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Student-driven build-your-own-bowl concept puts business students in dining administration roles

The Chartwells team on the Carnegie Mellon University campus partners with students to bring a data-driven meal option to life.

On weekends, students at Carnegie Mellon University can head over to the Tepper School of Business to Capital Grains for a healthy, customizable lunch.

The grain and salad bowl concept was entirely developed by — and is entirely run by — students, who started creating Capital Grains in the fall and launched it in February, all with the support of the Chartwells dining team.

Originally, Chartwells staff members asked David You, a senior business major, to lead a pastry shop or bakery. You was excited to take on a project but wasn’t sure that baked goods were going to fill the right niche on campus. So he embarked on 100 hours of research to find out what would appeal to students. He discovered that what they really wanted were quick, build-it-yourself entrées.

Chartwells gave the idea the green light and You took it from there as the concept’s CEO. He selected four business majors to serve as his management team, developed the name, created the menu and hired five student employees to run the shop.

Mike Tokarek, resident district manager for Chartwells, says they wanted to encourage a student-driven, student-run concept that would have traction on the Carnegie Mellon campus. “We wanted the student to actually develop the program, not just give him a template and say, ‘You have to run this.’ [Instead, we said,] ‘Here’s our suggestions, here’s our guidelines. How are you going to make your ideas fit into that?’”

Chartwells provides Capital Grains with full financial support and ongoing guidance. You meets with members of the Chartwells team regularly for leadership check-ins, menu development, purchasing, hiring insights and more.

Kathleen Humphreys, the Chartwells marketing manager, oversaw the development of all the promotional materials with the Capital Grains chief marketing officer, Prisha Goyal, a sophomore.

“My role was really to make sure that everything they’re producing looks professional and clean and is up to the Chartwells standards,” Humphreys says. “Prisha really came up with the concepts and then we combed through it together.”

The concept shares a space with a sub shop that’s open during the week. The two concepts use similar equipment and an identical service station, making it simple to flip the site.

The menu includes five signature bowls, including on-theme items such as The Seed Funding (a rice and quinoa bowl with chickpeas, chicken and a cilantro lime dressing) and The Greek Option (a bowl dotted with feta, grape tomatoes, chicken and pita chips).

The build-your-own menu prompts customers to choose rice and quinoa, kale and spinach, or romaine as a base, add a handful of toppings and top with a protein (tofu or chicken) and one of four dressings: cilantro lime, pesto, balsamic, or sesame.

Since Capital Grains opened the second week of February, sales have risen. The first weekend, the team sold about 100 bowls. The first weekend in April, they sold 500 bowls, meeting You’s goal.

Humphreys attributes much of that growth to word-of-mouth marketing. “The students want to support their friends and their peers…That desire to support the community has really helped it grow.”

You graduates this May and has already been helping his likely successor, the concept’s COO, junior Michael Maddalon, to prepare for the role. Tokarek says Chartwells anticipates that each CEO will have their own ideas and expects the program to evolve as new student leaders get involved with the project.

The concept itself may have enough staying power to be implemented at other universities. Tokarek already has a meeting lined up with the dining team at another school to see if Capital Grains might be a good concept for them.

He’s especially optimistic about working with culinary students. There was a learning curve for Carnegie Mellon students, none of whom have any culinary background. The big surprise for students was “the amount of time and labor it actually entails to build some of these recipes,” Tokarek says, noting that they try not to interfere. “We offer suggestions but we’re trying to let them figure out what would make them more successful.”

Even though Capital Grains may open new locations elsewhere, Tokarek and his team are still enthusiastic about partnering with students who have new ideas.

“Finding that CEO who really wants to drive and start it from beginning to end is going to be beneficial. The market research will determine the hours that it should be open, the days it should be open, the menu, and find something that is not already available for students on campus.”

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