Double Shot of Co-op
The Saxbys at the corner of 34th and Lancaster on Drexel’s campus is odd – or, more accurately, O.D.D. It’s odd in that it’s a unique partnership between the steadily growing coffee chain and Drexel University, making it the only coffee shop of its kind in Philadelphia. It’s also run and staffed entirely by Drexel students on co-op, another first for Saxbys. But O.D.D. runs deeper than the distinct business partnership and exclusive co-op staffing: it’s a philosophy at the core of Saxbys’ efforts to attract and hire people with the personality traits they want on their teams – outgoing, disciplined and detail oriented.
The hiring philosophy, which is repeated like a mantra by everyone from corporate employees to managers and baristas, is by all accounts embodied by the two LeBow undergraduates chosen to guide the café into and through its grand opening. Meghan Regan, a pre-junior marketing major, was the first co-op hired for the new café and tasked with launching the new venture, and sophomore marketing major Kelsey Goslin would later be hired to be the manager for the grand opening and beyond.
The process of screening applicants and ultimately hiring the right leaders for the new café was a top priority for Saxbys CEO Nick Bayer. “We knew students would love the product and the café, but we needed the right people right out of the gates. We had to set the tone the right way. We had really high expectations,” Bayer says.
To hear Bayer tell it, identifying the right personalities would be the deciding factor in the success or failure of a totally unique concept that came about after a series of conversations with Drexel President John Fry. After agreeing to explore the idea of a completely student-run café, Bayer walked Drexel’s campus many times over to identify the ideal piece of real estate. He found what he was looking for at the base of a nondescript campus residential building at 65 North 34th Street – a space on a well-trafficked corner that would position the new Saxbys at a crossroads between the residential section of campus to the north and the predominantly academic area to the south.
The space, formerly two ground floor student apartments, was exactly what Bayer had envisioned. He had known, since the earliest conceptions of a student run Saxbys, that it shouldn’t be “tucked away on the fourth floor of an academic building.” That the chosen location featured a previously unused lawn space that could be turned into a sizable outdoor patio only made it more compelling. Renovations began quickly, though Bayer made the decision to keep the plans quiet until all of the pieces were in place. Hiring the first co-op manager was at the top of his list.
A co-op job was listed with the somewhat uninformative title of “café opening position.” Details were kept to a minimum with the goal of maintaining the new café’s secrecy, but it also provided some unintended benefits. Bayer explains, “no one knew what [the job] was because we hadn’t announced yet. So it was a truly entrepreneurial and risk- taking group that applied to it.”
The criteria for the first co-op hire, though somewhat vague on paper, were well defined for Saxbys’ hiring team. They needed someone O.D.D., but with a heavy emphasis on the “O” for outgoing. “The personality we wanted was sort of a larger than life … really a central figure on campus. Someone that loved Drexel and the greater Drexel community,” Bayer says.
No one knew what [the job] was because we hadn’t announced yet. So it was a truly entrepreneurial and risk- taking group that applied to it.
After several interviews, it didn’t take long to realize Meghan was the ideal candidate to be at the helm of the new café. Her intelligence and excitement about the project were immediately apparent to Bayer.
For Meghan, what was described to her as a pivotal role in not only opening a café, but pioneering a first-of-its-kind partnership between a coffee chain and university, seemed too good to be true. But when she was called in for a second interview with the CEO of the company, it all felt a little more real. The interview lasted two hours, with Bayer explaining that she was being hired for a role with significant authority and the pressure of executing a plan that was already two years in the making.
From her first day on the job, Meghan was plunged into intensive training, learning the coffee business and taking on ever-increasing levels of authority and responsibility. With the opening of Saxbys Drexel still months away, she rotated between cafés in the Philadelphia area, including a trial run at opening a new location as she helped train the team at the newly minted Saxbys in Peddler’s Village in New Hope, Pa.
From there she moved to the café on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus with full-time managerial responsibilities. She says she quickly learned that confidence was the key to managing team members who were often close to twice her age. “When I told people I was only 20 years old, their jaws would drop to the floor,” she says. But with little room for wavering, she gained self-assurance quickly. “When I walked into that café, I snapped into it,” she says. “When I’m working, it’s straight business.”
