By Ed Brennen
Restaurants in Massachusetts have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with a recent survey
showing that revenue dropped by at least half for 70 percent of eateries in the first six months of 2020.
So when a group of UMass Lowell students approached local restaurant owner Craig Faulkner this summer and offered him free consulting to help his business weather the downturn, he didn’t question their credentials. Instead, he gladly accepted their offer.
“It was intriguing to me to bring on a group of students that had no restaurant experience at all,” says Faulkner, owner and general manager of Warp and Weft, a casual eatery in downtown Lowell. “Right now, all the experience in the world isn’t going to make a difference, because we’re navigating uncharted territory. So the fact that they came in totally green was really exciting.”
Eleven members of the Manning Consulting Group (MCG), an interdisciplinary student organization based in the Manning School of Business
, volunteered their services to help Warp and Weft and the neighboring Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus drum up business during this time of quarantines and social distancing.
Unlike the TV show “Restaurant: Impossible,” where an expert team (including UML alum Taniya Nayak
’97) overhauls an eatery in 48 hours, MCG’s “COVID TaskForce” has spent several months with each business, applying what they’ve learned about marketing, data analytics, operations and management to real-world challenges.
“(Y)ou you feel like you’re talking to seasoned veterans. They don’t come off as college kids.”
-Warp and Weft owner Craig Faulkner
Led by MCG president and co-founder Greg Montemurro, a rising senior business administration major from Westford, Mass., the students began by reaching out to more than 40 local businesses. Of the dozen that expressed interest, two were chosen for the project.
Working in two groups, the students met virtually with the business owners throughout the summer to learn about their unique challenges. They also conducted nearly 200 market research surveys to find out what kinds of concerns potential customers have during the pandemic.
“We’re getting a pulse check on what people are thinking in terms of dining out,” says Alison Coye, a senior business administration major from Rutland, Mass., whose concentrations are in marketing and management.
After analyzing the survey data, the students planned to present their findings and recommendations to the business owners in late August.
“It’s really rewarding and fun to think creatively and apply that into a business plan,” says Montemurro, who was inspired to help local businesses by his girlfriend, plastics engineering major Molly Teece. Her student organization, the UML 3D Club, has 3D printed hundreds of face shields
and “ear savers” this year, donating them to local hospitals.
“I love what Molly is doing, and I wanted to do something to help the community, too,” Montemurro says. “We learn a lot about corporate social responsibility in the Manning School of Business, about giving back and being part of the community.”
Sandrine Gagnon, a rising senior business administration major from Marlborough, Mass., joined the project after her summer internship at TJX was cancelled because of the pandemic.
“I didn’t feel good about just sitting at home while so many people’s lives were turned upside down, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to do something that would actually help during COVID,” says Gagnon, whose concentrations are in marketing and international business.
As a loyal Brew’d Awakening customer (“It’s my spot; it makes Lowell feel like home”), Gagnon approached owner Andy Jacobson about being involved with the project.
“I’ve never really had the money to bring in consultants before, so this worked out nicely for us,” says Jacobson, who has been able to keep his coffeehouse doors open throughout the pandemic but adds that everyone is “in survival mode right now.”
He looked forward to seeing the students’ suggestions, particularly for marketing and operations.
“It’s an interesting project,” Jacobson says. “They’re challenging themselves and will hopefully challenge me.”
For Coye, managing projects and communicating with fellow MCG members remotely on Slack, Zoom and Google Meet has been “an invaluable hands-on experience.”
“It’s given me a chance to interact with my peers, problem-solve and, ultimately, help the Lowell community that I’ve called home for the last four years,” says Coye, who is also working as a marketing specialist for Tomo360, a local marketing firm.
The COVID TaskForce also includes business students: Easmond Tsewole, Adithya Prabakar, Andrew DeMartino, Jack Gohr, Joe Joseph, Winpichmonika Thun and Sotheavatey Bong, as well as Chris Putra, a Ph.D. student in
“It’s shocking to me how professional they are, quite honestly,” says Faulkner, who has created a “streatery” in front of Warp and Weft this summer for outdoor dining and live music. “From every interaction I’ve had, you feel like you’re talking to seasoned veterans. They don’t come off as college kids.”
Montemurro, who has been able to work remotely as a program associate for the Digital Federal Credit Union FinTech Innovation Center during the pandemic, plans to continue offering MCG’s consulting services to local businesses this fall.
“These are places that make Lowell what Lowell is,” he says. “We want to create an impact for the UMass Lowell community.”