Students, entrepreneur learn business together

option group
Entrepreneur Sam Sylvester, right, with students, Dombrosky and Conaway

            Jim Dombrosky, assistant professor of hospitality management, has learned first-hand the magic of Sam Sylvester.

            At the beginning of last semester, he didn’t even know Sylvester. Little did he know he would spend much of the next term guiding 15 students in creating an inch-thick plan for the budding restaurateur.

            Last spring, the septuagenarian bought The Option House, one of Bradford’s most beautiful and historic buildings built in 1902 to be the home of Bradford oil options exchange.

            After launching head-first into an extensive renovation, Sylvester needed some advice for the restaurant he planned to open in the remodeled building.

            Having successfully collaborated on a different project last spring with broadcast communications majors, Sylvester again turned to Pitt-Bradford, which had just the advisors – a class in hospitality marketing offered as part of the university’s hospitality management major.

            Dombrosky, who directs the growing program, was willing to give his students the chance to come up with a real-life marketing plan.

            “I had planned to have the students create a marketing plan for a business,” Dombrosky said, “but I had no idea it would end up being real world, real time.”

            After dividing up the elements that needed to be researched, each student prepared information in his or her own area.

            The result was an impressive amount of information for the new owner regarding industry trends, competitors’ menus, promotions, software recommendations, pricing, design of menus and uniforms, employee training, food hygiene and menu selections.

            In addition, three business students working with Diana Maguire, associate project director for Pitt-Bradford’s entrepreneurship program, identified target markets, their size, spending potential and the best way to reach them.

            “Projects like this are a great learning experience for the students because they are working directly with an entrepreneur whose time and money is on the line,” Maguire said. "This is not theory. It’s do or die – real life.”

            Tim Riley, a senior business management major from Bradford, said, “It was challenging, but fun to help develop something that I’d love to see in Bradford.”

            Jeanine Vento, a business management major from Pittsburgh, jumped at the chance to put her classroom learning into action.

            “Working on an internship is definitely a lot more fun than just being in class -- probably because there’s a lot more at stake. I learned a lot, and now that I’m taking marketing research, it helps a lot,” she said. “I’m definitely looking forward to seeing it open.”

            The hospitality students knew less about the world of business plans.

Kelsie Griesbaum, a hospitality major from Limestone, N.Y., felt the pressure right away.

“Just starting out, we didn’t know anything. It was really overwhelming.”

            But Sylvester’s enthusiasm helped inspire the students to tackle the task at hand, said Janel Rounsville, who is also a hospitality management major from Limestone.

            “Sam was so dedicated to it, and that helped us get with the program,” she said, adding that she and the other students didn’t want to disappoint Sylvester.

            Dombrosky guided the process, but the students collected massive amounts of data, organized it, and formed recommendations for Sylvester and his friend Roseanne Conaway, who keeps the books for the new business and advises Sylvester.

            Sylvester stepped in with lessons of his own, taking some of the students to a food show in Erie and treating them to dinner at his favorite place to eat, the Bradford Club.

            But the best lesson of all may have simply been setting an example in the nuts and bolts of starting such a business.

            Dombrosky said that the students “get to see how difficult starting a new business is and the frustrations, and they get to work through that and grow.”

            Heather Jordan, a hospitality major from Tiona, ate up every minute of it, and really appreciated Sylvester’s willingness to spend so much time with the students and give them access to the building and records.

            “He was really open about everything,” said Jordan, who “really wanted to be involved in the menu.” She discovered the frustrations of working with a real client, however.

            “He would go back and forth on things,” she said, “but I’m more excited to own my own restaurant now. To meet somebody like Sam is inspirational.”

            Sylvester clearly enjoys the students whenever he’s around them.

            “Their perspective is so bright and alive,” he says. “We’re going to incorporate a lot of what they said” in their recommendations.

            In particular, the students will have definitely influenced the cuisine, which will feature a tapas menu of heavy hors d’oeuvres and a fixed price menu with international flavor.

            Sylvester said that while he had favored such an idea, a survey performed by the students indicated that it was feasible.

            “The survey was amazing,” Sylvester said.

The comment is typical of Sylvester’s enthusiasm for the students’ ideas, says Dombrosky.

“He’s so engaging and enthusiastic that it’s contagious. He and Rosie are so open to the students’ help and so encouraging. They know the value of these young minds.”