Is it possible for students to manage and operate a coffee shop on the Culver Academies campus?
The quick answer among students in instructor Andy Dorrel’s Entrepreneurial Economics class is an enthusiastic “Yes.” But after talking with three people associated with the Java Junction at Goshen College, which has a student population of just under 900, that enthusiasm has been tempered by the realities that come with running a business.
Still very much in its infancy, the initial concept is for the shop to be called The Rubin Café, a tip of the cap to The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur namesake. Naturally, The Republic of Tea products would be featured at the shop, which would be located in the foyer of the Roberts Hall of Science.
The first step to exploring the possibility of opening The Rubin School-operated business was meeting with Accounting Prof. Michelle Horning, who serves as the manager of Java Junction, and Matt Nofziger and Kristina Lopienski, who served on the student management team.
Horning explained there are seven student managers overseeing various aspects of the operations, including marketing (Lopienski) and financial (Nofziger). The students apply for those positions, are interviewed, and – if selected – take the Java Junction Management course. This provides academic credit for the management team. They are not paid, she added.
The managers meet with Horning several times a week and spend a minimum of 10 hours working on Java Junction business. However, Hofziger said “just being present” as much as possible is an important part of understanding the operation.
“The management team is the group that knows the least about it,” he said of the business. There are employees with up to three years of experience working behind the counter and the members of the management team are there just one or two semesters. Watching the business operate is important. That is why managers will meet their friends, do their homework, or just hang out at the coffee shop, he explained.
For the marketing managers, Lopienski said keeping records is important. She was able to see what promotions worked, when they were offered, and what advertisements were used. The accounting software, which was written by a Goshen College student, tracks the sales of individual drinks, so she was able to track the increase in sales of different drinks when they were promoted.
While Java Junction no longer offers any discounts, it does promote different drinks during the year. That awareness marketing takes the form of simple signs on site and posting the specials on the Java Junction Facebook page.
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Because Java Junction is located on the Goshen campus, pricing is different than a regular coffee shop, Horning said. The maximum price point for any product is $3.25. This makes the margin much slimmer on each purchase, so cost containment is important. And, while Java Junction was making money as a cash-only business ($19,000 per year), sales went up 70 percent ($60,000) when the shop started accepting student meal plan credits. The shop pays a three percent surcharge to the campus food service company on each meal plan sale. The coffee shop now accepts meal plan cards, and credit and debit cards because “students just don’t carry money,” Horning added.
While the management team comes through the business program, any student can work at the coffee shop. Candidates go through the traditional application and interview process. Fifteen Goshen College students are hired and are paid minimum wage. Since opening the coffee shop in 2004, the management team has only fired four employees, Horning said. But personally, she added, the student managers are more forgiving than she would be.
To get started, the three recommended the Culver students work on a rough framework of a management team manual, job descriptions, employee training manual, and a survey of students and faculty members to see what products they would like sold.
While they have found that “the younger the customer, the sweeter the drink” rule applies, Horning said when the shop tried to sell candy it flopped. Now the shop focuses on baked goods like brownies, bagels, and muffins purchased from local bakeries.
Drinks include the traditional coffee drinks, gourmet soft drinks, and blended items like fruit smoothies. When the shop started, it only had 15 items on the menu, But, Horning said, it was very easy to expand the menu once the shop is up and running.
The Entrepreneurial Economics students have now formed teams and are researching the different aspects of the business to decide if a student-run café really is feasible. The timeline calls for an opening sometime in October if everything were to fall into place.