In 2013, Elyse Oleksak, co-founder of Bantam Bagels, got a call from her husband Nick about a bite-sized snack that would set some big plans in motion. “Mini bagels stuffed with cream cheese,” Oleksak recalls him saying in her recently released memoir A Shark Ate My Bagel: How We Built Bantam Bagels. “Sort of like doughnut holes, but bagels.” Oleksak had heard plenty of ambitious ideas from her entrepreneurially-minded husband in the past, but tiny stuffed bagels were one she could get behind. The duo met at a grocery store after work to start experimenting.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Elyse Oleksak

It was the beginning of Bantam Bagels’ near-decade-long journey, one that cycled through “success followed by failure” and “elation followed by panic,” Oleksak tells Entrepreneur exclusively.

The business made a splash on Shark Tank, where the Oleksaks struck a $275,000 deal for 11% equity with Lori Greiner (hence the title of Oleksak’s book) in 2014. In the next several years, it saw sales hit $45 million as it expanded the product line to include mini stuffed pancakes and egg bites, landed in 10,000 stores and 8,500 Starbucks and was ultimately acquired by the Ohio-based T. Marzetti Company for $34 million in 2018 before ceasing operations in 2022.

Related: All 7 ‘Shark Tank’ Stars Share Tips on How to Become a Millionaire

“We were going to die in the wake of our own success if we didn’t do something about it soon.”

Like many entrepreneurs who find themselves at the helm of a fast-growing business, the Oleksaks had an “aha moment” when they realized their cash-versus-growth dilemma. “We got to a point where even though this was our baby and it was something that we had owned at near 100% for so long, we were going to die in the wake of our own success if we didn’t do something about it soon,” Oleksak says. So the Oleksaks sold to T. Marzetti. It felt like a perfect match, Oleksak recalls, and the couple stayed on in marketing and product development capacities.

However, getting used to her new relationship with the company wasn’t easy, Oleksak admits. It’s a struggle that didn’t make it into the book, she says, but an important one nevertheless. According to Oleksak, with all of the focus on success stories and flashy sales, there’s an all-too-common experience that gets lost in the narrative because “people don’t talk about” it: How do you cope when all of your hard work pays off and your dream finally comes true?

“Every single ounce and fiber of our being was dedicated to the survival and growth of this company [for years],” Oleksak explains, “so when you operate in this fight or flight mode for so long, it just becomes who you are.” Simultaneously chasing success and steeling for calamity takes a serious mental toll, Oleksak says, and when there were no more fires to put out, her brain began “inventing disasters” that didn’t exist and therefore had no concrete solutions — a never-ending “spiral.”

Related: 4 Ways Highly Successful People Handle Tough Times and Get Back on Track

“When we were left feeling safe and at peace, I almost didn’t know what to do with that safety and peace.”

“We found loving arms for our explosive child,” Oleksak says. “We did it. But every single sense of self and success [had been] wrapped in this swirl of panic at all times, so when we were left feeling safe and at peace, I almost didn’t know what to do with that safety and peace. Your brain almost doesn’t know what to do when it stops. I personally went through an extreme breakdown.” Oleksak likens the experience to those of professional athletes who have to redefine themselves after a career in sports.

Seeing your biggest dream become a reality can be amazing, but you have to prepare your brain for a complete mindset shift and pick up the appropriate tools to navigate that, according to Oleksak. The entrepreneur is a huge proponent of therapy and credits it with helping her recalibrate what it takes to get from one day to the next without considering chaos a foregone conclusion. “I worked through a lot to find mental peace and stability and be able to be present again in the moment,” she says.

Unfortunately, just a couple of years after T. Marzetti acquired Bantam Bagels, the pandemic put pressure on the supply chain, making it a challenge to stock the same variety of products as retailers streamlined processes wherever possible. By that point, Oleksak says she and her husband had given up a lot of decision-making authority and weren’t involved in the conversations that ultimately led T. Marzetti to stop production of the brand. Still, Oleksak — and the nearly 1,500 people who signed a petition in support of Bantam Bagels’ return — would love to see the products make a comeback one day.

Related: 5 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health

As Oleksak reflected on her entrepreneurial journey “full of ups and downs,” she kept coming back to all of the connections she’d made along the way — from every customer who purchased a Bantam Bagel to the manufacturers who took a chance on the product, celebrity endorsers including Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker and Whoopi Goldberg, and so many more — and wanted to give back with a behind-the-scenes look at lessons learned over the years. So Oleksak put pen to paper and drafted A Shark Ate My Bagel, then opted to self-publish it “the entrepreneurial way,” with a marketing plan that included her own website and an Amazon push.

“Thank God I organized all those lessons because, man, did I make a lot of mistakes,” Oleksak laughs. These days, she’s approaching the publication of her book as she would the launch of a “mini business” and says she’s putting most of her energy into that right now. But she also looks forward to working with small businesses in the future, helping them avoid the mistakes she made and secure wins of their own.


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