By Kenna Caprio
March 22, 2022 — When Snax – the café in the basement of Hennessy Hall — reopens as Mansion Munchies on Wednesday, March 23, it’ll be students behind the counter and behind the scenes. From budget to menu, from marketing to operations, Mansion Munchies is a student-run enterprise born of an entrepreneurship class.
“It’s an on-campus opportunity for immersive business education,” says Silberman College of Business Dean Pierre Balthazard.
This very collaborative project — spearheaded by Balthazard and John Niser, director of the International School of Hospitality, Sports and Tourism Management — has buy-in and support coming from Robert Pignatello, senior vice president for University operations; Bob Valenti, associate vice president for auxiliary services; Gourmet Dining and Chef Jeff Gourley; and others.
“That Dean Balthazard’s college and my school are working very closely is important. When people work together, things happen,” says Niser.
Domenick Celentano, lecturer, teaches the Student-run Enterprise course. Both Niser and Gourley are heavily involved in the class to give student support and advise directly on food and beverage and hospitality.
“Entrepreneurship is a mindset,” continues Balthazard. “We’re formalizing the concept that you learn by doing.”
The eight students in the class have been divided into collaborative teams — marketing, food and beverage and finance/human resources.
“The students have significant autonomy,” says Celentano. “They’re taking on responsibility and it’s exciting seeing them take the initiative. The Mansion Munchies teams are learning the importance of cross-collaboration and this is very important to prepare them for their future careers.”
As part of the marketing team, junior marketing and entrepreneurship double major Jasmine Mathai launched the @fdumansionmunchies Instagram account and conducted market research surveys. The student entrepreneurs needed to find out what the student customers wanted out of the café. Their needs inform the café’s environment and menu.
“Students are looking for meals, specifically lunch, or snacks. Not breakfast! So that helped determine our hours and menu,” says Mathai.
The menu consists of paninis, sandwiches, salads and pastries, with a special emphasis on specialty coffees, cappuccinos and espressos. To appeal to staff and faculty in a hurry, most menu items are grab-and-go.
“It’s a lot of fun to work on a project and be in charge of something that’s real and that doesn’t revolve around a theoretical case. What we’re doing is in practice,” says Tom Toebes, a hotel management exchange student from the Netherlands, on the food and beverage team.
The students are learning basic finances to understand price points, profitability and gross margin. They’re making every decision, including deciding on how many sandwiches to order.
“There’s no textbook here,” says Niser. “I want students to take away a sense of urgency in business. The sense of imperfection in business. To realize how market-driven any business is. To understand the constraints around the business. There’s what you can dream and what you can do. At the end of the day, you’ve got to know your customer and serve the customer’s needs. These are transferrable skills.”
The space itself is static and the footprint can’t change, so Mathai plans to get “little pillows for the sofas and chairs and potted flowers to make the space homier. Students asked for a place to study in and chill in with friends. We’re creating an Instagrammable spot.” A new logo and signage will go up soon. “This project is the first of its kind. I hope that there will be more student ventures on campus,” she adds.
And that’s exactly what Balthazard and Niser aspire to do — expand the student-run enterprise concept into more opportunities. Ideas for a book exchange and a bicycle rental business at the Metropolitan Campus have come up already, according to Balthazard.
But for now, all focus is on opening week at the café. A soft launch and friends and family day on Monday, March 21 and Tuesday, March 22, respectively, will offer the students a chance to test machines and assess the flow of the operation.
“At the end of the day, it’s a location run by the students, for the students,” says Mathai. “Regardless of your business background, you can take on a venture like this. We’ve learned to develop marketing and business plans. We know what we’re selling. We know what goes into it. We feel confident.”
Visit Mansion Munchies, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.