If it is charming when two friends who are so close finish each other’s sentences, then it’s even more so with five friends—and maybe the perfect recipe for a successful business partnership.
Alumni Adrian Arceo, Chris Avalos, Corey Cohen, Bryan Papp, and Jeff Saign were transfer students who met and bonded during their first year at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Today, they co-own Philly Steak & Subs, a predominantly take-out- and delivery-based casual restaurant in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood of Long Beach.
“We actually met in classes. I think it was what, summer school?” Cohen said, ending in unison with Saign, who went on to say that four of the men later participated together as seniors in a group project for a statistics class.
The fast friends were nearly inseparable in college, and when the time came to graduate, they even did that in sync—in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with an emphasis in marketing. So it made perfect sense to them to start a business together.
Like any entrepreneur worth their salt, they did some homework first, ultimately deciding to take ownership of an existing restaurant.
Using skills they learned at CSU Dominguez, the former Toros researched their options, conducted a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunity, and threats) analysis, and created a business plan before they found the perfect fit—Philly Steak & Subs.
“We tried to use what we learned in our class projects, we tried to transfer to those ideas into real life,” Avalos said of the group’s venture, adding that the stakes were higher when it was real. “It’s no longer for a grade. You can’t go to the teacher [for help]. There’s no teacher here. You have to really communicate with each other.”
Although two of the men had fine dining prior restaurant experience—Cohen bartending and Papp in operations—the group conceded that nothing quite prepared them for some of the situations they would encounter as business owners.
Case in point was when they eliminated the restaurant’s standing delivery service not long after taking ownership on Nov. 9, 2011. After a flood of phone calls, the new restaurateurs quickly reinstated the service. Or the time the five guys removed what turned out to be a staple for a number of their regulars. Soup is back on the menu.
Initially, the quintet had plans to expand into multiple locations, but with their respective careers also flourishing—the restaurant is a side business; all of the men have full-time jobs—they tabled that strategy and instead have concentrated on turning the neighborhood haunt into a well-run, profitable one-off restaurant specializing in select burgers and hot and cold sub sandwiches.
“With the previous owner, it was a family-run business, so labor was never a factor for them. For us, we had to factor in labor and the cost of [inventory],” Cohen explained, adding that one of the first changes he and his co-owners made was to consolidate a menu of more than 30 Philly steak sandwiches to about five.
The group stands to continue to produce positive results in large part because each owner brings a unique background and skill set to the business and their democratic decision making process—much the same as they did with their school projects.
“That was really where the initial discussion came from,” Papp recalled of going into business together. In addition to their friendship, he said, “We had all this experience … we each had something we could contribute to the table. We thought, ‘Let’s try it out and see what we can do as a collective.’”
As an example, he noted that Avalos, who was already working as a code enforcement officer for the City of Lawndale, brought with him regulatory experience.
“When we took over the business, [Avalos] was great at helping us make sure we were up to code and good with the health department,” commented Papp, who works full-time in the outdoor advertising industry.
Regardless of what each brings to their joint business, the men contend that they have exponentially and expeditiously learned on the job.
“The amount of stuff I’ve learned in this place will take me so far in my future,” Cohen remarked. “I think that goes for all five of us.”
Already Saign has seen some benefits of running a side business. He was able to draw from the marketing skills he developed while helping to promote Philly Steak & Subs to help him land a job at a marketing agency in Santa Monica. Moreover, he credited his education at CSU Dominguez Hills for laying the groundwork for his success as both an employee and a business owner.
Papp explained further that classes involving business planning, strategy, statistical analysis, market research, accounting, and human resources were particularly helpful in preparing the group for business ownership. And he pointed to the small class sizes and the approachability of the professors, including associate professors of management Melissa St. James and Natasa Christodoulidou, as making the real difference in their education.
Cohen added, “[Christodoulidou] was a driving force for me to get involved with outside thinking and believing I could do whatever I put my mind to.”
Cohen went on to say that Christodoulidou was instrumental in Papp and him becoming involved in a joint CSU Dominguez Hills and AEG internship program to market the Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center).
Although they all agreed that there’s nothing like actually opening a business to truly understand entrepreneurial concepts, Papp interjected that while true it’s possible to start a business without a college education, it isn’t necessarily the smartest way.
“[Education builds] a foundation for your career. You have to have the basic knowledge just to move forward,” he asserted.
Cohen finished Papp’s line of thought by saying, “The biggest thing about going to [CSU Dominguez Hills] was it gave us ideas. It gave us a drive that we really could do whatever we put our mind to. Ultimately, we may all go on different paths. This might not be [a business] that we stay with, but I think the fact that we did it together is invaluable. … The best thing for us was we met each other.”