mouth. And then from there, it expanded. And then [my aunt] used to do a few shipments a day. She maybe had one or two a week. But now we’re doing up to 150 a day.
Genevieve Babineau: When she was first shipping that catering out, was it a profitable opportunity for her?
Melanie Frost: No, it really wasn’t because actually the shipping costs more than the bagels.
Genevieve Babineau: Yeah, that’s a rough financial decision. So then when you came on board and started to support her, what were your first steps to capitalize on catering?
Melanie Frost: So the first thing that we did was we computerized everything. It was a mom-and-pop, which again, it was wonderful. But we wanted to take it to the next level and we started creating a database of all of our clients. So she started out with 80 [clients], I mean she had a catering business. She had a very good business of catering and those were orders that were coming in every day. But this was a way for us to go back to current clients, existing clients, and find out how things were going, meeting with them, getting out there and actually doing tastings. So they really knew the different types of products that we had. Some people weren’t even aware that we offered lunch. And connecting with your clients, I think, is also really important.
Genevieve Babineau: It’s amazing how often [a deeply loyal] customer may not even know that a brand caters. Just making sure that you’re telling that new brand story, that you’re sharing that offering, [those details are] so key.
Melanie Frost: Absolutely. And we’ve had that experience in which people weren’t even aware of certain products that we had.
Genevieve Babineau: I think it’s interesting how you’ve taken advantage of the uniqueness of your trade area. You have a lot of local community followers but you’re also in an incredibly touristy area. So what are the opportunities and challenges of tourism?
Melanie Frost: Yes, so we do. We are fortunate in that way. We have a lot of hotels around the area and we actually cater to a lot of hotels. Every morning, we’re working with some of the most high-end, very high-profile hotels in the city. And who doesn’t want their breakfast from Ess-a-Bagel?
Genevieve Babineau: How did those relationships start with those hotels?
Melanie Frost: Truly, my aunt started that and then was just going out there and sharing with them. And even coming by and dropping off some bagels and saying, “Hey, have you tried them?” And you know, I actually had a call one day from a very high-profile hotel that said, “Hey, we’re switching our bagels. You had dropped some off, and we’re ready to switch.”
Genevieve Babineau: Good old-fashioned food drops.
Melanie Frost: Yeah, and calls. I think phone calls are really important. I think email has become the new way everyone does everything. But no one has that personal touch anymore. So I think it’s really important to pick up the phone.
Genevieve Babineau: Were you starting to see your customer [base] shift as tourism expanded? And where are most of your customers coming from?
Melanie Frost: I have to say that they come from all over the world, internationally. I mean, my aunt did have two kiosks in Japan for a couple of [years] when she was in business. We were with Japanese airlines, really, people from all over the world. And then truly through our shipping orders, too, we got a lot of people who weren’t even [originally] aware [of our brand]. But through our e-commerce business, people from all over the country were ordering shipping. And now we do anywhere from 50 to 150 shipments a day.
Genevieve Babineau: Wow. I think a lot of brands located in a touristy area struggle because you can give someone a great first-time guest experience. But then you might not see that incremental traffic if the customers are only there on vacation or they then go back home. I think a lot of brands sometimes struggle, thinking, “How are we going to keep sales flowing?” But it seems that your e-commerce business is how you address that exact problem.
Melanie Frost: Yeah, we partnered with a company, as I mentioned earlier. We weren’t able to [handle shipments on our own] because it was just way too expensive. But we partnered with a company called Goldbelly and they have all the food purveyors throughout the country. And now, like I mentioned, we do anywhere from 50 to 150 shipments a day. And we have packages that we can send across the country. And then when people come to New York, they’re so excited because they just got this shipment from Ess-a-Bagel.
Genevieve Babineau: So that e-commerce also serves as a marketing channel?
Melanie Frost: Yes, yes, yes. Absolutely.
Genevieve Babineau: Really interesting. How do you stay in touch telling that brand story through social media?
Melanie Frost: We actually capitalized on that. When my aunt, again, started the business, it was a lot of word of mouth and things like that. But I think social media is critical to your business. So we’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and we’re continually sharing our story and also sharing whatever. Doing contests, things like that, but always being out there. Always answering your clients, customers as well.
Genevieve Babineau: Do you think you’ve been able to repeat the cult following you have in the community on social media?
Melanie Frost: I hope so.
Genevieve Babineau: That’s the goal.
Melanie Frost: Yeah.
Genevieve Babineau: Tell us about the ways that you’re doing that. I love the contests. What else are you doing to stay engaged with that social media following?
Melanie Frost: So I think the contests, the packages that we’re offering. Even just saying “Happy New Year” or “Happy Thanksgiving.” People really appreciate that.
Genevieve Babineau: You have a new location opening in Madison Square Garden coming up. Congratulations, first of all. How are you using social channels to get the community excited and tease customers about what’s coming next for the brand?
Melanie Frost: I think it’s really important to tell a story. So we actually started the Facebook page early when we started construction of the store. It’s so that people can follow the story and see how the store has been built. So it’s really helped.
Genevieve Babineau: You spoke of the importance of responding to all your customers through social. In the real world, I think we would never turn our backs to a guest talking to us in our restaurant. But very often, because of limited resources, a brand has a social media page but isn’t responding to a customer or “talking back.” So how crucial has that been to your success?
