They held a free food sampling on campus. They distributed flyers with discount coupons in the dormitories and nearby apartment buildings. They revamped the website, adding colorful pictures and a menu.
A group of Towson University business students are finishing up a marketing and management campaign for a Towson restaurant, a project that lets them use their expertise in a real-life situation and benefits the restaurant owner as well.
Kevin Tukei initiated the project. Tukei, a senior from Burtonsville, is a member of the university's Enactus chapter. Formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise until a name-change in 2012, Enactus is an international nonprofit that encourages college students to take on business projects with a community orientation.
One day last fall, Tukei was dining in Cedar Café Shop, a Mediterranean restaurant at 246 E. Burke Ave., in Towson — one of his favorites. He got to talking to the owner, Buthaina Mansour.
"She asked me if I'd seen the advertisement for her restaurant on Facebook. When I said 'no,' she was surprised because she'd spent plenty of money for it," Tukei said. "I thought, our group can help her market her business to Towson students and the community.
Tukei pitched the idea to the chapter. Tukei, along with Sandrine Emambu, Redate Haile, Juliette Rakatomalala and Emily McCormick, all of Silver Spring, and Tanisha Webb, of Baltimore, volunteered to take on the project. The project began in November and is due to be completed March 31. Although Enactus projects can proceed without funding, the group was able to get two grants, $1,250 each from Walmart and CocaCola, designated specifically to help female entrepreneurs.
The café is small, eight tables for dining and another table for people waiting for carryout orders. It is located on the street level of a former residence, in the space occupied by another Mediterranean restaurant that Mansour bought 18 months ago.
Mansour, a Palestinian, expanded the menu, renovated the space and installed new equipment.
"It cost me $85,000 to open," said Mansour, a Perry Hall resident and single mother of two who, in her words, "has to get this business to work."
Cedar Café Shop is Mansour's first business. She doesn't have training or experience in running a business, and she is thrilled to be an Enactus project.
"When Kevin offered to help, I said, 'Great. That's what I am looking for,'" she said.
Initially, project co-leaders Tukei and Sandrine Emambu, Enactus president and a senior, figured the project would involve devising a marketing campaign for Cedar Café.
"But when we consulted with [Mansour], we got into other issues," Tukei said, listing customer service, financial records and inventory management as well. "We tackled all of them."
For marketing, the group did a survey of how aware people were of the café based on its social media presence. Last November, when the project officially kicked off, the number of viewers to the café's Facebook page was 196.
By mid-February, thanks to group's outreach on the Towson campus and nearby community, the number of viewers to the café's Facebook page and revamped website was 7,000. Business at the cafe's weekly buffet on Friday increased.
Mansour's relations with her staff of five needed to change. "She's kind, relaxed and her employees saw her as a friend, not a boss," which affected customer service, said Emambu.
Arguments in the kitchen could be heard by patrons in the dining area. When a customer asked a waiter, "What's good on the menu?" the reply was, "I don't know. I don't eat here."
The group consulted with Marissa Brody, a hospitality manager at Towson University. After visiting the café to assess it, Brody did a training session with Mansour and her staff. The group also wrote a customer service manual Mansour can give to new employees.
Emambu explained how the Enactus group addressed the other issues. For example, the café stocked a small inventory of assorted items like dried noodles, sponges, soap detergent and Mediterranean spices.
"The café is located near a Walmart and a Target. No one was going to buy [those items] from her. Plus, it sent a confusing message to customers. Is this a café or a small market?" Emambu said. The group convinced Mansour to eliminate most of the items.
Another issue was financial management. Mansour did not keep records. "If you asked her how much she made that month, she didn't know," Emambu said. The group set up a system for Mansour to track her expenses.
David Brannon is the faculty adviser to Towson University's Enactus. The chapter is about three years old and has 20 members, according to Brannon, assistant professor in the management department of the business college.
Previous projects have involved raising food for homeless shelters and raising awareness of human trafficking. "There are other student groups that do activism and community work," Brannon said. "But Enactus is unique by combining business and social action."
Enactus has national conferences at which various chapters submit their projects for evaluation by experts. The Cedar Café project ends at the end of this month when the grants expire. The national conference is a month later, in April, and Emambu plans to enter it for consideration.
"The group met almost every single day on the project. I couldn't even track the number of hours we put into it," she said. "I want to showcase what we did."