Graduate and CEO: Alumni-owned Ann Arbor businesses
Fiddling with life aspirations and career possibilities is a habit of most daydreaming underclassmen. But by the time senior year hits, reality sets in: professional success is no longer an elusive figment of the future, but a rapidly approaching goal — a must.
“I think it’s funny looking back at that last semester in college,” said University alum Robby Mayer, co-owner of Salads UP. “It was almost like trying to learn as much as you can just to justify to your parents — or at least I was, that I was not going to get a job, that I was going to open up a restaurant.”
And so goes the story for three local food-business owners and University of Michigan alumni: Mayer, Max Steir and Nick Lemmer. They took the plunge, and for them, the risk has paid off.
Lemmer, twenty-four years old and graduate of the School of Information, co-owns Iorio’s Gelateria on East William Street. Along with his older sister, Mary, a Business School graduate, Lemmer has been selling what he calls “Italian ice” since childhood, after spending summers in New Jersey where the treat was rife.
The idea to peddle it around Lansing, their hometown, came when the Italian-American duo’s father bought them a cart in 2004. They began selling their product anywhere they could afford the entrance fee: carnivals, fairs, farmer’s markets, etc. After the two gained some traction, people started asking where they could indulge in ice year-round. By the time Lemmer was a sophomore, he was beginning to form an answer to that question.
“Mary had networked herself really well in the business school,” Lemmer said. “She had met a building owner downtown — this building — and they had an open spot — this spot — and he said, ‘I know you guys are doing Lansing, but do you want to try it in Ann Arbor?’ Knowing nothing, not knowing what our first step would be, we were like, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’”
Following much trial and error, Iorio’s Gelateria officially opened up in 2011. The process wasn’t all smooth sailing — They failed their first city inspection the day before opening because one grease trap was misplaced.
“That was kind of the hardest thing that happened, just facing the reality that we actually might not open," Lemmer said. "One thing I have learned is that hiring really good people to start, and spending time on that, really helps because we’ve always had a really good team. And that just makes everything easier.”
Steir and Mayer of Salads UP on East Liberty faced similar issues with the technicalities of opening up their business.
“We signed the lease without realizing the deficiencies of the space to their fullest,” Mayer said. “As we went on we realized — we ended up having to do completely new plumbing, electric. We put in a brand new floor. The construction requirements for such a small space were something we never want to deal with again. But getting through that process — which took six to eight months — was very complicated.”
Mayer, a northern New Jersey native, and Steir, a native of New York City, met each other as freshman year roommates. For the 24-year-olds, the idea for Salads UP sparked early on, as they felt a great salad place á la NYC’s Revive) was missing during their time at the University.
It all started to come to fruition late senior year, when Mayer began hunting for local real estate, toying around with the idea of a restaurant. The two met to discuss it, and Steir jumped in from there. Salads UP came to be in December 2014.
Steir cites his Business School education in giving him business-minded versatility.
“They’re kind of preparing you without realizing it, in my opinion, to run your own company, if you digest all of the coursework that you have there,” Steir said. “There’s finance — it might set you up to be a banker. There’s marketing if you want to be in advertisement. But you do everything when you run a company, no matter if it’s a restaurant or something else.”
Lemmer also recalls some information, gleaned in college, which now eases his shop’s customer experience. He remembered learning about the value of text size in an engineerings ergonomics class.
He proudly gestured to the menu on the wall.
“When I was designing that menu, I was like, ‘Oh my god. I learned about this engineering class,’” Lemmer said.
All three entrepreneurs admit they owe much of their success to the charm and benefits of living on their college campus.
“The nicest thing about being here, despite that fact that it’s a university we went to, is that it’s this nice mix of calm, quaint, but also vibrant at times,” Steir said.
“People care so much about this community that we’re all so connected to. When you’re alumni, you’re connected to this place for life, whether you have a business here or not. So to be in the midst of it is fantastic.”
Mayer echoes similar sentiments of home.
“It’s very comfortable, I would say. Having been here for four years, you know the neighborhood so well,” Mayer said. “Whether it’s game day or move-in or graduation, there’s always something happening, a lot of flow and excitement. I think living here post-college you still feed off a lot of that.”
Lemmer revels at being so close to students — a perk other businesses in non-college towns are denied.
“There’s a few things that we do here that we’ve actually taken from a semester-long project from a marketing class, a consulting group, an operations class. There were graduate students doing inventory operations for us — it’s hysterical. And for free,” Lemmer said.
So for those who wish to follow in the footsteps of Ann Arbor’s young entrepreneurs, he offers one bit of advice.
“I would say just to do it,” Lemmer said. “I couldn’t tell you how many people come to me with an idea, or have an idea, and then they just sit on it. I’m the dumb one — the crazy one — that’ll come up with an idea and just do it.”