New SoHE Venture Off to Stellar Start

The Robin's Nest at UW School of Human Resources
Thanks to an innovative School of Human Ecology course, “CS 501: Consumer Strategy and Evaluation,” the Robin’s Nest got off to a great start last fall at Nancy Nicholas Hall. Operated in partnership with the Wisconsin Union, this Badger Market serves hot paninis, sandwiches, coffee, espresso drinks, and snacks from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on weekdays.
Under the leadership of Consumer Science Professor Dee Warmath, students from diverse majors—including personal finance, retail, consumer affairs, and community and nonprofit leadership—worked in five teams to improve the Cafe’s expected performance by almost 60 percent. “We took an expected annual loss of $38,000 and reduced that amount to about $16,000 in one semester. By the end of the academic year, our goal is to deliver a profitable and sustainable market,” said Warmath, who has more than 20 years’ experience consulting for national retailers.
The course provided students with an immersive, hands-on experience of strategy, planning, implementation and evaluation, using real-world cases—in this instance the Robin’s Nest, a Badger Market concept. Students designed and proposed their strategic plans, implemented accepted plans, and evaluated the effect on the cafe’s performance. The Badger Market location benefitted through an improved top and bottom line. The students benefitted as well, gaining crucial real-world experience. “The class is empowering for students. It gives them confidence in their ability to develop and implement a strategic plan. The work they do here will translate nicely to their chosen professions,” Professor Warmath said.
Warmath taught the class in the Michael Axelrod Collaborative Learning Hall, literally steps from the café, where students could immediately see the impact of their work. She delivered all lectures online, with 100 percent of class time committed to questions, discussion, and team projects.
The 40-plus students divided into five teams and each team addressed a different strategic goal—from attracting new customers to improving traffic flow. After they analyzed the situation, the teams developed creative solutions and presented their plans and budgets to the Executive Committee including SoHE Dean Soyeon Shim, Associate Dean Wendy Way, and representatives from the Wisconsin Union. Each team had 15 minutes to present their plans and five minutes to respond to questions.
Once they had secured approval for their plans and funding, the groups implemented their plans. Next, the teams observed the impact and collected data to measure and evaluate the results. Warmath also geared exams to evaluate students’ understanding of the underlying strategic planning process.
One student team focused on atmospherics and seating capacity, rearranging tables and chairs to create study-conducive space and signage directing customers to additional seating. Another group improved the flow of traffic by optimizing the decision-making process and adding a directional rope, as well as “Order Here” and “Pick-up” signs. Other teams used promotional offers and signage to increase student traffic into Nancy Nicholas Hall and established a resource for coffee and food at small- to medium-sized meetings inside the building.
“They zeroed in on some very interesting aspects of the operation,” said Pete Behrendt, Wisconsin Union markets and cafes division manager. “Everything from layout and presentation of menu items, ambience of the dining area, to promoting awareness and building buy-in,” he noted in a Wisconsin Union publication.
The Wisconsin Union also gained “an inside perspective on what students want and expect from our cafes and operations.” This semester the course is working with Verne Scholl of The Wisconsin Union markets and cafes division.
The fact that students must plan, secure funding, implement and evaluate their ideas in the span of one semester for a live business is unusual in higher education. “The type of exchange is rare, if not unique, to this course,” Warmath said. “A lot of schools have students work with other businesses. But I didn’t find a single school doing what we’re doing with rapid prototyping and testing focused on an existing operating food service unit on campus. The students learn what it takes to live at the speed of business while making meaningful contributions.”
Word gets around. Following the success of the first course, other businesses have approached Warmath about partnering with the class.

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