For many students, the Blue Java Café in Uris Hall is simply a place to grab a bite to eat between classes. But for a number of Harlem small business owners, it’s something more: a place to test, refine, and distribute their products to the Columbia community.
Uris’s Blue Java serves as the campus incubator for the Harlem Local Vendors Program, run by Columbia Business School’s Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center in partnership with Harlem Park to Park, Whole Foods Market, Harlem Community Development Corporation, and Hot Bread Kitchen Incubates. HLVP works with Harlem small business owners to grow their businesses and stock their products in large stores as well as around Columbia’s campus.
Kaaryn Simmons, the director of Columbia-Harlem SBDC, began the program as a way to help vendors in cottage industries succeed. She partnered with Vicki Dunn, the assistant vice president of Dining, to bring some of the program’s most successful products into Columbia cafés and dining halls.
“Small food businesses … would come to us and say, ‘why can’t we sell to Columbia?’” Simmons said. “At the same time, I knew that [Dunn] was inundated with people lining up in front of her door trying to pitch their products. And so we said, ‘well why don’t we do something where every time people come, you say, “go to the SBDC.” We work with them, we train them, and then we bring them back to you at the end.’”
Currently, most of the HLVP vendors’ products that are available on Columbia’s campus are sold in Uris’ Blue Java, including lime-based drink Limation, vegan dessert company Spanky’s Kitchen, and smoked gouda mac and cheese from Clean Plate Co. Other products are additionally available in dining halls; Hot Bread Kitchen produces bread for Ferris Booth Commons and JJ’s Place––as well as the C-shaped pretzels sold at Columbia sports games––and Sylvia’s Restaurant’s hot sauce is in every dining hall.
Before the products are incorporated into Columbia Dining, though, small business owners participate in a six-week intensive class program, which Dunn helps to teach. The program briefs the participants on food safety, distribution, marketing, and advertising.
“We want them to make sure that they understand who their target market is, that their product is one that their target market wants to buy. We talk packaging, we talk about marketing, we talk about pricing,” Simmons said.
Clean Plate Co. owner Chimere Ward praised the program’s aid in growing her business, which sells mac and cheese from a recipe she developed for her family on holidays.
“To have a lot of people of that caliber––I mean, it’s Columbia University––I would have never thought of being involved with by business, let alone graduating the program, let alone just selling the products on Columbia’s campus,” Ward said. “A program like that is just so hard to come by. If you do get lucky in that, you have to use every opportunity.”
The program will continue to admit new participants to the program throughout the summer and fall, when many of the vendors are recruited at local farmers’ markets and fairs. New products will continue to rotate into the Uris Blue Java as the vendors graduate, and students will have a chance to try them at monthly events—in which students are able to sample products and give vendors feedback on their products, advertising, and business—the first of which was today.
Simmons reiterated the importance of student opinions in the decision of which products are available in the Uris Blue Java and other campus dining locations.
“We really want to get the students engaged. It is all for them in the long run,” Simmons said. “I know how passionate the staff here is about what [students] are asking for, and we’re delivering it.”