Melanie Frost: It’s really very, very important. I have a great team. And also sometimes I go online and just, I’ll answer questions myself because it’s so important. This is your business. These are the people who are supporting your business. These are the loyal customers. And, of course, you’re going to have people who love you. Then you’re going to have people who, not necessarily, they had a bad experience. Those are the most important people to respond to.
Genevieve Babineau: What is that process for guest recovery when someone has a bad experience?
Melanie Frost: So we’ve answered people and then said, “Please come to the store.” Ask to speak with the manager. I’ve had people who’ve come in and either we offer them something or really want to know what happened and how we can fix that. And that’s what we share with them.
Genevieve Babineau: My favorite game to play, when I was in operations, was when you’d have an angry customer, someone who thought they had previously had a bad experience and you have that opportunity to flip them. I think there is a twisted little part of me that loved that so much.
Melanie Frost: It’s funny you say that, Genevieve, because I feel the exact same way and something I always say, especially in catering specifically, is always turn a problem into a solution. So things happen. Something can be late or you just never know and it’s really taking care of the customer. People just want to know that you’re listening and that you care. And by the time you do that and you’re really responding to their problem, they’re open to anything. Actually, I turn them into opportunities where we’ve done tastings and where we’ve come in and met with them and things like that.
Genevieve Babineau: I think sometimes when you’re able to flip the script on that bad experience, it actually creates a deeper loyalty.
Melanie Frost: Completely. I couldn’t agree with you more.
Genevieve Babineau: So how do you keep and maintain that level of hospitality as you scale your e-commerce business and your digital presence?
Melanie Frost: Yeah, I think it’s hard. I do. I think it’s a matter of, as you grow and you see these opportunities, it’s knowing what you don’t know. And also really being able to access people who know the business. I mean, we’ve partnered with ezCater and it’s been amazing. It’s been seamless for us and what’s really important is to have those partnerships and also to just expand [your business with] people who have the expertise.
Genevieve Babineau: For leaders who are interested in expanding their business into e-commerce or wholesale: what are the key elements that you look for when you’re choosing a partner?
Melanie Frost: I think it’s a combination of things. I think that it’s the relationship itself and building that. And really being able to learn from your partners and expose yourself as much as possible.
Genevieve Babineau: What keeps you up at night?
Melanie Frost: Well, everything!
Genevieve Babineau: As you’re dreaming about next steps for Ess-a-Bagel, is there a moment when you say, “Alright, we’ve done enough”?
Melanie Frost: Never. You know what? It’s also the legacy of my aunt. To me, it’s really a matter of making her proud. And also it’s just that love and seeing the people who’ve been with us for so long grow.
Genevieve Babineau: What’s your advice to other small business owners who have that local cult following, who want to figure out, “How do I scale this? How do I get in front of new customers?” What’s your advice to them?
Melanie Frost: It’s really talking to your customers, getting to know who they are, asking them questions, finding out as much as you can, and really being there for them. And exposing them to all the things that you have to offer, and finding a way to do that.
Genevieve Babineau: It’s really cool how an old-school family business tactic leads to opportunities to grow your digital space and presence, and your e-commerce business, and fully expand your catering. It’s a really cool way to balance old tactics that are tried-and-true while evolving with technological advancement.
Melanie Frost: Yeah, I think that’s a really important point to make because I think it’s really important to keep up with the trends and also to constantly change and grow. I’m a big believer in that. I always like change. So it’s really about being able to evolve and not standing still. At the same time, use what works.
Genevieve Babineau: Your aunt was sending out one to two catering shipments a week and you mentioned that at that point, the packaging and shipping costs were more than the bagels were worth. What made you decide to re-evaluate that e-commerce business and start to really invest in it?
Melanie Frost: We had clients calling. We had people coming in, calling, asking, “Hey, we live in Utah. We live in Alaska. We live in California. We really want to get your bagels and there’s nowhere like your bagels and we really want them.” And so, we weren’t able to fulfill that need.
Genevieve Babineau: If I was to have Ess-a-Bagel shipped to my office, which by the way, I’m definitely planning on doing now, what would it look like when it shows up?
Melanie Frost: So each bagel is wrapped individually. We do use gel packs to keep things cold and it is again, [delivered] the next day. So it’s fresh.
Genevieve Babineau: You might only have three brick-and-mortar locations, but what needs are you able to meet with e-commerce?
Melanie Frost: I think a lot. It’s great because you really expose yourself a tremendous amount nationally. You may have the New Yorker, a New York transplant who lives somewhere else and they can’t get a good bagel.
Genevieve Babineau: They need a hit!
Melanie Frost: Yeah absolutely, or you may have somebody who just wants to send a present to a close friend or a family member who wants to have something that’s iconic New York. What’s better than a bagel? And last but not least, well actually two things. One, we also have inquiries now from companies who are saying, “Look, we want to have [a] bagel breakfast.” And then last but not least, we’ve got our celebrities.
Genevieve Babineau: Stop it!
Melanie Frost: Yeah, we’re very happy and I’m really happy to say that Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson love our bagels as well!
Genevieve Babineau: So [your bagels are] everywhere, from New Yorkers who are missing a great thing to celebrities. Not half bad. It sounds like having e-commerce has really helped you expand to a whole new set of customers.
So we are so grateful that you were able to join us today. I think so many of our listeners are really going to relate to your story and see what’s possible with catering. So thank you so much, Melanie. I appreciate it.
Melanie Frost: Thank you so much. I was so happy to be here.
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