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Cafeccino offers lessons in careers, art of latte

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/12/17/09/1lYhhM.Em.138.jpeg|214
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    CPCC math instructor Phillip Tran, left, and Jesse Lee look over the music selection that will play in Cafeccino, the coffee shop Tran and his students started in the University City area. Tran says the shop, which is completely independent of CPCC, is a place where customers get a personal touch and students learn the fundamentals of running a business.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/12/17/09/t9btT.Em.138.jpeg|209
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Cafeccino was born of another small business, Victory Coffee on CPCC’s central campus, where Phillip Tran also is the manager. There, he had an employee who wanted to be an accountant and another who wanted to be a graphic designer. “Out of the blue I thought, ‘What if we had a chance to make it something bigger? To have more job opportunities for student employees ... in addition to being a barista?’ ” Tran recalled. “What if we can make... a corporation?”
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/12/17/09/1aGQKa.Em.138.jpeg|215
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    At Cafeccino, each of the seven employees has a side project – a marriage of their interests and the startup coffee shop’s needs, from the website to decor, guerrilla marketing to point-of-sale electronics. Charlie Nguyen taught his coworkers the art of latte design.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/12/17/09/1nbDCd.Em.138.jpeg|213
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Cafeccino employee Shane Han oversees quality control and recipe research at the new coffee shop in the University City area, which is staffed by CPCC students and managed by CPCC math instructor Phillip Tran.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/05/12/17/09/cYVfc.Em.138.jpeg|210
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Phillip Tran, 43, who teaches math at Central Piedmont Community College, opened the independent coffee shop Cafeccino in the University City area a few months ago. He hiredcurrent and former students, who are treated as business partners. The students use the coffee shop to explore their career interests, from interior design to customer relations.

More Information

  • Teacher partners with students at coffee shop
  • Strategies that work:

    Here are some of the strategies that have served Phillip Tran well so far:

    Hold weekly meetings: Because everyone has a side responsibility, gathering once a week to coordinate efforts and discuss results has been unifying for the team, Tran said. “There’s no Rambo, only teamwork.”

    Make local inroads: Tran said he believes small businesses need to band together. That’s why he gets his coffee from Charlotte-based CoffeeWorks, and offers the McAlister’s Deli next door coffee at a steeply discounted price.

    Talk about more than the product: Tran said many of their best suggestions have come from customers, including an interior decorator who schooled Tran on how to decorate the fireplace.



College instructors teach, tutor, test and often serve as references when former students enter the job market.

Phillip Tran does one better: He hires them.

As of January, Tran, 43, a former IBM employee who now teaches math at Central Piedmont Community College, has hired seven students to work at his new coffee shop, Cafeccino, in the University City area.

The coffee shop celebrated its grand opening about two months ago, around the same time the UNC Charlotte area lost the venerable Jackson’s Java, about 5 miles away.

The idea for Cafeccino started with another small business, Victory Coffee on CPCC’s central campus, where Tran also is the manager. There, he saw big aspirations among his six employees.

One wanted to be an accountant. Another wanted to be a graphic designer.

“Out of the blue I thought, ‘What if we had a chance to make it something bigger? To have more job opportunities for student employees … in addition to being a barista?’ ” Tran recalled. “What if we can make … a corporation?”

It wasn’t long after this epiphany – and thanks to a $75,000 investment from his brother – that Tran had located an upfitted space vacated by Caribou Coffee in Cochran Commons on West Mallard Creek Church Road.

Tran says the shop, which is completely independent of CPCC, is an alternative to the in-and-out mainstream coffee shop, a place where customers get a personal touch and students learn the fundamentals of running a business.

Tran signed the lease Dec. 5. He and his employees started working on the space within a week.

The startup environment

Tran’s brother, Dewey, works for Morrisville-based MaxPoint, a company that provides targeted online advertising technology and was ranked ninth on Deloitte’s list of fastest-growing tech companies in 2013.

Phillip Tran said he wants to inject some of that tech startup culture in Cafeccino, “where everyone has ownership.”

That’s why each of his eight employees has a side project – a marriage of their interests and the startup coffee shop’s needs, from the website to decor, guerrilla marketing to point-of-sale electronics.

Charlie Nguyen – who also works at the Charlotte-based coffee bar Not Just Coffee and is taking online classes with Barista Training Academy – teaches his coworkers the art of latte design.

Anna Beloivanenko, an interior design whiz, oversees the aesthetics, from the bookshelves (full of travel books from Tran’s home library) to the art on the walls. She even decorated a panel near the pickup station with photos of their latte designs and bakery items, and glued hundreds of coffee beans, one by one, to form a design around the photos.

Antoine Lopez, a political science and communications double major, is all about the people. He focuses on marketing and customer service.

“I want people to come here and feel at home already,” Lopez said.

One of Lopez’s most fruitful marketing plans was giving out small coffee cups in nearby neighborhoods with a small flier inside, each redeemable for a free cup of coffee.

The group also is smorgasbord of cultures: Tran is from Vietnam. Beloivanenko hails from Russia. Lopez is from France. Shane Han, who oversees quality control and recipe research, is from Korea.

Family, school, work

One of the biggest challenges of running an off-campus coffee shop staffed by students is scheduling, Tran said. All of his employees have classes and a few of them still work at Victory Coffee.

And Tran said he’s always told them family comes first, school comes second, work comes third. How those priorities translate into a fully-staffed coffee shop is a tightrope walk.

Tran said he asks students to schedule most of their classes on either Tuesdays and Thursdays or Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then he asked employees to tell him whether morning shifts or evening shifts work better for their schedule.

He organizes the weekly schedule, which stays largely unchanged, around those times.

Mimic, then revolutionize

Tran said he began studying the local coffee market before he opened Cafeccino. And he’s now got some role models.

One is Davidson-based Summit Coffee, which co-owners and brothers Tim and Brian Helfrich reinvented on a shoestring budget in 2012.

For 13 years, Summit had been a successful gathering spot for book clubs, dates and business meetings. But when faced with the rising cost of dairy products, gas and coffee beans, the Helfrichs looked to new revenue streams. And within a year, they raised visibility and their bottom line by unveiling a second-floor weekend pub, a new website and logo, a revamped interior and an inaugural race series.

Tran hopes Cafeccino could be a similar institution in the University City area. And he’s ready to experiment. Tran has a lot in the works to get this done: He expects to get a beer and wine license in the next few weeks; plans to add a small kitchen where one of his students, a food aficionado and aspiring chef, will make crepes to order; and plans for a valet-type coffee delivery system, where people can call in their orders, have them delivered to their car door, and pay using Square.

“If you’re small, you have to work at rooting yourself in the community,” Tran said. “We’re just trying to mix and match and hope it works.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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