Innovation Center brews new business

(Photo by Cesareo Contreras.)

The plan was in motion.

After months of prepping, researching and working with Sodexo, senior Iris Thompson thought she was doing everything possible to launch FSU’s first student-run coffee cart right in the lobby of Hemenway Labs. 

But as Thompson had already learned, no amount of planning can save even the shrewdest entrepreneur from occasionally hitting a speed bump on the treacherous and winding road that is running a business.

Yet nothing could prepare her for “the disaster” that was her first official day on the job late last semester, she said. 

From the malfunctioning cash register to the wrong-sized lids for the coffee cups, everything went haywire that early December morning.

“Nothing would work on the first day,” she said.

It didn’t help matters that her first customer happened to be business professor Robert Krim, who was responsible for co-founding FSU’s Entrepreneur Innovation Center, which had collaborated with Sodexo to establish the coffee-cart venture.

“He was so excited about the whole idea of this,” she said. “He thought I was the best person to run this, and he was so proud.”

While his order seemed simple enough – a regular steaming hot medium coffee – that’s not exactly what he received.

“We served him coffee and his coffee was full of coffee grains,” Thompson said.

At that point, with tears welling in her eyes, Thompson turned to one of her Innovation Center peers who was helping with the launch and said, “I’m not doing this!” 

What was supposed to be a ceremonious grand opening instead served as a life lesson in business management Thompson said she won’t soon forget.

But according to Innovation Center Director Mark Hardie, that type of lesson is one of the reasons the coffee cart was created in the first place – to educate students about the trials of running a full-fledged business.

Born out of an independent study Thompson completed at the Innovation Center this academic year, the cart also serves as de facto advertisement for students who perhaps want to create businesses themselves.     

“The cart is there for the students to learn food service, and it’s there for the center to have an outpost on campus for students to see on a daily basis,” Hardie said.

But Thompson’s business is just one venture being developed at the center, now located at 860 Worcester Road.  Previously, the center was housed in the Jonathan Maynard building on Vernon Street, but in 2016 it moved to the bigger space. At that point, Krim brought Hardie on to serve as his replacement as the center’s director.

Hardie is a graduate of Tufts University and the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management. 

“He has run businesses and raised millions of dollars,” Krim said. “He’s a good teacher and he’s a very good leader.”

And in the two years since the center’s move, it has grown and adapted to accommodate both its expanding clientele and the University’s efforts to offer more entrepreneurship opportunities to students.

According to Hardie, the services the center provides can be broken down into two categories. 

First, the center serves as a co-working space for MetroWest entrepreneurs seeking to grow their start-up businesses.

“Co-working is a trend in the market where startups and entrepreneurs need a place to begin their business and they don’t have the money for a lease for thousands of dollars, so they come to co-working spaces, pay month-to-month and get a chair, a desk, Wi-Fi, coffee – things they need to sort of run their business,” he said.   

For $135 a month, business owners are given access to the plethora of work tables in the center’s office space, which, according to Hardie, is much more affordable than leasing a space of their own – especially given that most places require a one-year lease.

“You’d rather have something that is pay-as-you-go,” he said.    

Some of the other benefits in the center’s monthly subscription-based model include membership to the University’s co-working space business partner Workbar – which allows subscribers to use the company’s other co-working spaces in Boston and Cambridge two days every month – and a mailing address and free printing. 

The center uses the “hot desk” model, meaning members aren’t given a dedicated office space in the center to call their own, but instead are free to take a seat at any of the center’s open tables.

Right now, Hardie said the center has 37 members. From a drinkable yogurt startup to a computer software company, from an advertising agency to an engineering firm, the businesses hosted at the center are a varied mix.

“It’s old media and new media,” Hardie said. “It’s online businesses and very classic offline businesses.”

But the center is more than just an incubator for budding startups. It’s also meant to be a place of learning for FSU students who are up-and-coming entrepreneurs themselves.

“The way I like to describe it is that we have two stakeholders – the members who use the center for co-working and the students who study entrepreneurship and use the center for internships and experience in actual start-ups,” he said.     

Hardie said while other universities may have innovation centers, few, if any, offer FSU’s hybrid model that combines co-working space for startups and class credit for students who directly help those startups.   

Students have always been at the forefront of the center’s daily operations. In addition to having student interns every semester who assist the center’s clients with projects, a number of students have taken on independent studies.

While some students complete independent studies to develop and market businesses of their own, Thompson was brought on to manage the coffee cart years after the University had already decided to put one in Hemenway Labs.

In the fall of 2014, as part of the University’s strategic plan, Dining Services conducted a student survey in an attempt to gauge students’ dining preferences.

