For Lauren Troop and her fellow students at Temple University, dining on campus offers a variety of options—of a certain species. There’s the industrial food at the various on-campus dining halls; and then there’s the food trucks lining the main quad, with its pizza, gyros, cheesesteaks and crepes. But when it comes to fresh, healthy food, or vegan/vegetarian options, students are seriously lacking.
At least, they were seriously lacking, until an entrepreneurial group of students, including Troop, joined together over a shared need: More fresh food options on campus that accommodate more people’s diets and have less impact on the planet.
The Rad Dish Co-op Cafe, which is turning two years old this week, is a completely student-conceived and student-run vegetarian cafe on Temple’s campus. It was the culmination of four years of planning and dreaming by students from different disciplines and different years at Temple. And it’s a testament to the way an increasing number of students are conceiving their world—as a place that can breed success while still being good to the planet and to each other.
The seeds of the idea were planted in 2011, during a senior Geography and Urban Studies seminar course investigating the question of how to create a student-run cafe on campus. Soon after, a group of Urban Studies and Environmental Studies students began exploring the option for real.
In the early stages, they drew inspiration from the Maryland Food Collective at the University of Maryland; the Berkeley Student Food Collective at University of California-Berkeley; and The Flaming Eggplant, a cooperative cafe on the Evergreen State College Campus in Olympia, Washington. With the help of Temple’s Kathleen Grady, director of the Office of Sustainability, they pitched the idea of a student-run food cooperative to the Temple administration. Temple was interested, and even had a cafe space available, but wanted to see a concrete business plan.
“Small businesses, especially food establishments, can provide so much more than what they are selling,” says Trevor Southworh, a senior accounting major. “They can create community.”
“We looked around at each other, and realized we were all liberal arts students, which is great—but we didn’t have the right set of skills to start a business,” explains Troop. So they reached out to students from the business school to find some interested in joining their venture.
In spring of 2014, eight students did independent studies devoted to researching student-run and other Philadelphia-based cooperatives, performing market research on campus, and writing a business plan. Half the students studied with professor Allison Hayes-Conroy in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies; the other half studied under the direction of professor Lynne Andersson in the Fox Business School. “Because half of us were business-minded and the other half were environmental sustainability-minded, and because food is such a unifying thing that we were all passionate about, we started growing Rad Dish together and were able to learn from each other,” Troop says.
At the close of the spring semester, the group had completed their business plan and presented their idea at the Garden Club’s annual Spring Feast. Temple administrators loved it. That summer, the university offered them a space in the Ritter Annex that had previously served as a cafe but hadn’t been in use for several years. “This space was here and students would use it to study, like they are now, but there was really nothing here,” explains Taylor Stack, currently a senior business student who joined in the early stages. The facilities department gave them $35,000 to outfit the space for a commercial kitchen use so they could offer a full lunch menu. (They had already run an IndieGogo campaign, an OwlCrowd campaign, and other event-based fundraisers to try to raise money in case Temple didn’t give them any.) In the future, they hope to operate as both a cafe and a grocer, providing fresh food for students to take home and prepare themselves.
In February of 2015, the Rad Dish Cafe opened its doors for business. On February 10th, the cafe will hold a two-year anniversary party, open to the public.
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Rad Dish rents the space from Temple and uses the revenue it makes from the business to pay rent and to pay an hourly wage to the students who work behind the counter. The business is run like other cooperatives, by committees that are student-run and volunteer, dealing with everything from finance, member recruitment and marketing to food prep and safety. There is a graduate student who works as the day-to-day manager, an all-student Board of Directors, and a Board of Advisors consisting of faculty and staff.
In total, Rad Dish has roughly 20 to 30 active members who meet once a week. Other Temple students have the option of becoming a member in order to receive discounts, attend/vote at meetings, and to run for the Board of Directors. (You can learn more about their governance structure and membership details here.)
A student-run business would seem to have one striking complication: Students, like Troop, graduate and leave campus. That’s why Rad Dish developed a unique governing structure. Directors on the board can only serve for one year; currently, all board members are sophomores. Committees also consist of all underclassmen; by the time students are seniors, their job is to mentor younger students on how to run the business. “This is important for sustainability because we all will be in and out,” says Rhiannon Wright, a senior in the community development department. “We know we need to establish institutional memory and need everyone to be really engaged so we encourage leadership all the time.”
Rad Dish is dedicated to making the cooperative model a part of the curriculum at Temple. “We want to create a space for engaging in critical discussions about how our world should work,” explains Troop. This spring, the university is offering a class on cooperative business models that will be co-taught by Wright in the Community Development department; already 40 students are enrolled. Students can also intern at Rad Dish for academic credit. In the past, Rad Dish members have collaborated with other departments, such as a sustainable marketing class which created marketing materials for the cafe, and a public health class that performed market research for them. The student entrepreneurs regularly host teach-ins about cooperative models for students on campus, and allow student groups to use the space for events. Outside of the Temple community, Rad Dish has hosted panel discussions that bring Philadelphia cooperators together and hosts the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance’s annual meeting.
Student-run businesses on campuses across the nation tend to emerge because there is a need for local, healthy, sustainable food to replace the standard corporate-sourced options. But these student initiatives are often completely separate from the business schools, which tend to focus on corporate big business. There are some exceptions to this, such as the extensive network of student-run cooperatives at University of Massachusetts, which include a bike repair shop, a copy center, and several cafes/food venues, devoted to the education of cooperative management of small businesses.
For the Rad Dish students, the cafe is a testament to how businesses can change the world. In their own way, they’re tapping into movements like B Corporations, in which companies operate with an eye to profits, people and planet, and to what’s happening in cities like Rochester and Cleveland, in which cooperative businesses are being used as tools for economic development.
“In my experience, small businesses, especially food establishments, can provide so much more than what they are selling,” says Trevor Southworh, a senior accounting major in the Fox Business School. “They can create community by becoming a hub for resources that individuals might not have access to themselves. Businesses can be educators, teaching the skills that don’t come from traditional education systems. I want to be involved with a business that is working to develop itself and its neighborhood.”Header photo provided by Rad Dish Co-op Cafe