What happens in being an entrepreneur?

GMU’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) offers an exciting new program that benefits students, food and beverage producers and the local community. Called The Depot, it is run by acting CIE director Becky Howick.

“We are in partnership with the City of Fairfax EDA [Economic Development Authority] and also received support from the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia,” she said. “This semester, we are hosting a variety of events that provide experiential learning for our Mason students, while creating new revenue streams for Fairfax City restaurants and connecting food and beverage producers with clients.”

So far there have been three events in March, and two more, including a farm shop pop-up and a wine tasting at Dolce Vita Italian restaurant and wine bar, are set for April 20 and 21, respectively. The first, held on March 17, was a cooking demonstration at Mama Chang, a popular Chinese restaurant in Fairfax.

GMU’s Becky Howick near the pop-up farmer’s market inside Dolce Vita.

“It was for community members,” Howick said. “And it allowed the students to meet the owners of the restaurant and see how the event and the marketing elements fit together.”

The second and third events, on the afternoons of March 22-23, were both retail and farm shop pop-ups at Dolce Vita. The EDA connected them with the restaurant, and the students participated in all aspects of these farmer’s market events. Dolce Vita was the host, but the students contacted the vendors, placed bulk orders with them, and then sold their wares in the markets.

“It gives them a sandbox experience to learn, for example, the margins between wholesale and retail prices,” Howick explained. “They can see if a business is sustainable without putting their own savings on the line and learn hard lessons that way.”

Each market offers a wide variety of items, such as coffee from Foundation Coffee Roasters and chocolates from Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates, two businesses in town. Other produce comes from businesses outside the immediate area, such as pasture-raised meat and eggs from Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton.

In each case, the students spoke to salespeople to learn more about them and their products so they could tell customers about them and answer their questions. Then they would place orders and sell the items for vendors (credit card sales only) at their farmers’ markets.

“The goal is for students to see what it’s like to organize events, make sales, learn how businesses work, work with restaurant owners and interact with the public. “said Howick. “It’s quite a practical and entrepreneurial experience. The vendors get the money from our purchases, and we get the proceeds from the retail sales, so we will have enough money to continue the program and make it a sustainable business model.

Students learn who the customers are, what they are looking for, what the sources of revenue are, and what the costs are associated with these types of events. They also learn about inventory – how many items to buy, as well as their shelf life – as well as the importance of bookkeeping and marketing skills.

“They get a realistic insight into what goes into being an entrepreneur and how to connect salespeople with restaurant owners,” Howick said. “For example, Dolce Vita was so pleased with Whiffletree Farm’s products that they are going to start using some of them in their dishes.”

In addition to Foundation Coffee and Cameron’s, vendors at the March 23-34 markets included: Rocky Branch, homemade jams and jellies; Shenandoah Valley Family Farms, Organic Milk and Cheese; GMU, microgreens and herbs from its campus greenhouse; real honey teas; Nordic Knot, gourmet pretzels; Green body, T-shirts; Country Village Bakery, cookies; and Wadel’s Farm Wagon, fresh pasta and sauce, baked goods, barbecue sauce and salsa.

At the March 24 market, customer Brenda Young made her way to the checkout area with chocolate chip cookies, pappardelle pasta, radishes and microgreens. “I came here for the second time, after seeing what they had at the first market,” she said. “Mason grows microgreens, and they are wonderful in salads. I love this market, and Dolce Vita is a great place for it. I prefer to buy local handmade items, and would recommend others to come here as well, as it’s great to support the community.

Thomas Castro bought big pretzels, a dozen eggs, cheddar cheese and pork sausages. “I like farmers’ markets, and it’s convenient that there’s one here and it’s connected to the GMU,” he said. “I’m a GMU student and had a farm, so I understand the value of these products. They are better than what you can buy in the store. Producers do it because they care about their animals and it’s a better way to produce food. And buying their products here is one small thing I can do to help. »

Meanwhile, GMU student Sydnee Wright bought snickerdoodles from Country Village Bakeshop and a basil plant from GMU’s greenhouse. “It’s nice to be able to walk into a place where we support businesses in the local Fairfax area,” she said. “They’re entrepreneurs too, and at least half of the vendors – including True Honey Teas – are Mason alumni, so that’s good too. And a portion of the proceeds are donated to GMU’s Patriot Pantry which helps food insecure students.

A member of The Depot’s student team, freshman Vinati Konda, handled the checkout area. “I really love being able to connect with all these small businesses and learn about their stories,” she said. “For example, Cameron’s employs people with intellectual and physical disabilities because, like the store’s slogan, they believe ‘everyone can work’. And I like to see how people come just to support Mason and/or small businesses.

She also learns how to interact with customers and respond to their interests. “We’re building more of a sense of community between Mason, Northern Virginia businesses and the Fairfax City community,” Konda said. “And it’s helpful because I’m also learning how to run a small business — specifically marketing, networking, and event coordination.” Any remaining products are sold at campus kiosks to GMU students, she said.

Crystal Fickers, head of GMU’s CIE program, called The Depot a great way for students to gain first-hand knowledge of the business world and what it takes to be an entrepreneur. “Then when they graduate, they can put it on their resume,” she said. “Or they may even have the confidence to start their own business because they’ve learned every element of doing so.”

Events to come

*Another pop-up farm shop market will be held Wednesday, April 20, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at Dolce Vita, 10824 Fairfax Blvd. in the city of Fairfax. Open to the public.

* A wine tasting is scheduled for Thursday, April 21, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at Dolce Vita. Wines from Dolce Vita and other local wine producers will be paired with cheeses from Shenandoah Valley Family Farms and artisan chocolates from Cameron’s. Wine experts will be on hand to answer questions and a representative from Cameron will talk about the chocolate making process. Tickets are required for the wine tasting and a portion of the proceeds will go to charity. For more information, visit https://advancement.gmu.edu/ciesipandsmile.

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