How Adam’s Bagels Achieved Insane Success by Choosing to be Great, Instead of Big

To understand how the tiny restaurant conquered Trinidad’s casual dining space, you’ll need to look beyond the menu.

Adam Aboud thought he had it figured out: a second restaurant on Henry Street in the heart of Port of Spain would tap the lower end of the market, increase sales, and position Adams Bagels for long-term growth. As business picked up, he would fend off competition from the other players in Trinidads casual dining space. He knew he could make it work. It helped that everyone knew him as the man who brought the famed New York bagel to Trinidad and his first restaurant had already earned a reputation for quality food and exceptional service. Seven years after the coup, the city was also still home to a large number of thriving businesses whose patronage he could count on. His father had approved of the expansion back then, even offering his own property as collateral for the loan. Yet, just six months after opening, Aboud recalled, the venture was all one terrible mistake.”

The Business Growth Dilemma

It was August 1994. Aboud launched the second restaurant hoping to replicate the early success of the original Adam’s Bagels, which he’d opened on the Saddle Road in Maraval two years prior. With the foot traffic in town he was sure he’d recoup his investment in no time. But he badly miscalculated. Loved by Trinis who frequently travelled to New York, London, and Toronto, and the oil and gas expats who lived in the suburbs, the bagel didn’t do well with Port of Spain crowds. He pinpoints the exact moment he decided to close the diner. “It was one thing after another. One day I just said, ‘Ah, I’m a one-business man. I can’t run two things at the same time.’” 

With that decision, Aboud sealed the fate of Adam’s Bagels for good joining a handful of small business owners who found their stride by bucking the conventional thinking that suggests small businesses grow for the sake of growth. A second restaurant seemed like a good idea at the time. But it took only a short while for Aboud to conclude it wasn’t what he wanted. He resolved from that point on there would only be one Adam’s Bagels, the one in Maraval, where he enjoyed showing up to work every morning. How he managed to turn that single location into an industry standout with 53 employees and revenue growth of 300% in under 10 years has much to do with that fateful decision to keep his business small, with how he was raised, and with a certain je ne sais quois from his wife Jackie, whom you could easily regard as genius.

Personalised Customer Service

The restaurant is a hive of activity at a quarter past nine on a Saturday morning. Chatty kids play on iPads. Waitresses in black polos take orders for Americanos, vanilla mochas, bake ‘n saltfish, and supreme omelettes stuffed with peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and bacon. In the corner, a young girl using earbuds to block out the hum of adult conversation around her, props an iPhone against her backpack watching Netflix. A middle-aged man reads a copy of the Trinidad Express by the bar. Three or four people mill around waiting to be seated. Sitting just behind them, at a pair of tables pulled together to accommodate a group of five regulars, is Adam Edmund Aboud, 56, wearing a striped long-sleeved shirt with dark jeans and dress shoes, having his second cup of coffee, talking shop. 

The place isn’t grand by any measure. In fact, the tables are packed so close it could feel like everyone is sharing the same meal. But its small size speaks to a key aspect of Aboud’s business strategy: a determination to foster a culture of intimacy. That’s part of the broader appeal of Adam’s Bagels, and it emerged from the early days when Aboud took orders by phone and delivered his bagels in person.

“I really got to know people on those runs,” he said, “the more they got to know me, the more business we did.” When he opened the restaurant, he insisted on giving his customers the same personalised attention they got when he visited their homes; something he just couldn’t do when he had to divide his time between Maraval and Henry Street. Yet, this went well beyond personalised attention.

Business Culture

To really communicate his vision of intimacy, things like surprising customers with small, random acts of kindness became the norm. One time, Aboud used his own driver to take a couple who were visiting from the US to Maracas after they told him they hadn’t yet been to the beach. This was 10 minutes after meeting them in the restaurant for the first time. He would emerge from the kitchen with a tray towering with the ends of currant rolls and divide them up among the diners. He’d invite customers to sample new items before they were approved for the official menu. On other occasions, he’d pick out an unfamiliar face for a special treat, which is how he met Bobby Arnasalam, the owner of Bobby’s Barbershop higher up the Saddle Road. “The first time I went there it was an Easter weekend,” recalls Arnasalam. “Mr. Aboud asked me who I was, and we ended up ole talkin’ a bit. Then about two-three hours later, he showed up here with a box of hot cross buns for the shop.” Arnasalam remembers Aboud repeatedly refused his offer to pay for the buns. He and his wife have been customers of Adam’s Bagels ever since. 

