You've likely heard that the majority of new bars and restaurants fail within the first few years. Add a heavy course load to this discouraging statistic, and it seems almost impossible to launch a successful food and beverage business while in college. But as a college entrepreneur, you actually have some advantages over the 9-to-5ers.
Now in his second year at Georgetown Law, Fritz Brogan not only challenged the restaurant failure myth, he flat out defied it. The full-time student has already been a partner in two successful bars and co-owns two of the hottest establishments in Washington, DC: Gin & Tonic, a happening tavern, and Kitchen, a popular restaurant serving Southern comfort food.
But success didn't happen overnight. Brogan spent his undergraduate years at Georgetown learning the ropes, bartending at two local bars and then managing a third bar before graduating. "I think a lot of people have this dream that being a bar owner is all about running around, talking to beautiful girls and buying drinks for your friends," Brogan says. "But to be successful in this business, you need to be able to do the job of every single person who works for you." And it's equally important to understand your customer, he adds. "When we designed the bar, I said to myself, 'Is this the kind of place I would go to if I didn't own it? What about my friends and the girls we hang out with? Would they go if it wasn't mine?'" Using input from college buddies (aka his future customers) Brogan built a bar that had the formula to succeed from day one. "We designed Gin & Tonic with our target audience in mind," he says. "Since I party and study with that demographic, it was very easy for me."
University of Missouri senior Cary Silverman also tapped into the vast oasis of free (and hungry) market research candidates, turning to his fellow students for inspiration before launching Pub-Corn, a company that manufactures and sells beer- and cocktail-flavored popcorn. The idea popped into Silverman's head one night as he observed friends sneaking alcohol into the campus movie theater and couldn't help wondering what popcorn and alcohol tasted like together. Pub-Corn now ships more than 2,000 bags of its specialty popcorn per week, thanks to Silverman's nontraditional market research; he went straight to his potential customer base--down the hall. "Just grab a handful of your friends and say, 'Look, I've got this product, try it and tell me what you think,'" he says. "Chances are your friends are going to be the ones who are most honest with you anyway."
Joel Holland, 25, is the founder and CEO of Footage Firm in Reston, Va.