Cherokee citizen Christopher Coursey has racked up years of culinary experience, but has always worked for people other than himself. His dream, like many with artistic talent, is to strike out on his own someday.
Thanks to a new program through the Cherokee Nation, Coursey is among a number of budding entrepreneurs gaining hands-on experience through a business incubator model set up by the tribe.
The Kawi Cafe, which recently opened in the old Cort Mall on Muskogee Avenue, offers breakfast and lunch items, along with valuable insight, to employees. The workers are students, who, for four months, learn every aspect of the food service business and then move on to either start their own endeavors or find employment as managers in the field.
Cheryl Williams, Kawi Cafe manager and class trainer, leads the group.
“The idea is we bring tribal citizens in for four months of training in hopes they leave prepared to write their own business plan to start a business, or at the very least, get a job at a higher rate of pay,” said Williams. “We want our citizens to be self-sustaining and earn wages comparable to other businesses.”
Class participants get hands-on training in all aspects of running a restaurant. Williams has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northeastern State University, and has worked with the tribe off and on for over a decade.
“Brenda Alley, with the Cherokee Nation Commerce Department, works with them to write a business plan,” said Williams. “They are required to have one as part of the program. This isn’t a culinary course. Most of the class members have strong culinary backgrounds, but don’t know the nuts and bolts of actually running a business.”
Williams said participants learn about setting up a Point Of Sale computer system, averaging costs, purchasing inventory, working with the bidding system among vendors, staff scheduling and customer service.
“Basically, we teach them everything a restaurant manager needs to know,” said Williams. “What I’m seeing is so many of the members have culinary skills, but it’s so crucial for them to learn the business aspect. I encourage them to learn all about every part of the business, from operating and setting up the POS, to working with vendors.”
Stephen Highers, entrepreneurial division manager for Cherokee Nation Commerce, works with Williams on the project.
“This was actually Anna Knight’s, executive director of CN Commerce, idea, along with the chief’s vision to create jobs for citizens,” said Highers. “This is what’s known as a business incubator system. Most of the programs we offer include class training, including business planning and marketing, but part of this four months is actually working hands-on in the cafe, serving customers in real-time situations. It’s a hands-on classroom, yet it’s also a very real business.”
Participants receive a stipend of $7.25 per hour while learning on the job. Those interested in participating sign up through Cherokee Nation Career Services, and indicate a desire to pursue an entrepreneurial interest, or interest in a food service career. Williams selects the participants, and the work begins.
“At the end, we work with them to put everything together,” said Highers. “We look at the business plan, funding opportunities or help them find a management position elsewhere.”
This class began in mid-February, and the situation was unique in that participants gained the experience of actually opening a cafe from inception.
“It’s frustrating, at times, because of all the options available,” said Williams. “It’s hard working with a group of decision-makers. Everyone has his own idea on how something should be done, and ultimately, we have to come to a consensus.”
Williams said since the cafe will be continually operational, future classes may have to simulate openings.
“We may also change up the menu to offer different things, so the other classes can select new vendors,” said Williams. “We’d also like to expand the menu to offer items for diabetics and possibly some traditional Cherokee foods.”
Both Williams and Highers are pleased with the class’s progress so far.
“I’m happy with what we’re doing,” said Highers. “Cheryl has done a great job, and the community is embracing the idea. I think we have great things to come as we move forward.”
The tribe plans to track graduates of the program for at least three to five years, as some may not immediately start their own businesses.
“It’s all about job creation,” said Highers. “We’re hitting that mark, and I believe we’ll excel. It’s been a great experience so far.”
Coursey began his career in food service several years ago. He has been the head chef at Porterhouse and was the assistant manager for Sodexho at Northeastern State University. His goal is to open a gourmet tea shop.
“I feel like I know the cooking ropes, and I already had an idea in the back of my mind for a business,” said Coursey. “When I saw the flyer for this program, I knew it was perfect.”
Coursey said the most valuable tool he’s gained is learning how to write a business plan, and he looks forward to the marketing and economic development aspect.
“I want to open Three Suns Tea Lounge,” said Coursey. “I want to offer gourmet teas and fruit drinks, with a focus on NSU students and business professionals in Tahlequah. I want to offer a lounge off campus with free WiFi and a place for students and professionals to gather.”
Coursey is impressed with the recent developments in downtown Tahlequah.
“I have confidence in where downtown is going,” said Coursey. “I’m glad the way the Cherokee Nation and Mayor Jason Nichols have been directing the city.”
Most of all, Coursey wants the opportunity to showcase his skills.
“I want to open a business that combines all my skills,” said Coursey. “I’ve been an artist all my life and an amateur tea enthusiast. I want to offer a place where people can come and play acoustic music and have poetry readings, along with gourmet teas.”
CHECK IT OUT
The Kawi Cafe, 215 S. Muskogee Ave., is open Tuesday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.