Student Designed, Student Driven: Capital Grains Student Restaurant to Open in Tepper
A new restaurant is opening its doors in the Tepper School of Business. What makes this one unique? It’s completely developed and operated by students. Not only that, it’s the first of its kind at any university in the country.
The ambitious student leading the project is David You, a senior studying Business Administration and Computer Science. Chartwells, the dining services company that has operated at Carnegie Mellon since 2021, has contracts on 300 college campuses in the nation, but this restaurant will be a brand-new initiative.
“This is the first time any higher education dining service is building out a fully run and fully operated student restaurant,” You said. Opening day for service to the Carnegie Mellon community is planned for this Saturday, February 11.
The student-created eating establishment, Capital Grains, will operate out of Rohr Commons, from 12-3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, preparing food in the same kitchen Carnegie Mellon Dining uses during the week. The student chefs and service workers will have total access to equipment and infrastructure to cook as needed.
The name Capital Grains homages the Tepper School while acknowledging the nature of the project: an opportunity for students to develop their entrepreneurial talent. The program aims for hands-on management experience while serving the student body.
“The educational component matters the most,” You said, “But this is real life. This is as real as it gets.”
Capital Grain’s initial offerings will consist of grain bowls and salad bowls. Research conducted by the student developers showed that “a lot of students want alternative dining options, especially on the weekends, and wanted a healthier option that wasn't available,” You said. The team decided to “focus on a market where we could sell healthier, nutritious food to students.”
“We want to make it convenient. It’s a grab-and-go concept, where you order as you go along,” he said. The bowl menu will consist of a green base, either romaine or kale and spinach, or a grain base of brown rice and quinoa mix. Alongside numerous topping choices will be a protein choice — chicken or tofu — and house-made dressings.
“A main concern we were trying to target is, a lot of vegetarian students on the weekends don't have a protein option,” You said. This menu aims to address that deficiency. Payment options will operate like other campus dining locations.
Chartwells partners with programs on campus including the CMU Food Pantry and has utilized its funds to bring meals to students struggling with food insecurity. Joe Beaman, Director of Dining Services at Carnegie Mellon, and Mike Tokarek, Resident District Manager for Chartwells, brought up this new project together in an effort to further integrate Dining with the university’s education model. A major interest for Beaman in his time at Carnegie Mellon has been thinking about how the dining experience can “become more part of the education model,” he said. Getting students behind the wheel of the foodservice process presents a big opportunity for just that.
Beaman and Tokarek began to germinate the idea for a student-operated restaurant a couple years ago, both having joined the Carnegie Mellon community in 2021. To make it happen, they needed a student willing to work and lead this initiative. It was going to take was one with the right “attitude and energy” to make it possible, Beaman said. The question became, then, how to “engage with a student to build out” a student-run business model.
Many first-year students will know David You by his memorable 2022 orientation-week nickname: “Dining David.” You earned that familiar designation as a Head Orientation Counselor, tasked with organizing all the food for the First-Year experience with Dining Services.
“I worked with David through that process, and food was really important to him,” Beaman said.
Reflecting on his experience helping to plan the week’s catering, You said, “it was nice to be part of the conversation. Philosophically, I've always believed that food is an integral part to life in general, but also for an academic experience, especially orientation.”
Interest piqued by his work in foodservice, You kept up his connections with the dining team over the summer, Beaman said. “When you see that kind of work ethic, that kind of passion and drive, the person kind of finds you.” In You, Dining management had found the right student to take on the job of being CEO for the student restaurant initiative.
“David has really spearheaded this thing, taken it with a full head of steam,” said Vic Schmidt, Executive Chef at Carnegie Mellon. Alongside Beaman, You has been working with Schmidt and Tokarek on a daily basis.
“When we partnered with David and he started talking about the team that he was going to build, we realized that he really wanted to take the lead, that he wanted this to be something that he helped build from the ground up,” Beaman said.
There have been student service businesses on campuses before, in the realm of coffee shops and cafés, like Saxbys Experiential Learning Platform. Based in Philadelphia, they run a national program for students to work hands-on in food service. But, as Mike Tokarek points out, "there’s nothing with real menu development." This venture differs from those at other schools by giving students complete freedom to make what they will of the program. Without limiting the students’ potential for creativity and development experience with strict guidelines to follow, they instead had the support and financial backing to plan out themselves exactly how the restaurant should run.
“They’ve given me full authority and ownership over this project, in terms of what we're going to sell, how we're going to sell, hours of operation,” You said.
A key ingredient to getting this restaurant right came in surveying the student population to gauge their needs and interest, making sure the food being sold fit what students desired and “thought was absent from campus dining, especially on the weekends."
“We’re a data-driven organization,” Beaman said. “We might have anecdotes about what we think, but we send out to get the data, to find out what people are really wanting and what they’re missing. And I think [David] hit it on the head.”
Last fall, You began hiring students to realize the restaurant dream. He brought on three business students in managerial positions to serve as Chief Financial Officer, Chief Marketing Officer, and Chief Operating Officer, and eight more to assist on the service side. With this team assembled, progress began in earnest. As well as developing Capital Grains on the business side, You also serves as its executive chef, creating the recipes and menu items to be dished up, training the staff to take on all aspects of operation, from preparation to serving, customer service to cleaning.
Opening weekend on the rise, final preparations are in process to make sure the team is ready to go. The students have been working beside Schmidt, training in the serve-safe process, learning about food safety, knife skills, and all the vital aspects of running a successful restaurant.
“I anticipate he’s going to have a lot of support from the students,” Schmidt said.
Starting out as a weekend pilot concept, ambitions for the project are grand. With the right student interest, and some years of development, the concept may evolve into a seven-days-a-week, full-service restaurant.
“The goal is to have it be like a student concept. How it will look in 10 years, I'm not sure. But certainly, I think it's a great initiative because we as the students choose the food that we're selling,” You said. “In the future, if people's palates change and they want something new,” the students involved could make that change, he said.
Beyond the opportunity for management practice, “it’s also about getting scholastic credit and real-life experiential learning,” Beaman said. An independent study program is being developed for students to get class credit through Carnegie Mellon for their work on the project.
“I think there’s a sense that we’re all part of an entrepreneurial landscape” at Carnegie Mellon, Beaman said. “The students keep taking on more of the responsibility. Now we’re excited to take a back seat and watch the work that they do.”