Sweet business Missouri pair puts down sugary stakes in city

Published 1:20 pm Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Talk about a sweet deal.

Two former athletes at Missouri Western State University are in Vicksburg now, daily cooking up delectable chocolates and driving their stakes into the business world during tough economic times.

From the first cups of sugar to the last rings of the cash register, Brady Ellis, 23, and TyAnn Williamson, 22, are operating — cooking, cleaning, greeting customers and selling the good stuff — at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory at the Outlets at Vicksburg.

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The two spent last summer studying Vicksburg’s business scene and learning about preparing the dainty desserts as part of a unique job placement program.

“I never thought I’d find myself here,” said Ellis, 23, a Stockton, Mo., native who caught for the St. Joseph, Mo., university’s baseball team and earned degrees in business administration and accounting. “But, we’re extremely pleased with the help and support of the community so far and we’re loving it.”

Ellis’ move from behind the plate to the candy counter began in August, when his business plan for a new store was chosen best among three submitted by graduates of the university’s Steven L. Craig School of Business to a panel of university professors and executives with the Durango, Colo.-based confectioner.

Chosen franchisees and a business partner of their choice — Williamson was his choice — are sent to Durango to train in the art of spreading fudge and dipping frozen cheesecake in luscious chocolate. Franchisees produced by the program pay back the $150,000 startup loan — less than the $350,000 or so a store usually costs to establish — as cash comes available and contribute 5 percent of the store’s annual profits up to five years to the business school.

The program for students to operate and eventually own new stores among the company’s 350 nationwide began in 2009, shortly after a $5.5 million donation to the university from Craig, the CEO of Newport Beach, Calif.-based Craig Realty Group, the parent company of 11 retail developments in six states, including Vicksburg’s outlet center. Craig, a St. Joseph native, said he envisioned a hands-on job placement model for the business school that would train students to run their own businesses.

“For years, colleges turned out students only for middle-management positions,” Craig said, adding courses are planned in tax and employment law to round out budding business owners’ knowledge of withholding forms and such. “I wanted to immerse young people in entrepreneurism at the earliest possible age in life.”

Carol Doever, retired dean of the business school, said the business plan took into account what segments of the population and tourist flow a Vicksburg store should expect.

“We knew the battlefield brings in close to a million people a year and that the casinos are big business there,” Doever said.

The relationship with Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory resulted from seven locations at Craig Realty’s retail centers and a desire to infuse future stores with fresh, new managerial talent. In the case of the Vicksburg’s location, it’s an arrival that balances the closing of Bath and Body Works this year and fills space next to Billy’s Italian Restaurant.

A chance to start a business with the help of Williamson, 22, a graphic design major and former softball player at MWSU, and the regular advice of teachers and the business school’s benefactor was too good a situation to bypass, given a tough economy.

“Being a student-athlete, we had one foot in and one foot out,” Ellis said. “But, we reflected on it. We were both looking for jobs, anyway.”

Williamson, a Des Moines, Iowa, native, will handle marketing and promotions, Ellis said, and should “make a good fit together.”

Wedding favors and specialty baskets for other festive occasions will be offered alongside the chocolatey goodness, as well as Blue Bell Ice Cream by the scoop and a section of sugar-free chocolate goodies.

“It’s been a pretty big change,” Williamson said, adding the chance to work with the program’s first store recipient at the Rocky Mountain location in Silverthorne, Colo., “was eye-opening and gave us the opportunity to work together.”

A grand opening is set for Nov. 5 for the Vicksburg location, the 20th of 30 spaces available at the center.