By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
BLUFFTON — Some students at Bluffton University are getting a taste of real-world experience — one loaf of bread at a time.
The Bluffton Bread Co. was started this year, an idea of university President Jane Wood. The project was inspired by the former Bluffton Slaw Cutter Co., a student-run business on Main Street.
The company’s staple flavors — banana-walnut, pumpkin and asiago-cheddar — will be available for sale at the university’s annual Harvest Dinner on Friday. Loaves sell for $8 each.
Years ago, students were given the chance to gain business skills when Howard Raid, then chairman of the business department, urged the university to purchase the Bluffton Slaw Cutter Co. in 1961. The handheld metal implement had been invented 50 years earlier when businessmen John Fett and Sam Kimmel decided that women in the Swiss-German community needed a better slaw cutter.
The students used the business as a hands-on laboratory to study accounting, marketing and management. But after Raid’s retirement, student interest waned. Paul King, who was director of development at Bluffton College, bought the business in 1983 and the college continued to offer the lab experience until 1987, when the program was discontinued.
Fast forward 30-some years, and Wood wanted to see the university start a student-run business again.
“So our product is bread instead of slaw cutters,” said Jeanna Haggard, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics.
Students from several different majors are involved in the operation.
Brianna Sinn and Katie Kline, both senior dietetics majors, lived on campus this summer and worked on recipe development.
“We started with a recipe, one that Jeanna’s used for awhile,” said Sinn. “We made little changes, tried substituting cake flour versus all-purpose flour, added an extra egg yolk in to see if that made a difference.”
They worked until they found recipes that produced a loaf of bread with the right height, texture, moisture and flavor. Lots of baking led to lots of taste-testing. The banana bread definitely gave them the most trouble, said Sinn.
Meanwhile, business and marketing students got involved. They organized focus groups with community members, faculty, staff and students under the direction of Melissa Green, associate professor of business. Beth Weigandt, a senior marketing and business administration double major, said the goal of these focus groups was to gauge the target market for the bread, and how much those customers would be willing to pay.
The university’s public relations office also became part of the process, by making an email subscriber list.
“I have friends working on it in other business classes and talk to dietetics friends. It’s been a real big project that I think a lot of students are happy to be a part of,” said Weigandt.
Tricia Bell, content manager in the university’s public relations office, said this is a learning experience for all involved.
“It’s like we’re starting a small business,” she said. “We’re starting out with these limited runs, then we’re going to see from there. We’re going to re-evaluate, see where else we can draw in other students from, what they all can do, what is actually feasible without overwhelming everybody.”
Her office helped create some of the promotional materials. And student worker Hannah Brown from Findlay designed the company’s logo.
Michelle Swartley, a senior accounting and economics double major, is the company’s accountant. Anthony Mungia, a junior business administration major from Fostoria, is working on a marketing plan.
The students will be making 300 loaves of bread to sell at this week’s Harvest Dinner. The university has an Ohio Department of Agriculture wholesale bakery license, and the bread will be produced in the commercial kitchen located in the commons.
Sinn said she never expected to be running a business as a college student.
“Our marketing class is really excited to get hands-on experience and actually focus on a real company and the real outcomes and the real focus group, not just textbook material,” added Weigandt.
Wood seems excited by what the team has accomplished so far, said Haggard. She takes bread with her when she goes out into the community to show what the students are doing. Banana-walnut is her favorite.
“She makes that very, very clear. We have to have banana-walnut all the time,” Haggard laughed.