According to Dining Services Director Ralph Eddy, one of the main takeaways of the results was that although a large number of students spend a considerable amount of time in Hemenway Hall, there was no place in the building for faculty and students to grab a quick bite or a nice warm drink.

So, Dining Services decided to work with the Innovation Center to pilot a business that was not only low-cost and easy to support, but also provided students with the opportunity to gain some hands-on business skills. 

Before working with Hardie, the University had already purchased the coffee cart for approximately $30,000. Initially, the plan was to place the cart in Hemenway Labs to address the issue identified in the survey. 

But while much of the equipment had already been bought, what was missing was a designated person to run the business.

“It really became a matter of who runs it,” Hardie said. “With that in mind, I agreed that the Innovation Center would be happy to take that on as essentially an opportunity to do a small business, and start something from scratch, from something that didn’t exist – which is classic entrepreneurship.”

After hearing about the cart while attending one of Hardie’s classes, Thompson became interested in helping launch the business in any way she could.

The Honduran native, who is in her mid-40s, said she’s always had a passion for both food and entrepreneurship.   

But it was only until recently that she’s decided to pursue a career in which those two areas intersect.   

Before attending FSU, Thompson earned her associate degree in human services administration and worked as a children’s coordinator at a nonprofit organization that provides support for women who have substance abuse issues. Thompson’s venture in community outreach was short-lived, however, after she began having children of her own.

But after her fourth child started kindergarten a few years ago, Thompson said she decided to “reinvent” herself and go back to school.

Initially a nutrition major, she changed her major to liberal arts and has since taken a number of business classes. After she graduates this month, she said she hopes to start up her own business.

When she heard about the coffee cart, Thompson knew it would be a great opportunity to test the waters.

She thought, “Oh my God, that’s phenomenal. Food has always been one of my things.” 

And when the fall semester started, Thompson hit the ground running to prepare for the launch of the business, reading everything she could about opening a coffee shop and then reaching out to other food vendors on campus for advice.   

After a rocky launch day last semester, Thompson has been able to get into the swing of things. 

Wearing her signature yellow apron, Thompson always greets customers with a smile and has a handful of regulars, whose names and coffee orders she’s memorized.

Over the few months the cart has been open, Thompson said she’s also been able to identify which products sell the most and how much of a certain item she should order on a regular basis, processes that initially were a little mystifying.

“Iris is great,” said Krim. “She has kids. She started a new business. … Framingham State students are just awesome and I’m so happy we have a center that really works with the students.”

Although Thompson has enjoyed her experience at the coffee cart, there are aspects of the venture she wished had played out differently. 

Although Thompson thought she had complete freedom, there were limits to what she could accomplish given the cart’s size and the fact that it is hosted inside a university. 

“I had a complete idea in my head of what a coffee shop should look like, but this was just a mini-version of a coffee shop. There were a lot of limitations.”

For one, because the cart doesn’t have a sink, the coffee has to be prepared in a separate room in Hemenway Hall.

Additionally, the cart doesn’t accept dining dollars or credit cards as payment, although, according to Hardie, it may in the future.

Another problem, Thompson said, is that it’s difficult to bring outside products from vendors that haven’t gone through Sodexo, because the cart gets its food inventory from the company, while it gets its coffee delivered from Red Barn Coffee Roasters.

“We tried to bring in fresh muffins from my classmate Josh, who owns his own coffee shop, but that didn’t work,” she said. “We brought them in and then we were told we couldn’t have them because there are certain procedures to bring food on campus.” 

Right now, the coffee cart also isn’t profitable, but, according to Hardie, at the moment that isn’t the Innovation Center’s biggest concern. What’s more important is that the cart serves as an educational tool for students and advertisement for the center.

“We aren’t trying to be a profitable service enterprise,” he said. “We don’t have the pressure of a coffee shop in the market because we are here on campus. We’re really more about the operations and planning and the strategy. Whether or not we’re profitable is less of an issue.”

Although the cart has student staffers, it’s essential one student serve as the lead manager of the cart. 

And luckily, Thompson said, the coffee cart will be passed on to her successor, who will have their own opportunity to expand the cart’s offerings.    

As part of the independent study class, Thompson was also tasked with writing up a manual outlining the process of managing the cart. Thompson said the manual will be used to train new employees and the new manager.

And while Thompson looks back at her own first day managing the cart with some regrets, she can rest easy knowing that, at least for professor Krim, his coffee filled with coffee grains wasn’t too bad.

“I thought she had invented a new type of coffee with the grounds in,” he said.