For Yale University students Jerry Choinski and Etkin Tekin, the dreaded “freshman 15” came two years late. The juniors were living in off-campus housing for the first time. And without the campus housing meal plan, they resorted to the fatty, unhealthy foods typical of college living.
But their sudden change in eating habits spurned more than just a personal commitment to a better diet.
“It wasn’t good on our waist lines or our general health,” Tekin said. “We wanted to open a simple, healthy place that people could eat and have variety.”
Opening a restaurant is always an incredibly risky venture. A 2006 Columbus, Ohio study showed that one in four restaurants close within their first year, with nearly 60 percent failing within three years.
Nevertheless, Choinski and Tekin were resolved to opening a restaurant that would offer a healthy, affordable alternative to students and residents alike.
“If you try to order online in New Haven, 80 percent of the restaurants are pizza places,” Tekin said.
Choinski and Tekin approached area restaurateur Rob Klinger about turning Klinger’s High Street Burger–ideally located in the heart of the Yale campus–into a salad restaurant. Impressed by their ambition and well-developed business plan, Klinger partnered with the students to create The Little Salad Shop.
Klinger provided more than 15 years of restaurant experience, and Choinski and Tekin supplied the vision and zeal.
Work began in May 2011 with the renovation of the space. Choinski and Tekin believed in bootstrapping their business and not just financially. Their obsession with handling every detail of the operation resulted in them doing much of the renovation work themselves. They estimated it saved them up to $15,000 in labor costs.
Choinski and Letkin’s impeccable work ethic reflects their working class, immigrant upbringings, they say. Choinski moved from Poland to the southwest Chicago suburb Justice, Ill., when he was 12. Tekin immigrated to West Point, New York from Norway when he was five. Both attended poor performing high schools, but worked hard enough to be accepted to Yale.
“That might be one of the reasons we got along so well,” Tekin said. “Not too many people at Yale come from working-class backgrounds or public school.”
After a summer of construction work, marketing and experimenting with various recipes, The Little Salad Shop had a soft opening the week before students returned to campus. The grand opening followed the week of Aug, 26, 2011.
At first, the shop struggled to keep its operating costs down and hit the desired gross margins. But over time, they improved at managing their staffing and standardizing recipe portions.
Now, the shop makes just less than $10,000 per month. Choinski and Tekin project to earn $600,000 in gross revenue this year and be completely out of the black by the end of next month.
The shop has focused on not only providing quick, affordable, health food, but serving the campus and community as well. Seven of the shop’s 12 employees are Yale students and two are from nearby Southern Connecticut State University.
And despite their campus location, 70 percent of their customers are New Haven residents.
Future plans now include opening a second and a third location in Connecticut, and then expanding into bordering states.
“We have very high ambitions to make this into a multi-store operation that can eventually grow into franchising and beyond,” Tekin said.
Until then, the duo is dealing with the difficulties of being business owners and maintaining good grades until their graduation this spring. It hasn’t been a problem thus far, though. Since opening The Little Salad Shop, Choinski’s grades have remained the same. Tekin’s have gone up.