A concept that delivers shelf-stable vegetables to food-service operations has taken first place in the annual Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition. Natural Cuts, developed by Vipul Prakash Saran and Harrison Willis, was awarded the competition’s $25,000 first prize. Saran is an MPS student at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and Willis is studying for an MPS in the Baker Program in Real Estate. The competition is held annually during the student-led Hotel Ezra Cornell weekend. This year’s final presentations were given on Saturday, March 18.
Two other food-service concepts earned second and third place. Bill’s, a bar-concept which focuses on customer-driven beer selections, was awarded $7,500 for its second-place finish, while third place (and a $5,000 award) went to Doña Nata, which envisions a food hall that hosts a number of vendors in the style of a Mexican fonda. Bill’s proprietors are Will Mangan (MMH ’17) and Lydia Xu (MMH ’17), and Team Doña Nata is composed of Angela Lindsay (SHA ’17), Antonio Miceli (MMH ’17), and Natalia Ruiz (MMH ’17).
Two other teams placed as finalists: CHOMP, a full-service sandwich restaurant tailored for university cities, developed by Ben Guzick (MMH ’17), Varun Vesuvala (MMH ’17), and Alex Szwyd (MMH ’17); and Latitude, a geo-location-based mobile application which reveals a city’s hidden gems and connects people with other tourists, which was proposed by Gauri Khanna (SHA ’17) and Sonali Tolani (CALS-Dyson ’17).
This year’s sponsors are Greg Dollarhyde’80 (MBA’81), Marriott International, Sandy Solmon (P’15), Elizabeth Shingleton Glomsrud ’00 and Barbara Foote Shingleton ’75, and The Sun Family: Stanley ’00 and his parents Dennis and Betty, together with supporter Karim Abouelnaga ’13.
Faculty sponsor of the competition is Dr. Susan Fleming, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration and interim director of the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship, which conducts the competition. “I view this as a culmination of the Hotel School’s entrepreneurial curriculum,” she said. “The competition allows students to use all the skills they have learned in the classroom and apply them to an actual business plan and pitch.”
Fleming pointed to the contribution of the Pillsbury Institute’s Entrepreneurs in Residence and the SHA faculty for their work with the student teams during the year-long process of developing the business plans, as well as the competition’s judges, all of whom provided useful feedback to the teams as they progressed through the rounds of the competition. This year’s final judges were Karim Abouelnaga, Greg Dollarhyde, Sandy Solmon, and Warren Leeds ’84.
Natural Cuts team members Harrison Willis and Vipul Saran appreciated Fleming’s assistance and the Pillsbury Institute’s support throughout the process. “Whatever work you’ve done over the past months, you have ten minutes to summarize that,” said Saran. “Dr. Fleming helped with this, and the competition changed my perspective on this process.” Willis added: “Entrepreneurship is the greatest undertaking a person can do, and having this institute that is encouraging entrepreneurs is really helpful.”
Several competition participants highlighted the competition as a transformative event. “We started with the concept of a Mexican restaurant,” said Doña Nata’s Natalia Ruiz. “But during our development process, we learned of more needs to be filled, and our concept changed radically.” Added Antonio Miceli: “In the food halls of Mexico, we saw an opportunity based on giving people a shot at becoming a successful vendor.”
Will Mangan also pointed to changes in the Bill’s concept. “We started out with a beer-cheese-bread concept, and now we have a flavor-forward bar concept that lowers the initial investment and can scale,” he explained. Lydia Wu credited the contribution of numerous coaches: “We evolved through several stages as we worked with mentors who helped us change and improve the concept,” she said.
The team aspect of the competition was also important to the students. Chomp’s Ben Guzick said: “The most exciting part of this competition was working with a team that makes your concept better than it could be if you did it on your own.” Varun Vesuvala added: “This is the culmination of a year’s worth of learning. This is life. This is what Cornell trains and mentors you to do.”