Dana Scardigli WG’10 interned at Schnipper’s Quality Kitchen, New York, NY

2009-2010 Startup Internship Award winner, supported by the Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board

How did you find the position?

What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?
I wanted to get first hand experience in the fast-casual restaurant industry to start my own restaurant, and working in a start-up restaurant would be the most relevant experience.

What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?
Look for opportunities in non-traditional places!

About the Summer Experience
I came to Wharton to open a restaurant. To many that might sound a little crazy but to me it made (and still makes) perfect sense. I made the decision to follow my passion, and realized that if I wanted to start a successful national retail food chain, I should probably learn the basics of starting and running a business. My first-year entrepreneurial courses at Wharton gave me a good foundation, but I felt that my specific entrepreneurial career goal was far from the typical “startup” that most MBAs pursue and that I needed to supplement my classroom learning with real-world retail food experience. Plus, I hadn’t really worked in the restaurant business before, and from what my foodie friends would tell me, the restaurant business is like no other. They were right.

While most of friends this summer were flipping between Excel tabs, I was flipping burgers. So maybe that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but not much. I found my summer opportunity in a very unexpected place: craigslist. I was poring through the NY restaurant jobs and stumbled upon a marketing position with a brand new fast casual hamburger restaurant. The founders were the entrepreneurs behind a 25-unit successful soup and salad chain in New York, and had decided to sell their first concept and move on to burgers and American comfort food. The position they were advertising was non-traditional, but exciting: “The job functions will include creating promotional campaigns, contacting potential sales leads, in store marketing and branding, media initiatives, and many others. Come join an exciting new concept and help build a great business” read the craigslist posting.

I didn’t consider myself a marketer by any means, but I saw the job as an opportunity to get my foot into a startup fast casual restaurant and learn other aspects of this business as well. My goal was to convince the founders that I knew enough about marketing to do the job well, and that anything I didn’t know I would learn fast. My Wharton MBA helped to convince them that I was a quick study. My next goal was to make sure that I would be exposed to not just the marketing side of the business, but other aspects of restaurant operations as well. We crafted a position and schedule that allowed me to learn about the business from multiple facets and create value for them through the creation and execution of a marketing plan.

One of my first activities involved manning a food tent in Times Square and handing out menus and “Buy One Get One Free” coupons that I had designed and convinced the founders to distribute. They had never before engaged in any promotional activity, and I wanted to experiment with different programs and discounts to bring in new customers. This experience underscored one of the recurring themes that I learned over this summer: the restaurant business is 100% hands-on. The founders were at the restaurant each and every day, moving between all manner of tasks seamlessly. One moment the CEO would be in intense discussions with a real estate agent over future potential locations, the next he was donning a pair of food-service gloves and filling in at the expediter station to cover a staff member’s absence.

Fortunately, I was given the same type of training at the beginning, observing and pitching in on each station, from expediter to cashier. We all felt it was important that I learn about the operations in order to credibly market the product and experience. I was impressed by the owners’ passion for their business and vision. Despite being a “quick-service” restaurant, everything was made to order, from the grilled chicken on the salads to the mahi mahi in the fish tacos. They took tremendous pride in serving food made from quality and freshly-prepared ingredients.

This passion sustained them in the face of setbacks, which were numerous (though not major) throughout the summer. I learned that the restaurant business is full of them. One day, your head sandwich prep cook doesn’t show up without notice, the next you get dinged on your health inspection for holding milk one day past its expiry date. I also observed that the best way to handle these setbacks is to maintain a calm and composed demeanor and not allow emotions to overwhelm the situation. This is a lesson that I hope to remember long into my food business future.

Another key lesson I took away is one I have learned before in multiple contexts, but one that is especially important in the restaurant business: attract and retain good talent. In the quick-service world, wages are low and turnover is high, so anything that principals can do to increase employee satisfaction and retention is highly valuable. In this case, it meant hiring a great manager with a sense of ownership in the business and hiring kitchen staff who saw their job as not just a paycheck but also as a career opportunity. In the restaurant business, teamwork is critical. Every person’s role is necessary for the performance of the business, from the dishwasher to the general manager. By the end of the summer, I felt like an integral and valuable member of this team. Sales had increased dramatically, through a combination of external factors and the marketing initiatives we had worked to develop. Being able to see the impact of my work immediately was extremely rewarding. I don’t think I would have been able to such an impactful experience had I worked in a more established business.