Last January, il Panino Cafe & Grill in Jamaica Plain, Mass., was on the verge of bankruptcy, unclear on its business strategy and largely invisible, even within the local community. But thanks to students in a popular course at Northeastern, the owner launched a comprehensive business plan, rebranded, and has more than quadrupled his revenues in the last nine months.
“This school literally, no exaggeration, saved my business and picked me up from the brink of bankruptcy,” says owner Themistocles “Lakis” Vlahoulis, whose cafe specializes in thin-crust pizza. “They’ve made this place the talk of Jamaica Plain. There aren’t words to explain all that the students have done to help me.”
Il Panino isn’t the only enterprise that’s seen its bottom line grow through the efforts of students in “Small Business Management, Operations, and Growth,” an undergraduate elective taught by Kimberly Eddleston, an associate professor of entrepreneurship and innovation at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business. Over the past eight years, more than 100 small businesses have received assistance in marketing, operations, financial analysis, and more.
Although most of their clients are local, students have served as consultants for businesses located across the United States and in places around the world, including the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, and India.
In class, Eddleston teaches innovation, marketing, cash management, strategic planning, leadership, and motivation, and then sends students out into the community to put their new knowledge to the test. What differentiates Eddleston’s class from similar courses at other schools is that the students lead their projects and work closely with clients to create actual improvements in their business.
“At most schools, the consulting projects are passive projects with students having little contact with the clients,” says Eddleston. “But in our program, the student, not the professor, is the primary contact with the client.”
When Eddleston gives a presentation each year to the annual conference of the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship, professors from other colleges and universities are blown away by what Northeastern students are doing.
“Each time, people stop me to ask, ‘Wait, you mean these are undergraduates?’”
Not only are they undergraduates, they are often underclassmen. Last year, four students—Sultan AlHokair, DMSB’15, Faisal AlHamdan, DMSB’15, Abdullah Al-Shalan, DMSB’14, and Abdulaziz AlSheikh, DMSB’14—worked as a consulting team for the Thinking Cup coffee shop in downtown Boston.
“They were only sophomores, but they conducted a location analysis for the owner and, based on their research, he opened a second coffee shop in the North End,” says Eddleston.
Learning to Listen
The students have done everything, from Web design and video production, to market analysis and retail space design. But students have to understand that not every consulting venture is smooth sailing from the start.
“Entrepreneurs are stubborn,” says Eddleston. “They’ve already refused to listen to their mother about getting a job with benefits. Now they’ve created their own business, and it’s like their baby. They’re not going to want to change it based on advice from some 20-year-old.
“One of the biggest things my students learn is empathy; they learn how to listen,” she adds.
Eddleston’s students also learn tact and patience. They learn that even their best suggestions may not be adopted until months after they are gone. And in the end, they learn a great deal about the realities of running a small business.
That experience gives them something tangible to put on their resumés and talk about during job interviews. Eddleston helps them use their experience to create a narrative for those interviews—how they worked through adversity, how they dealt with a difficult client.
“They get to put their education into practice,” she says. “They get to lead a small-business project and make a difference to an entrepreneur—to show the world what they’re made of and make a real difference in a business.”
In the case of il Panino, the Jamaica Plain pizzeria, this happened twice.
The first wave of reinforcements came in the fall of 2012, several months after the restaurant opened as Gail’s Cafe. Vlahoulis knew he was struggling and contacted the Northeastern co-op program for help.
Enter Daniel Lee, DMSB’13. As a senior at the time with an interest in restaurant management, Lee created an online presence, improved marketing, and established takeout ties with Northeastern residence halls. Then, when tragedy struck the Vlahoulis family in the form of serious illness, Lee stepped in as restaurant manager and kept the business alive while Lakis attended to family issues.
“He is like a son to me,” says Vlahoulis of Lee.
When it was time for Lee to move on, he told Vlahoulis about a class he had taken with Eddleston and recommended that he contact her about getting a team of student consultants to help out.
Enter Michael Berkhofer, DMSB’14, and three other Northeastern students—Angel DeJong, Ayush Relan, and George Boukouvalas, all DMSB’15.
When the students arrived, Vlahoulis had just relaunched his struggling restaurant with a well-known name offered by his friend Frank DePasquale, owner of the Trattoria il Panino in Boston’s North End. Berkhofer and his classmates realized the café needed an aggressive marketing campaign; they designed a new website, employed guerrilla marketing techniques at local events, and promoted il Panino through Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Foursquare.
“This class has changed my life,” says Berkhofer. “It’s a great opportunity for students to work on real-life business issues with an entrepreneur.”
Berkhofer stayed on as manager over the summer and last semester oversaw a new group of students assisting il Panino with community engagement. Yet another group of students from the small-business course—being taught this semester by Eddleston’s colleague Ted Clark—is consulting with il Panino this spring.
“Now that the business is stable,” says Eddleston, “we want to make it more profitable.”