Students Learn Business Skills, Philanthropy With Shark Tank Cafe

By: Tim Wood

The staff of the Shark Tank Cafe. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Spread out at tables in the Monomoy Regional Middle School library, groups of three or four students engage in a lively discussion about how they're going to spend their money.

Well, not exactly their money, but money earned through their business, Shark Tank Enterprises.

“We are in the beginning stages of our business,” says Cherian Armstrong, the school's librarian and advisor to this club of 22 students. “At the beginning stages of a business, the money has to go to purchase inventory.” Eventually, however, students will invest the profits in microloans, and as they sat at the tables late last Thursday afternoon, they began to consider in what areas they'd like to concentrate their capital.

The kids are earning the money through the Shark Tank Cafe, which is open four days a week after school. Students can buy snacks and drinks at the cafe, where members of the club serve food, make change and clean up at the end of the day while learning important lessons about running a small business.

Fifth grader Sophia Cohrs, who was helping sixth grader Naysa Jacobs at the cash box, said she's had experience working in her mother's bakery. “This helps me learn even more,” she said of the Shark Tank Cafe.

“The hot chocolate is delicious,” said customer Kristina Tamasco, a sixth grader sipping the sweet beverage. Across the table, fifth grader Sean Cloney said he came to the cafe, located in a room off the library, “to do homework and have fun.”

Armstrong said the idea of students investing in microloans began when she first took over the library at the middle school two years ago. She was teaching a class about poverty and exploring ways to help people improve their lives; students decided to call themselves the “Monomoy Microloan Sharks,” a name that was “too good to give up.” They explored ways to raise money but they all seemed too time consuming.

Meanwhile, Armstrong's daughter moved to California and left her some furniture; she moved it into the small room off the library, which made it seem very inviting and homey – like a cafe. She recalled wanting to run a program on how to start a business, and decided to combine that with the microloan concept “and give students real business experience.”

With help from Chatham Village Market – which donated start-up inventory and held a crash course in retail food operations for the kids at the market – the Shark Tank Cafe was able to hold an initial “soft opening” so students could learn and practice the basics of inventory and cash control. It was a mixed bag, said Armstrong, but, she added, “we seem to be keeping our head above water.”

With the administration contributing funds to give the cafe a shark theme, the space is welcoming, with snacks lining the wall, a hot chocolate station, a small fridge for drinks and brightly-covered tables where students can eat, chat or do homework. Club members come from all three grade levels and include special needs kids. They're divided into shifts, each working a few days a week, and they're responsible for setup, management, cleanup, counting inventory and keeping track of money. All of the products being sold (except for the hot chocolate) are packaged and meet the school's wellness guidelines, Armstrong noted. They even have a “mobile cafe” to expend the business' reach to sports events. The kids took a cart out to the soccer field during games earlier in the school year, but that proved a bit challenging, Armstrong said. Their “Sharks on the Swim” traveling cafe will stick to basketball games down the hall at the gym from now on.

The business has raised close to $400 so far. When the students – who constitute the business' board of directors – meet in December, they'll start deciding how to invest the profits. Working with the microloan website kiva.org, an international nonprofit aimed at alleviating poverty, individual students or groups will be given $25 each and will choose where to put the money.

“The kids are making the decisions,” Armstrong said. During last week's discussion, she impressed upon them that needs related to health, sanitation and water have the biggest impact. As the loans are paid back, the money can be reinvested in other microloans.

Along with exercising math and people skills by making change, serving customers and keeping track of inventory and learning about profit and loss, students are also experiencing the value of community service and giving, Armstrong said.

“What we're really looking at here is building critical thinking skills,” she added.

Armstrong was grateful for the support of the Chatham Village Market and the administration, and added she's hoping someone in the community will donate a cash register or adding machine with tape for use in the cafe; currently the money is kept in a cash box and counted out by hand. Business has been pretty steady; with tutors and National Honor Society members providing extra help, more and more students are using the library after school, Armstrong added, “and they can get a snack while they're at it.”

It's pretty clear that the kids who staff the Shark Tank Cafe – some of whom were wearing fins the other day – are learning a lot and having fun doing it.

Naysa Jacobs said she's learning how to make change and that “you can't leave the cash register by itself.” Fifth grader Aaliyah Hindel said she joined the Shark Tank Cafe to learn about business and found that it's also “entertaining.”

And, she added, “it feels nice to help other people who need things” through the microloan program.