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Putting Business on the Table

Undergraduate | Feb 03, 2020 |

America is a Foodie Nation

Turn on the Food Network and you can watch one of dozens of cooking shows, distributed to nearly 100 million homes across the country and hosted by chefs who have become household names. With the tap of an app, we can access restaurant reviews, make reservations, order take-out, read the ever-growing body of food writing, or share lnstagrammable images of finely plated meals. Amidst a revival in-home cooking, culinary classes have become a popular option for bachelorette parties, corporate team­ building outings, and birthday celebrations.

Americans still love to dine out, too, proven by the fact that restaurants remain an $863 billion industry: Manhattan alone is estimated to have more than 24,000 restaurants, nearly half of the total in New York State. In fact, the New York State restaurant industry is responsible for $51.6 billion in estimated sales and 866,000 jobs in 2019, a figure that is expected to grow to nearly 1 million over the next decade, comprising 10 percent of all employment statewide.

So, it’s no wonder that several alumni and students of the Gabelli School are mixing their food obsessions with a healthy serving of business skills and entrepreneurial spirit to craft successful careers in New York City. 

Beating the Odds

Opening a restaurant in Manhattan is no easy undertaking, but having the right idea at the right time put Matt Trebek’s restaurant Oso squarely on the map of the city’s vibrant restaurant scene. Trebek, who graduated six years ago with a minor in business administration, had easy access to excellent Mexican food while growing up in Los Angeles, but after moving to New York to attend Fordham, he found the options for authentic Mexican street fare lacking.

So after working as a bartender-and developing an interest in the design of restaurant spaces-he and his business partner opened their Hamilton Heights spot in 2016 with a menu informed by the food Trebek grew up with and inspired by scouting trips he made to Mexico City.

To Trebek, Oso is about much more than just the menu. “I like the idea of providing a complete package for a guest,” he said. Indeed, he carefully selected the music (old-school hip hop, jazz, and funk) and the decor (featuring a colorful graffiti mural and a faux cow skull) to encourage a relaxed vibe.

While Trebek’s entrepreneurial path began with an idea for a business that fills a void in New York City, Al Bartosic, BS ’84, executive director of the Fordham Foundry, stressed that a great idea is only part of the equation. “I’m going

to probably exaggerate a bit, but I would say 99 percent of any successful business is in the execution,” he said. The Foundry, a business incubator supported by the Gabelli School, helps point future entrepreneurs in the right direction, whether they need help getting incorporated, or protecting their intellectual property, or getting involved with a startup kitchen that will meet New York City standards.

“Entrepreneurship is alive and well at Fordham,” Bartosic said. The Foundry is available to entrepreneurial students looking to develop an idea, offering roundtable discussions, courses about startups, and pitch challenges with cash prizes. There are at least 18 active businesses that the Foundry had involvement in, according to Bartosic, and in recent years, it’s worked with several students interested in the food space.

The Right Idea

Sometimes, the seed for a business idea can be planted right inside the classroom. When he first arrived at Fordham, Chicago-area native Emmett Burke, BS ’05, quickly realized that it was impossible to find decent deep-dish pizza in New York, a city famous for its thinner, foldable slices. So when he was tasked with designing a business plan for a marketing class, Burke designed one for a restaurant that specialized in Chicago-style pies.

After graduating, he worked in finance for several years, first at a hedge fund and later at an investment bank. But the idea for the pizzeria Burke had dreamed up in college never fully faded. In 2010, he left the finance world and took the plunge into entrepreneurship, working odd jobs to raise money while developing a plan to open his restaurant for real.

One of his greatest challenges was that he had no cooking experience. So Burke devoted a year to learning how to make pizza, obsessing over the sweetness of the tomatoes and the proper blend of cheese. In 2013, he achieved his goal and opened Emmett’s in Greenwich Village, a 28-seat restaurant specializing in deep-dish pies.

“This did not come easy to me,” said Burke on a recent evening, wearing a Chicago Bears T-shirt and sitting on a rusted green bench in front of his MacDougal Street restaurant, a detail he likes because anything too shiny and perfect would set the wrong vibe. “To say that I obsessed over the quality of pizza would be an understatement.” Indeed, Burke had just returned from a trip to California, where he had been checking in on the tomatoes that would ultimately find their way to New York and into his specialty pies.

