Food & Drink

New cafe at Penn State gives students ‘full-circle learning experience’

Marley Gordon makes a cappuccino alongside another barista at Saxbys in the Business Building on the Penn State campus on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.
Marley Gordon makes a cappuccino alongside another barista at Saxbys in the Business Building on the Penn State campus on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018.

A new cafe opened inside the Penn State Smeal College of Business last week. Created by Saxbys, based out of Philadelphia and known for its innovative Experiential Learning Program, the 3,200-square-foot cafe serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. It boasts a small town, local feel, while incorporating the Penn State vibe and culture.

But it’s the Experiential Learning Program, which is central to how Saxbys operates, that truly sets it apart from the similar establishments on campus or in downtown State College.

“Regardless of your age, monetary status, education or lack thereof, coffee shops are meant to be places that are inclusive and bring people together. As we’ve developed this brand over time, we’ve realized it’s a tremendous opportunity to teach, specifically young people, how to get the skills necessary to run their own business,” said Nick Bayer, founder and CEO, Saxbys.

Giving students real-world opportunities has always been the goal, Bayer said.

“We wanted to harness and build on the things taught in the classroom to be able to give students a full-circle learning experience,” he said.

Students are hired to work in the cafe and work their way through the ranks much like they would in a traditional job, but management is always one of their fellow peers — a student cafe executive officer. In the Penn State location’s case, this SCEO is Ben Yan, a sophomore majoring in marketing. Yan has complete autonomy and responsibility for the cafe’s performance.

“The SCEO manages everyone on their team, the financials of the cafe, as well as making sure Saxbys is integrated into the community,” Yan said.

He started training for his position in June, through an accelerated program that put him in the shoes of each employee needed to run a typical Saxbys for two weeks at a time. He said the summer experience required 50–60 working hours per week.

When he arrived back at Penn State in mid-August, the cafe was still under construction. He dove into the recruitment process and marketing, while watching the actual physical structure come together. Now that the cafe is open, he and Bayer agree that the response has been tremendous, and they’re already looking forward to working with Penn State faculty and the community to solidify Saxbys value to Penn State and State College.

Yan’s goals in these first few months of opening primarily revolve around integrating the cafe into the community.

“I’ve made it my goal to make sure I remember every professor who comes through the door, so we know what their name is and what kind of drink they like, but we also want to make sure they know our names, so it isn’t just a one-way connection,” he said. “Also ... we have a lot of space in the business building. We want to use it almost as a music venue, so we can have local or student artists in to perform. We have a lot of wall space as well, so the goal is to basically make the space a part of Penn State’s art community. We want to have galleries that go up, have students’ art go up and it can even be for sale, so there can be an entrepreneurship side to that as well.”

But Yan’s primary priority is to put his employees first, which he believes will, in turn, make the customer experience that much better.

“Saxbys is a hospitality-first, coffee-second company. We want to make sure every guest coming through the door leaves having a better day than they were coming in. Hospitality training with our team members is super crucial. In order for us to have the best hospitality experience, my team first of all needs to be in a good place mentality and they need to be happy working,” he said. “Once they’re happy to be working here and excited to be here, I don’t have to teach them to be hospitable, it’ll just come naturally to them.”

Bayer said that eventually there’s opportunity for the Saxbys brand to spread off-campus as well, and offer the Experiential Learning Program for not just students in higher ed, but community members too. For now, though, the cafe is enjoying its first few days of success, while preparing the future entrepreneurs and business leaders of tomorrow.

Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at