Joe West didn’t expect to be working for a fast-food chain. Then he lost his job.
This isn’t your standard recession story. West was dean of Florida International University’s renowned hospitality program for a decade, and then he lost his job after opposing the hire of the school’s new president. Now he’s running a bagel franchise with Larry King as a spokesman and 11 locations.
His transition from top academic to bagel executive marks one of the more surprising turns in West’s career as a top player in South Florida’s hospitality industry.
He led FIU’s hospitality school into prominence with two major initiatives: starting the event that went on to become the South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and spearheading a government-funded FIU hospitality school in China. Both were bringing in almost $4 million a year while West was dean. The festival has brought about $12 million to the school, and is funding a new $4 million teaching kitchen and dining room for students.
West points to the festival and China venture as examples of how public universities can use entrepreneurial ventures to compensate for declining government dollars. And he sees his new career running operations at the Brooklyn Water Bagel chain as a good use of his entrepreneurial instincts.
“I feel re-energized,’’ the 67-year-old said from his Boca Raton office.
West opposed hiring Mark Rosenberg, a former chancellor with Florida’s state university system, as FIU’s next president in 2009. Days after FIU’s board offered Rosenberg the job, West said he was out of his.
“I was informed on a Wednesday afternoon I was no longer dean but I would still be provost of the campus,’’ West recalled. “I was called Sunday night and told I wasn’t going to be anything except a professor.”
A former student’s brother was shopping around an idea for a new restaurant chain: a bagel shop with a special formula for making New York bagels by recreating Brooklyn water. West was skeptical at first, but eventually signed on as a top executive. The catch: no salary, only stock in a company that barely existed at the time.
West now earns a salary, and says the Brooklyn franchise model has been growing steadily. The company only owns two stores — one in Delray Beach and one in Beverly Hills — but franchise owners in nine other locations pay to be part of the chain. He said investors have put down the money to bring the total chain count to 250.
The chain pitches itself as selling the closest thing you can get to a real New York bagel outside of New York. Franchise owners must buy the company’s water-purification system, which claims to replicate Brooklyn water and thus produce an authentic Brooklyn bagel.
So far, the company has sold 10 territory franchises, including shops in South Beach, Hollywood and the BankAtlantic Center. Larry King was given one in Beverly Hills as part of a endorsement deal shortly after he left his CNN nighttime talk show.
West sat down recently with Business Monday to discuss China, shrimp flipping and the true cost of a coffee refill.
Q: How does the Larry King endorsement work?
He’s a partner in the store and he’s a spokesperson for the company. We’ve given him a contract along the lines of the way that William Shatner has with Priceline. Shatner took a piece of the company instead of a lot of money, and it has made him tens of millions of dollars. Our deal with Larry King is not as big as his deal. But it’s a nice little deal. As we grow, he will be nicely rewarded.
Q: Can you see the ups and downs in the economy from your sales?
No. That’s what’s nice about it.
Q: Did you like bagels before you joined the company?
I was not much of a bagel person until I met with Steven Fassberg, our CEO and founder. He and his partner came to me to talk about the business plan. We spent an afternoon together. They wanted to develop a national brand. I said I’m not really sure. I said I’ll take a dozen bagels home and we’ll see.
I talked to my wife, and she said there just is not a good bagel out there. I said these guys are trying to do one. She said I don’t think it can be done. … I took a little piece and put it in her mouth. She said Joe you’d better be a part of this company.
Q : Does the world need another bagel chain?
If you’re trying to get in the hamburger business, you’re competing with McDonald’s and Burger King and Wendy’s. And all of these national brands.
If you get in the bagel business, you’re mainly competing with mom and pop people. Yeah, there are the Einsteins and Panera. But generally, if you can bring in a system for making the bagels efficiently and a superior product, you can really own the market. We don’t have any chefs. We don’t have any sous chefs. The margins are good.
Q: Brooklyn Bagels has an elaborate self-service coffee station. Starbucks doesn’t.
Q: Should Starbucks change?
We’re going to go toward the Starbucks way. As we develop our new stores, we’re going to be putting our coffee behind the counter. Once you do a refill, the coffee gets more expensive than the cup.
Q: You have coffee ice cubes for your ice coffee. Isn’t that expensive?
That’s proven to be very popular. We use the leftover coffee for the ice cubes. We have special ice-cube trays. We fill them up with a gun.
Q: You were on the board of Benihana. What did the recession do to Benihana?
The recession showed Benihana we had lost contact of why people were coming into the restaurants. That’s why we had a complete change of top management there.
They got us back into a value-based menu. And they realized the focus should be on the chefs. People come to Benihana to see the chefs. We retrained the chefs on entertainment and developed routines they had to do.
We were just grill cooks out in the dining room. We weren’t chef entertainers.
Q: New routines?
We developed 15 routines. There were five mandatory routines that everybody had to do, and of the other 10, they had to do five. They either had to flip the shrimp into their hat, or they had to do the volcano with the onions [in which a tower of onions spews flames and steam], spinning the egg on the spatula.
Q: Why did you leave the board?
I was not renominated.
Q: How come?
The board doesn’t tell why you’re not nominated. The most difficult part of it was I was on the nominating committee. When they discussed me I had to recuse myself. When we reconvened and we finished the nominations, I found out I was not nominated. Talk about cold boardroom politics. Although CEO Rich Stockinger did thank me very much for my service.