Barista Café turns two; provides learning community entrepreneurial experience

AMES, Iowa -- Brandon Kennedy now knows firsthand the challenges of running a business while juggling a demanding schedule outside the business. That's because the Iowa State University MBA student is co-founder and CEO of the Barista Café, a student-run coffee shop in Buchanan Hall that will celebrate its second anniversary on Friday, Feb. 27.

The Barista Café serves coffees, espresso and tea and other hot and cold beverages, as well as baked and pre-packaged snacks. More importantly, it serves as an experiential learning resource for the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Learning Community, where ISU young entrepreneurs live and learn together in Buchanan Hall.

The entrepreneurship learning community was developed in 2004 and modeled after other ISU learning communities, providing students interested in entrepreneurial studies to live in an environment that encourages experiential learning. The Barista Café opened in 2007 because many of the learning community students wanted to gain hands-on experience launching a venture. The students started the coffee shop because they identified a need expressed by residents of Buchanan Hall for food and beverage items in their building.

"Students in the program meet weekly, interact with real entrepreneurs, participate in hands-on learning activities, receive mentoring, and are encouraged to start a group or individual business. That's how the Barista Café started," said Judi Eyles, associate director of ISU's Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship. "The Pappajohn Center's role is to guide the program and help students connect with resources that will help them now as well as after graduation."

Iowa State's campus-wide entrepreneurship initiative allows students from a variety of majors to participate. That's how Kennedy became interested, even as an engineering major.

"My work with the Barista Café goes hand-in-hand with class and work," said Kennedy, who will earn a B.S. in engineering and an MBA in May 2010. "Having a hands-on opportunity allows me to put things into perspective and shows through my performance in my courses."

Joe Weigel, the café's chief financial officer and an ISU senior, agrees. While he has learned hotel, restaurant and institution management fundamentals in class, he says the café provides an experience not found in a textbook.

"ISU has a strong entrepreneurial program and the Barista Café gives me incredible experience that I wouldn't otherwise be able to gain until I actually own my own business," said Weigel.

The student entrepreneurs face a variety of daily challenges that many business owners face. They work directly with the university, product suppliers, plumbers, student employees, accountants and lawyers as they learn to manage cash flow, pay taxes, purchase insurance, pass city inspections, read legal documents and provide service to their customers.

"This entrepreneurial experience gives me opportunities to make quick business decisions, work with the student-run board of directors and shareholders, deal with unexpected issues and manage my time effectively," said Kennedy.

Eyles reports that the business has expanded its hours based on student demand, changed the menu and updated the logo. As part of Friday's anniversary celebration, student shareholders will serve free coffee to customers from 4 to 5:30 p.m.

"Celebrating two years in business provides these students an opportunity to stop and reflect on what they have accomplished," said Eyles. "The event is our way to thank those who have supported the student venture, invite them to meet the student shareholders and have a cup of espresso."