Extraordinary service had been Aboud’s strategy to keep people coming back to Adam’s Bagels. A quality of caring so profound no one would ever forget the place.

Whether it’s the people who made the trek from South and often received a treat on the house for their troubles, or the moms who leave with goodie bags for their kids, or the schools and churches in Maraval he cares deeply about. Aboud knew none of it would work long-term if his staff caught only occasional glimpses of how he treated the customers. Thus, he set out to train them. Radical customer service, he figured, had to involve the entire team.

Ayana George, one of his longest-serving employees recalled how her boss encouraged wait staff to remember customers’ names and meal preferences and to look for opportunities to wow them. She says those nuggets of wisdom often helped her turn one-off customers into regulars. “I remember one time this couple came in and the wife asked for a plastic knife and fork instead of the stainless-steel cutlery. The husband was joking about it saying she was a special kind of germaphobe who would drink out of a restaurant’s wine glass but would never use the cutlery. It was so funny I never forgot about it. They came back maybe six months later, but I remembered to bring plastic with her order, and she thought that was so cool. When she comes in now, she’s always looking for me.” 

Kathy-Ann Ramsammy, another employee, recalled how a customer gushed to her about the time she put through a special breakfast order he’d placed over the phone for his wife’s birthday. A meal he couldn’t pay for because of an issue with his card. Ramsammy assured him it was okay. He could pay the next time he came by. “He just kept telling me how grateful he was for that small favour, and how his wife really loved the food.”

Just about every employee here has their own happy customer story.  But if being kind to customers seems unoriginal and trite, its ability to build loyalty, generate repeat business and drive bottom-line growth is undeniable.

Not Your Typical Customer Service

A Wall Street Journal report calls it the “under promise, over deliver” method and suggests this approach to customer service goes well beyond creating customers who are merely satisfied. Rather, it’s about exceeding people’s expectations to the point where they become raving fans of the business, as Ken Blanchard calls them in his book One Minute Manager. This word-of-mouth marketing has profound implications for business success with study after study confirming that customers of service businesses are more likely influenced by great service they don’t expect. It makes sense because what customers experience at Adam’s Bagels isn’t typical of Trinidadian restaurants.

Yet, Aboud says he didn’t immediately appreciate the relationship between great service and profits until his wife insisted, they attend international food shows and seminars. “One year we were at the International Baking Industry Expo in Las Vegas and the guy was going around the room picking people randomly and asking, ‘You there, guy in the purple shirt, what business are you in?’ People would respond I’m in retail. Or I’m in wholesale. Or I’m in manufacturing. Each time the guy on stage would go ‘No, you’re not. You are in the customer service business.’ 

That’s when it hit me.”

Employee Retention

Unsurprisingly, at Adam’s Bagels there is none of the usual hierarchy or silos you find at larger companies to hinder the intimate culture Aboud strives for. None of the politics. None of the cold distance between owner and employees. On the contrary, Aboud takes a personal interest in the lives of the people who work for him. People like Sharlean Sookradge who at 42 is already an 18-year veteran of the company in her official role as floor manager. To hear Sharlean’s story is to appreciate the other side to Aboud’s success. Never mind his business acumen or the winsome, chipper personality his customers find appealing; there would be no Adam’s Bagels without the highly motivated workforce who make this restaurant work. And Sharlean, who says she has a special place in her heart for Adam’s, has been here from day one.

Those feelings are understandable. She was a 26-year-old single mom with very little experience or educational qualifications when she just started, harbouring a shame about her then partner few people knew about. “He had a gambling problem so a lot of times my son wouldn’t have anything, or I wouldn’t have anything,” Sharlean recalled, choking back tears. Then she got her break.

“Mr. Aboud saw good in me. He saw my potential and he saw I was willing to work. I started waitressing tables and mopping floors, but I started to see my worth.”

In those days, she worked for $332 a week and although the work was fairly routine, she was grateful just to have a job to take care of the love of her life: her son Jesse who grew up idolising Brian Lara and dreaming of going to Fatima. On the day Sharlean found out he’d passed for the school, she recalls Aboud was so overjoyed he arranged for her to celebrate with Jesse over dinner.

