If it’s true that behind every successful man is a surprised mother-in-law, Murray Lender’s is in a state of shock. When her daughter Joyce announced 28 years ago that she was marrying the son of a Polish bagel baker from New Haven, Conn., Lender recalls, “Joyce’s mother almost slit her wrists.”
Murray, who at 55 is the CEO of Lender’s Bagel Bakery, is looking better now. Last year, Lender’s, the world’s biggest bagel manufacturer, grossed $60 million and sold out to Kraft for more than $90 million. The bagel boom, for which Murray is largely responsible, has become big business.
The Lenders—brothers Sam, 65 and retired, Murray, and Marvin, 45, the president—inherited their passion for the roll with a hole. In 1927 their immigrant father, Harry, bought a bakery in New Haven for $700; Murray made bagels in the garage at age 12. After attending New Haven’s Junior College of Commerce he went to work for his father (now deceased) for $50 a week and in 1962 attacked a hard problem: bagels get stale quickly. “After 24 hours you can start wars with them,” he admits, but with packaging that he invented, the bagels lasted longer.
Next, Murray tried freezing bagels to further extend their shelf life. “It was,” he declares, “the beginning of a new era. Between automation and a new selling concept, I became the industry’s first salesman. The bad news was, no one knew what a bagel was.” Low in calories (150 in two ounces) and nutritionally sound, bagels are boiled and then baked and, Murray claims, still haven’t been tasted by about 80 percent of Americans. Because big companies failed to take them seriously, Lender’s got a virtual monopoly on the frozen bagel market.
Murray’s millions haven’t altered his life. He still jogs around the neighborhood dreaming up ways to further the bagel cause. “This is, in essence, an American success story,” he says. “The small guy can still do something innovative and flourish.” Their children, Carl, 25, daughter Haris, 24, and Jay, 17, so far are resistant to what they call “Lenderitis,” meaning bagel-mania, but the Kraft buy-out has already had one family repercussion. Recalls Joyce: “Carl called my mother immediately and said, ‘Remember, you never liked my father.’ ‘I never said that, ‘she said.”