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Student-run cafe pairs college, growing coffee chain

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Saxbys, a student-run coffee shop on the campus of Millersville University in Lancaster County, is offering select students a chance to hone their business skills.
Saxbys, a student-run coffee shop on the campus of Millersville University in Lancaster County, is offering select students a chance to hone their business skills. - (Photo / )

At 22 years of age, Gabrielle Spica is already the CEO.

CEO, as in “Café Executive Officer” of the new Saxbys coffee shop on the campus of Millersville University.

For the past four months Spica has been the full-time person in charge of 35 fellow students at Saxbys, the first such student-run café among the 14 other universities in the State System of Higher Education.

Since the 1,700-square-foot coffee shop opened Jan. 30 in the former University Grille in Gordinier Hall conference center on Millersville’s campus, it has enjoyed the second-highest sales volume across the Saxbys chain, which includes 30 stores in nine states.

It’s also just the second student-run Saxbys on a college campus — the first is at Philadelphia’s Drexel University — in what Saxbys calls its “Experiential Learning Program.”

Under the program, the coffee chain and colleges or universities partner to provide a student-run store while offering the student CEO full course credits. Saxbys is planning more such ventures on other campuses.

Spica, a communications major at MU with a public relations focus, said her time as the paid CEO has definitely brought her both knowledge and experience. While Saxbys declined to give her salary, “she is paid well, with bonus potential, and gets full academic credit,” said Justin Pizzi, its vice president of sales and marketing.

“To have that experience now is empowering,” said Spica, a junior who graduated from Lancaster Catholic High School. “It’s a confidence booster, to think that I could start my own business.”

She will start an internship with Saxbys at its Philadelphia headquarters when her experience as on-campus store manager ends June 30. A new CEO, Millersville junior Courtney Petershein, will take the reins.

An entrepreneurship minor at Millersville, Spica heard about the on-campus job through MU’s entrepreneurship program. She was picked, after five interviews, from among several dozen student applicants, including students from business, nursing and other fields.

MU’s entrepreneurship program is the first such program among the 14 state-owned universities.

Spica has been with Saxbys since September, training each weekend in Philadelphia while taking a full course load.

She has become adept at the business aspects of her job, even describing her profit-and-loss statement in a recent business magazine interview.

“I feel so empowered, to not just see the numbers but to learn them, to understand them and make business decisions based off of them – to take a look at the numbers and ask, how can I improve, where can I improve, and what can I do to make the business more profitable?” she said.

As she spoke on a recent weekday just before final exams, fellow students packed the store, their iced coffees and sandwiches taking up table space alongside textbooks.

“The students love it. We’re a big commuter school, so it’s definitely busier during the week than on the weekends,” she said, noting that the store attracts non-students from the community on weekends.

When she heard that Saxbys founder and CEO Nick Bayer was looking for a student to run the shop, Spica “just felt like it was everything I had been preparing for,” and decided to try for the job.

Bayer said Spica has been a terrific addition to his team, and said the shop reflects a strong partnership between Saxbys and MU leaders.

Because running the on-campus shop is so time-consuming, the school agreed to allow Spica to earn credits for her work running the store.

Bayer had heard that Millersville might be a good campus for a second student-run Saxbys from his friend and MU alum Jordan Harris, a Philadelphia state representative who’s also on MU’s Council of Trustees.

Soon, the Saxbys founder was meeting with MU President John Anderson and other university leaders. After a tour of campus, Bayer suggested Gordinier as a store site

“If the store is in a place on the fourth floor of an academic building that no one goes into, it’s never going to be busy, and they’re never going to learn,” Bayer said.“But if you put them in the middle of campus, it’s going to be constantly busy, you’re going to have to hire a lot of people, deal with inventory and long hours … and you learn by doing.”

It took 11 months from his initial meeting on campus with MU leaders until the shop opened. It cost several hundred thousand dollars for Saxbys to convert the space into its new coffee shop/on-campus hub.

The University Grille moved to the other side of MU’s campus, to Lyle Hall, which houses academic offices.

Along with Spica’s work ethic, her “vibrant, magnetic personality” has been a positive in getting the store established, said Bayer, the 39-year-old founder and CEO of Saxbys.

“You need to have someone like her, to project the excitement of what this is across the campus. No matter what the occupation, the people who rise to the top are those who deal with other human beings well … with your consumers, your vendors, the people who work for you,” he said.

It has been a tough assignment for anyone, much less a college student, Bayer admitted.

“She’s opening up on a campus in a place that never existed as a coffee shop, and with a brand that arguably none of the students on campus had ever heard of,” Bayer said.

Spica said the hardest part of her job has been learning the technical aspects of running the store while managing 35 part-time student employees.

Overseeing people, she said, is about “being able to instill the confidence and growth in them, get them excited and see them grow, that they’re independent and that they can do this.”

It has been a great experience overall, she added. “I think you learn how to communicate with people, and that’s the most important aspect.”

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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