While some companies accept that all it takes to attract and keep employees are high salaries and lavish bonuses, the perks at Adam’s Bagels include having a boss who cares for you personally. It’s yet another dimension to the culture of intimacy Aboud has implemented. To make his business work, he extended the same enlightened hospitality he offered the customers to his staff-with remarkable results to show for it. Four of his employees have been with the company for as long as there’s been an Adam’s Bagels-27 years to be exact. Another 12 have made 15 years, and there’s another half dozen staff with tenure of eight to 10 years. Most of the remaining staff have on average, a little over five years with the company. 

Considering the industry-wide challenge finding good people to work in hospitality, Adam’s Bagels is what Malcolm Gladwell calls an outlier. Moreso because employee turnover is costly. “I don’t think I’ve fired one person since I started the business,” says Aboud. “Maybe once in 27 years.” By treating his employees right,  Aboud all but ensured the company’s profitability, saving himself both the time and money associated with frequent hiring and a loss in productivity.

Scaling From Within

During the early 2000s, the local restaurant scene changed considerably with the introduction of Rituals Coffee, whose owner moved rapidly to open branches across the country. But, if Aboud was tempted to follow suit, to go back on his commitment to keep Adam’s Bagels small so he could compete with the burgeoning coffee chain, the temptation vanished when he got a surprise visit from a man he’d long admired. “I couldn’t believe it. I was here in the shop when all of a sudden I hear this loud voice asking ‘Where’s Adam? Where’s Adam?’ in an American accent, and right in front of me was Mr. Murray Lender.”

Lender was chief executive of Lender’s Bagel Bakery, which began as a family business in the 1950s and rose to prominence in the 1970s for turning the humble bagel into an American breakfast staple. He’d been on a vacation in Tobago when during a random skim through of Discover magazine he came across a tiny ad for “Trinidad’s only bagel shop.” Bagel magnate as he was, Lender couldn’t resist the urge to sample a Caribbean bagel, and  he caught a flight to Trinidad to meet Adam Aboud in person. By the end of their conversation Aboud felt relieved. “He was really impressed with the place. He told me I’d made the right decision to close the second restaurant to focus on this one. He told me to keep building the restaurant around me.”

That’s exactly what Aboud did, and by that time, the restaurant also started to reflect the stylish influence of Aboud’s wife, Jackie George Aboud had on the space.

It may have been her years studying fashion design in Milan, but what George-Aboud did at Adam’s Bagels can’t be understated. Having ruled out expanding the restaurant geographically, she found ways to scale the business from within. She began by taking a keen interest in what the customers were asking for. Within weeks, new items would appear on the shelves and in the displays, she’d set up near the front of the restaurant. According to Aboud, his wife would pay attention to the little things. But what really got his attention was when he sat down to look at the numbers and saw their impact. “We never had labels on stuff. She put labels on the items and sales jumped 10%. She put light in the displays, sales would go up by 15%. Every morning she had a new idea.”  Last December, Jackie and Adam Aboud saw their biggest idea yet become a reality: a significant upgrade to the restaurant which was made possible when Republic Bank came up big to help them buy the adjoining property. “We are just thrilled with how it looks,” said Aboud.

What’s Next?

To see it now, Adam’s Bagels has retained its distinctive personality and looks to be thriving with some 4.5 million bagels sold since it opened. There is ample space to the front with more chillers and displays for grab-and-go items, but none of the charm has been lost in the renovation. This is still a hometown business. Most of all, as you walk through the door, the family vibe is still here with Aboud’s 82-year-old mother Odette still hard at work behind the counter never mind the two steel rods in her back.

It’s also with Sharlean, Matthew, Lloyd, Kathy-Ann and the rest of the staff still fully bought into a shared purpose. Jackie Aboud also expresses her gratitude, “It’s been so many years and I just feel like our customers built this business with us.” As Aboud mulls the future, he’s favoured keeping keeping Adam’s Bagels small, just like his father had.

A man should be in his business every day, his old man told him. But what if the next generation of Abouds see things a different way? Despite the incredible success he’s achieved by staying small, by keeping it intimate, it’s something he’s recently found himself thinking about. “My son is coming back to take the business and run with it,” he says with a chuckle. “He might open 15 Adam’s Bagels all over the place. But he will have to give me a job because I will never retire. Never.”

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