Jesse McNeely has watched as Taziki's Mediterranean Café in the WVU Mountainlair has taken off like a YouTube video gone viral in just a couple months.
He is expected to graduate from the College of Business and Economics MBA program in December and manages the restaurant, which opened with WVU's fall semester and has already become one of the most profitable Taziki's in the nation.
Taziki's was actually donated to the College of Business and Economics by B&E alumni Michael Bodnar and Doug VanScoy and opened in the WVU Mountainlair on August 20. WVU President Dr. James P. Clements was the first customer at the restaurant, which will give 80 percent of its net proceeds to the College of Business and Economics. It is part of the college's new hospitality management focus.
Serving almost 500 students a day, the restaurant is one of nine and the northernmost. The others are in Alabama and Arkansas, where Bodnar runs Fresh Hospitality, the parent organization. "We are very pleased with the early results from the restaurant," Bodnar said. "Things have smoothed out nicely, and the reception by WVU students has been very good."
McNeely, who was raised in South Charleston, W.Va., said managing a restaurant was a natural career fit for him. "Before I went into marketing as an undergraduate, I had thought about attending culinary school," he said. "I've always loved to cook – especially homemade fettuccine alfredo and my mom's recipe for meatloaf." But managing Taziki's is proving to be McNeely's ideal career. "I really like the people I work with," he said. "Everyone is positive – from my employees to my superiors in the company. Everyone here has a passion for good food."
Plus, he's using the skills he has learned as an MBA student. Supply chain management and being the boss for nearly 40 students isn't exactly easy. But his background has helped.
"At Taziki's, we have no frozen foods, no fryer, and no microwave," he said. "Everything is made fresh and quick. So, we have to have exactly what we need to serve hundreds of students a great fresh meal every day. Plus, we run such a lean inventory, so 'just-on-time supply' is the standard here." To manage this involves using what he calls "an excellent database system that tracks past sales, and projects future sales."
McNeely said he is using the skills he's learned as an MBA student "every single day." He certainly needs all the management skills he has between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. That's when the WVU Meal Plan rush takes place. "It gets really busy because all students with the meal plan card have to do is swipe it," he said. "But, being a manager is all about handling the difficult situations."
Rusty Rushton, adjunct professor, works with Bodnar to open new restaurants and said the WVU Taziki's opening went well. "Actually opening the store went quite smoothly. It helps to have good people trying to do a good job," he said. "The fact that we scheduled to open three days before classes started and did not have sufficient time and opportunity to select returning student employees before we opened was worrisome. There was no time or other stores to train in before opening at WVU."
Fortunately, Rushton had a capable manager to work with. "The most important characteristic of a manager is the ability to take an average employee and get above average results by being a good role model and treating them with respect. I think Jesse is doing great as a new manager out of college, and you can quickly realize how important experience can be."
Bodnar, who is chairman of Bodnar Investments and managing partner of Fresh Hospitality, said McNeely is doing "very well" during his training as manager, which is also training to teach a course in restaurant management next fall as part of the college's hospitality management area of focus.
"The opportunity for students in the hospitality industry is great and the need for smart, imaginative talent is great,” Bodnar said. “We are trying to bridge the gap and bring that talent and opportunity together."