Tom Coughlan, BS ’11, also applied his business education to an entrepreneurial career in the food space, as a chef and cooking instructor. Today, he is the culinary director and operations manager of Cook Space, a Brooklyn cooking school that takes a different approach to teaching students how to prepare a meal. Rather than insisting that they follow an exact recipe (as most regimented culinary schools do), he and his colleagues encourage students to experiment, make mistakes, and enjoy the process of cooking, not just the end product.

“We want to give people the pole, not the fish,” said Coughlan, as he sat at a table near the working wood-burning stove in Cook Space’s second-floor studio in Prospect Heights. Nearby, a large industrial door was adorned with various inspirational phrases. “Let go of recipes,” said one on that particular evening. “Trust your instincts,” encouraged another. “Leave your comfort zone,” said a third.

Coughlan, whose family owned a red-sauce Italian restaurant in Connecticut when he was a kid, used to imagine a career as a chef who’d one day open his own restaurant. Indeed, after graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education, he cooked at a number of New York  City restaurants, including Sunken Hundred, a Welsh spot in Brooklyn where he designed the menu from scratch. But he soon discovered that working in a kitchen wasn’t quite a match for him, particularly since it didn’t allow him to interact with the diners enjoying the food he’d prepared.

In 2018, he reached out to Cook Space offering to teach a class on making and cooking with yogurt. “I always liked the idea of teaching, because I saw it as a way to share food with people, which is what I love about a restaurant,” Coughlan said, adding that when he worked as a chef, he was in a basement for 12 hours a day. “The food went up the stairs.

I never saw anybody eat it, never got to talk with them and engage with them. It was very impersonal.”

That one yogurt class led to some more classes, and Coughlan found his calling. “It was everything I was missing in restaurants that I loved about food,” he said. “Food is the universal community builder.”

Coughlan did the Gabelli School’s entrepreneurship concentration, and said it helped him learn how to think creatively and problem-solve, whether that’s meant developing a new automated system to track Cook Space’s food and  labor costs, or thinking quickly to save a dish, like the time his students forgot to add sugar when making an angel food cake. (He suggested they “jazz it up” with honey, in case you’re wondering.)

Entrepreneurs on Campus

Today, Gabelli School students interested in entrepreneurship can turn to a number of resources to nurture their ideas.

In addition to the entrepreneurship concentration and the Fordham Foundry, they can get involved with the Social Innovation Collaboratory, a network spanning the entire Fordham community that promotes social-minded entrepreneurship. Undergraduates can also join the Entrepreneurship Society, a student organization where they can swap ideas with faculty, alumni, and other students.

Alessandra Ciuffo, a sophomore business student, is the co-president of the Entrepreneurship Society—and also a seasoned foodie. At 11, she competed on a cooking web series called Superchef Kids, which led to an appearance on Rachael vs. Guy: Kids Cook-Off, starring Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri. The TV opportunities continued throughout her high school years: At 15, she won an episode of Guy’s Grocery Games, and she’s made multiple appearances on Ray’s talk show, including one this past September where she and Ray tried trendy avocado-bun burgers.

Ciuffo keeps a notebook with potential business ideas and said she has the opportunity to bounce them off fellow students during the Entrepreneurship Society’s weekly roundtable discussions or draw further inspiration from regular guest speakers.

Ciuffo would like to launch her own business after graduation—who knows, maybe even her own empire— and said that Fordham has given her the resources to start down that path.

“I don’t know that any other schools could have given me the platform to be able to pursue things like Fordham has,” said Ciuffo, who’s also a member of the Gabelli School’s Ignite Scholars Program, which is geared toward social innovation and entrepreneurship and challenges students to make positive change in their communities.

The Fordham Foundry instills similar values. Bartosic said the business incubator aims to help develop business ideas that aren’t just financially viable but contribute to society in a meaningful way. 

“The four questions that we ask students to grapple with are, one, what’s the problem that they’re trying to solve?” he explained. “The second question is, how is the problem being solved now? The third thing is the value-add proposition: Why is your idea new, better, or different? And then fourth, what is the social impact?”

That last one is especially important, Bartosic said. “That’s where it really ties into the Jesuit tradition and service learning, because we want the business to have a social impact.”

Indeed, the Fordham entrepreneurs in the ever-expanding food universe recognize that a business is about more than just a balance sheet and that a restaurant is about more than just good food. It’s about the way their businesses are a  part of the communities they serve

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