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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 — Houston, TX

Rice Student-Run Businesses Changeover

By Reed Thornburg and Bhagwat Kumar     1/16/13 6:00pm

Running a business is no easy task. To do so successfully requires tireless effort, energy and creativity. Managing a full course load at the same time seems downright scary. This, however, was the challenge Martel College sophomore Mattie Pena took on after becoming the new general manager of The Hoot. Pena, who is pursuing a major in linguistics with a business minor, served as The Hoot's product development manager last fall, a role that saw her manage The Hoot's inventory, products and nighttime specials. She was hired as general manager this spring, replacing Will Rice College senior Justin Sable, who had spent the last two years in the position.

Pena, who joined The Hoot her freshman year, said she immediately fell in love with the business, which was part of her motivation to push for greater responsibility.

"I applied to work at The Hoot on a whim and came to love it," Pena said. 

After spending time on the staff and as the product development manager, Pena said she felt ready to take on a greater role in the business she had grown to appreciate, a feeling that has since been validated.

"As a manager, I have fallen in love with business and am passionate about working at a business that is for the people, by the people," Pena said. 

Pena said that while Sable, her predecessor, laid a strong foundation for the business, she has several goals she would like to see accomplished during her time as manager.

"Some specific goals I have are to reduce waste, find a distributor, formalize the employee training and discipline processes, develop trends and analytics, and build our Hoot brand," Pena said. "Student-run business is about being resourceful, so I ultimately want to use our resources to provide the best service for students."

However, just like with any other business, there are difficulties that accompany overseeing the operations of The Hoot. A central issue Pena faces is dividing her time between The Hoot and schoolwork, in addition to allocating her time spent on the various issues that need attention.

"I am constantly thinking about The Hoot, and it consumes a lot of time," Pena said. "As soon as one task is complete, there is always something new to do."

Pena also said a major challenge she foresees is the unpredictability associated with a young business. Despite these challenges, Pena said it is always rewarding to be able to go to The Hoot and see firsthand the fruits of her and her team's labor.  

A change Pena said she would like to make would be to establish a greater focus within the business on analytics. Because of the constant flow of everyday operational tasks, Pena said it is often easy to lose track of the higher-level trends and analysis every business must conduct.

"If we can find some trends, this will help us reduce waste in ordering since we must be a sell-out business to maintain profitability."

Pena said something she would like people to know about The Hoot is that it buys all of its goods from Sam's Club, meaning that every week, the product development manager has to drive to the store and purchase all the necessary goods for the upcoming week before delivering the products to each location.

"It is a ton of work, and items are constantly running out," Pena said. "We try our best to have everything on hand, but this proves logistically difficult."

Despite the constant challenges inherent to managing and growing a young business - The Hoot is only three years old - Pena is approaching the task with enthusiasm and optimism.

"I feel so proud to be a representative of The Hoot, and it will always be rewarding to see The Hoot in action," Pena said.


When Hanszen College junior Mathison Ingham first started working at Coffeehouse, he still went by Nick and the entire store was located in the small space that has since housed Little Willy's and two Chinese restaurants.

"My [Orientation Week] advisor worked at Coffeehouse, and he encouraged me to apply," Ingham said. "I started my second semester of freshman year and have been working there ever since."

Ingham started at Coffeehouse's entry-level position: a "Keeper of the Coffee," or KOC. After one semester, Ingham moved with Coffeehouse into its current location and became the food manager. However, the unprecedented new volume of the larger location presented new challenges.

"We had no idea how much food to purchase," Ingham said. "Eventually, we adjusted, but it took a while to adapt to the new demand. It gave me the opportunity to learn the business aspects of the shop."

After a semester with the purchasing responsibilities, Ingham transitioned into the more creative role of special projects manager. This open-ended position gives a Coffeehouse employee the opportunity to develop new projects and initiatives for the store.

"My two main projects were the Art Wall in-store showcase and the weekly concert series, Espresso Yourself," Ingham said.

With experience in two managerial positions, Ingham made the decision to apply for the position of general manager in the fall. He felt his background in multiple aspects of the business would prove a valuable asset in Coffeehouse's overarching managerial position. At Coffeehouse, the outgoing Coffeehouse seniors - including then-manager Sid Richardson College senior Emika Ijuin - interview and eventually select a current employee for the general manager position, and at the end of last November, Ingham learned he had been chosen.

The general manager position primarily consists of organizing the managerial staff and establishing the main goals for the store in the following year, Ingham explained. As such, he has been working with his staff to plan for the year.

"My plan has three major components," Ingham said. "First, I want to improve the consistency of KOC training. Second, I want to increase coffee education for customers of the shop. Lastly, I want Coffeehouse

 to become more involved in the growing Houston coffee scene."

Coffeehouse has a large group of employees to balance the demand of the Rice community with the hectic schedules of the student employees. As such, the considerable staff presents its own set of difficulties, Ingham said. Namely, he cited the issue of effectively training so many KOCs.

"[Coffeehouse] is now the largest-volume private vendor of coffee in Houston," Ingham said.

Ingham wants to use this large consumer base to increase customers' coffee knowledge. He wants to educate people on the entire process of coffee production and to lead them toward a deeper appreciation of the product.

Lastly, Ingham hopes Coffeehouse can become an important player in the emergent local coffee scene in Houston. He explained that this coffee community is still small and that Coffeehouse can learn from and grow alongside this grassroots coffee movement.

"Houston is becoming a great city for coffee with new shops opening and is really supportive and enthusiastic," Ingham said. "I think Coffeehouse can be one of the best shops in Houston."


Helene Dick started working at Willy's Pub the same day she was selected as the general manager. As she explains, she is the second-newest employee.

"At the end of last semester, [Pub] issued an open application to all the student-run business managers," Dick said. "So I applied."

Although new to Pub, Dick has been involved with Rice's student-run businesses since her freshman year, when she was an inventory manager for the Hoot. From there, Dick's work for the business continued as she served as the manager of the Hoot North and as the marketing manager for the Hoot.

"The only place that I've never really been as far as student-run businesses go is in finance and food safety," Dick said.

Using this experience, Dick has big plans for the future of the business, and her gift for effective marketing is already apparent - she started the semester with a series of different Syllabus Week promotions. She leads her management team as collaboratively as possible, focusing more generally on the entire team rather than assigning highly specific roles.

"I hired two students to work on the management team in marketing positions," Dick said. "My job is to make sure that [Pub] come[s] out of the basement."

Still, she acknowledges that this task has its own set of challenges. Pub's legacy and history is very important to the business, but sometimes it can make changes difficult.

"Everyone knows that you can get a beer at Pub," Dick said. "Not everyone knows that you can also get a panini."

Still, she is working to change this perception by offering new and more appealing food options. Specifically, Dick has established two new partnerships with Hobbit Cafe and Jason's Deli.

She hopes to not only expand within the undergraduate population, but also to reach new customers like graduate students, all while maintaining and strengthening Pub's consistent brand.

One issue that continually surrounds Pub is its sustainability as a business. The real issue is expanding beyond just the Thursday night market, Dick explained. While this tradition is important for Pub, Dick cites college Pub Nights and food sales as equally important to keep Pub fiscally sound.

While Pub has very different challenges from the other student-run businesses, Dick remains optimistic that she can use Pub's strong brand to her benefit and invigorate this long-standing Rice tradition.

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