Business Enterprise Program Connects Food Service, Entrepreneurship & Higher Ed in Ohio

Monday, April 21, 2014

The late night snack is a staple of the college experience.  Staying up late to (hopefully) study and looking for a jolt of sugar or caffeine, the typical college student often turns to the trusty vending machine. Regardless of the hour or day, the student can satisfy that craving, often without leaving the building.


Vending machines have been around for a long time; the first U.S. machine was built in 1888. And aside from providing that instant snack food gratification, vending machines also offer an opportunity for economic development and jobs for individuals with disabilities across Ohio.

Ohio OOD large transparent 2-color.jpgThe Business Enterprise Program (BEP) administered by Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) connects food service, entrepreneurship, and higher education in Ohio. This federally funded program offers people who are legally blind franchise-like opportunities to manage cafeterias, convenience stores, snack bars, and vending machines in state, federal, and county buildings.


State universities and colleges, however, also host BEP businesses. In fact, BEP has operators on more than two dozen campuses in Ohio, with more than 500 vending machines offering everything from candy and snacks to cold beverages, coffee, and even frozen food.

In this way, state and federal law create the opportunity for BEP to assist entrepreneurs in launching and sustaining a career in food service management. A BEP manager is the sole proprietor of a business and hires and supervises his or her own employees. There are no wages or payments by a state, federal or county government; as with any other business, income is tied to profits.


Specialists from OOD’s Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired (BSVI) do provide management consulting services to BEP managers to help their businesses succeed. BEP funds cover the costs of the equipment, initial inventory to establish a business, equipment repairs, and other ongoing support. A monthly charge collected from facility managers partially pays for these investments.


BEP also requires prospective business owners to complete a training program that includes online classroom and on-site training, with instruction that includes food service safety and sanitation, merchandising, customer service, management skills, BEP regulations, bookkeeping, restaurant law, equipment maintenance, and first aid. On-site training gives potential owners actual work experience with a licensed manager who operates a BEP business. After training, potential owners must pass a final exam to become licensed and then apply for an available BEP facility.


Today, BEP is responsible for establishing and supporting over 100 blind independent business owners throughout Ohio.


The University of Cincinnati (UC) is one example of how this partnership works to provide convenience and jobs on a university campus. BEP has been providing vending services at UC for decades and has approximately 120 machines deployed across 68 vending sites on multiple campuses. Five operators and three staff members manage the services.

Pallavi Patel, assistant vice president of campus services operations at UC, said they work closely with the operators to serve the university community.


“The BEP operators have been good partners with us,” Patel said. “Having a good business manager is critical as we work closely to improve processes and product offerings to meet the needs of students. Whether it is a smooth payment and refund process or moving to more healthy options, we have been able to partner with BEP to adapt to changing needs.”

Dave Bragassa, one of the five operators at UC, said the program has had special meaning for him.


“The Business Enterprise Program is a great opportunity for the blind and visually impaired. It has really been a life-changing process for me to be able to expand my income, expand my possibilities, and have the opportunity to take on more responsibility,” he said.


In addition to the familiar vending machines, the program has also evolved and adapted in light of food service trends and, as an example, now offers a “Micro Market” concept and other options. Based on a convenience store-like format, the Micro Market carries a variety of hot and cold food items, including breakfast sandwiches and freshly ground coffee.


In an increasingly mobile and round-the-clock economy, creative vending and food service operations represent more than just the chance for a student to grab a late night snack; they are an asset to the higher education community. BEP leverages that asset to provide business opportunities and jobs for individuals with disabilities and a boost to Ohio’s economy.


To learn more, or discuss potential opportunities for your campus, contact Mindy Duncan, deputy director of the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired, at 614-438-1256.