After learning to manage a staff with the inevitable scheduling difficulties and personality differences, Meghan’s role finally shifted to a full focus on preparing for the eventual grand opening of Saxbys Drexel. The shift brought another challenge; Meghan had gotten comfortable managing employees who were older, but now she would be interviewing, hiring and managing her Drexel peers.
With word about the new café opening now quickly spreading around campus, more than 70 Drexel students applied for roughly 20 open co-op positions. Meghan, having earned the confidence of Bayer and Saxbys’ hiring team, was given latitude to interview and evaluate many of the applicants on her own. Many were either friends or acquaintances, adding a layer of complexity. But with the O.D.D. criteria as her guide, Meghan tapped into her newly discovered confidence and made hard staffing decisions.
After choosing the first round of co-op employees, she faced a challenge completely unique to her task, and one that will likely haunt every subsequent Saxbys Drexel manager: scheduling busy Drexel students whose calendars revolve around the quarter system. Where most cafés utilize eight hour shifts, perennially busy Drexel students can rarely work more than four, creating a jigsaw puzzle of staffing issues.
Understanding and living the uniquely hectic schedule of Drexel students proved to be an invaluable asset. “Drexel is different than any other University as far as timing,” she says. “And the student body is different, but I know my school.”
With the virtual Rubik’s Cube level task of staffing the café complete, the only complication left was that the founding manager’s co-op was ending before the first coffee would be served. Meghan had to step aside, but she never really considered leaving Saxbys before the big day. “It was my baby. I didn’t want to give it up,” she says. So she decided to stay on as a barista when the new co-op manager took over.
At Saxbys’ corporate headquarters in Center City, interviews were ongoing for a new manager. Bayer acknowledges that the timing of the changeover didn’t initially seem ideal, but he says, “We saw the opportunity to have one co-op’s strengths be complementary to the other.” They decided to find someone whose primary strengths were being disciplined and detail oriented, the latter two characteristics of O.D.D.
Kelsey was entering her second co-op with the goal of taking on more responsibility than she had in her first. Her drive made her an immediate standout in interviews and Bayer noted that her interest in social entrepreneurship dovetailed perfectly with Saxbys’ founding mission to “make life better.”
Kelsey’s co-op began shortly before the scheduled April 13 ribbon cutting. With little time, and no prior experience in food service, she underwent a whirlwind of training both as a barista and a manager. The job never slowed down, as the café has proven to be a hit with students.
The buzz about the new coffee option on campus made for a few hectic months, but Kelsey had learned on her prior co-op that sitting at a desk all day just didn’t fit her personality. She needed to be engaged, working and busy at all times, and leading the new café on campus offered just that. Even days off tend to look suspiciously like work as a “quick visit” to the café often ends with her behind the counter serving drinks.
Her work ethic in the face of so much pressure has impressed Saxbys VP of Sales and Marketing Justin Pizzi, MBA ‘11. She’s been given full responsibility to “run a big business from top to bottom. We don’t expect any less from Kelsey than we do from our other corporate café managers,” Pizzi says.
For Kelsey, being in such a central role has been transformative. She had some initial fears that earning respect from friends and peers would be difficult, but her confidence grew quickly. It was immediately apparent that she wasn’t an anonymous component of a bigger machine. She had monthly meetings with Bayer where he sought her advice on what was working and what could be improved at Saxbys Drexel.
Like Meghan, Kelsey feels too invested to leave when her co-op ends. Her enthusiasm for the café is palpable, and judging by customers’ reactions in person and on social media, it’s spreading.
In Saxbys’ corporate lingo, customers are “guests” and the aim is to make their lives a little better each time they visit. The guest experience that Meghan and Kelsey helped build into the culture at Saxbys Drexel may have gotten its ultimate endorsement from a note recently left at the counter by a customer. It read, “Thank you for making my day better. You guys are awesome … keep up the spirit.”
Photography by Ben Weldon