By Ed Brennen
Alec Itzaina and Madhav Makadia had to be there when the first panini was served.
A year ago, they were among the 16 Manning School of Business
students in the Internship for Entrepreneurship course preparing to open “After Hours
,” a student-run venture that would offer late-night fare on weekends at University Suites’ Hawk’s Nest Cafe.
After months of planning, everything was coming together for the grand opening in late March. But then, of course, COVID-19 shut down the campus.
“We were expecting to come back from spring break and open the restaurant. Then we had to stop,” says Itzaina, a senior finance student from São Paulo, Brazil.
Thirteen months later, a revamped “pop-up” version of After Hours started serving up food to hungry River Hawks. On a recent Friday evening, at tables set up outside of University Suites on East Campus, business students offered five varieties of pre-made panini sandwiches — salame, parma, mortadella, caprese and green — to students, faculty and staff.
The price? Free. In lieu of payment, customers were asked to make a donation to the Navigators Food Pantry
, a student organization that supplies free food items for anyone in the university community who may be experiencing food insecurity.
“The food pantry is a great resource on campus, and we thought this would be a good way to help people learn about it while also serving them a bite to eat,” says Silvana Davaiga, a senior business major from New Bedford, Massachusetts, with an international business concentration.
Taught by adjunct faculty members David Vatalaro and Dan Parravano, Internship in Entrepreneurship is a three-credit course that gives students a chance to gain professional work experience, typically with outside organizations. By creating and running their own restaurant instead, students in the course can now learn about business concepts like supply chain, marketing, customer relations and human resources right on campus.
“We have been working on the development of a student-run business initiative for several years, and with the support and guidance of many university leaders, it finally became a reality,” says Dean of Business Sandra Richtermeyer
, who stopped by on opening night to support the students — and try a caprese panini.
Financial support from the Manning School covers the business costs, which include the panini ingredients (like fresh ciabatta bread) and the use of commercial kitchen space at UTEC, a community organization in Lowell where students make the sandwiches in accordance with food safety standards.
Jillian Pare, a junior marketing and management student from Oxford, Massachusetts, joined the class last fall, when students began modifying the original in-person restaurant idea for a more COVID-safe alternative. She enjoyed the course so much that she enrolled again this semester.
“There’s so much to marketing a restaurant that you don’t think about,” says Pare, who was busy posting photos from the opening to the After Hours Instagram
page. She says reaching students during the pandemic has been extra challenging.
“You can’t just put up a big sign that says ‘Come see us,’ because there’s not that many people on campus,” she says. “We’re hoping next semester will be different.”
Among the first customers were business students Joey Peluso and Karedis Robles, who brought several bags of food donations (customers could also make a monetary donation by scanning a QR code).
“A friend posted an Instagram story about it and I wanted to take part,” said Robles, a junior finance and management information systems student from Puerto Rico.
“I love what they’re doing,” added Peluso, a senior management and entrepreneurship student from Burlington, Massachusetts. “I know for me, personally, sometimes it was challenging to pay for my own food. So I can definitely sympathize with the fact that the food pantry is a very necessary program.”
In addition to making a Navigators Food Pantry donation, customers were asked to complete a brief online survey to help the students improve their offerings in the future. The goal is to open a sit-down version on weekends, as planned, if COVID protocols allow in the fall.
“A lot of students come back late when the dining hall is closed, so we really want to provide something that’s affordable and easily accessible,” says Davaiga, who took the course in the fall and remained involved this semester.
She says working with various groups across campus such as Student Affairs, the food pantry and UML’s food services provider, Aramark, “helped me understand how big connections are in business.”
Makadia, one of the students preparing to open the restaurant last spring, returned home to India when classes went remote because of the pandemic. He would get up at 3 a.m. for Zoom meetings with his classmates to figure out how to continue the business concept.
Now that he’s back in Lowell, Makadia wanted to help with the opening — especially since some of the students who are taking the class remotely this semester could not be on campus.
“It’s nice to see something become of it,” he says. “I hope students enjoy what we tried doing for the past year.”
With 100 paninis wrapped and ready to give away, Itzaina shared in the satisfaction.
“It was fun to have to pivot and prepare for something totally different,” he says. “It was a true business lesson.”
After Hours will be open two more times this semester — Friday, April 30 and Thursday, May 6 — from 5 to 9 p.m. in front of University Suites.