Coffee shop owner creates internship program to help inspire future small-business owners

Special to The Bluffton PacketOctober 24, 2011 

Jay Vermilyea, 17, hopes to own a music place in Bluffton one day.

"I would like to open a little venue for people to play music, maybe a studio," he said.

The senior at Bluffton High School is learning the basics of owning a small business as part of a newly formed internship program at the Corner Perk.

Owner Josh Cooke opened the coffee shop in April 2009. Since then, the business has grown from all angles. While working 15-hour days at the coffee shop and also running a youth ministry, Cooke hardly saw his family. A friend offered to volunteer some hours each week so he could have some free time. When his friend moved away, Cooke asked a couple of high school students if they wanted to help.

"They hung out here all the time, anyway," Cooke said. "So I said, 'I'll give you free drinks, you can make tips, and it will be a good chance for you to learn how to run customer service and run sort of the day-to-day how to run a small business.' "

For Cooke program gave him the opportunity to spend more time with his growing family and help a few teenagers gain experience for their resumes. After a successful trial run, Cooke decided to make a more formal program for the 2011-12 school year.

He chose three students from more than 15 applications. Cooke said he picked the applicants based on their passion and enthusiasm, as well as their needs.

The three students work about 10 hours a week. They meet weekly as a group to discuss the business and work on some outside homework. This semester, the group is reading the book, "Developing the Leader Within You," by John Maxwell.

"It talks about vision and mission and passion and motivation, things like that," Cooke said, adding that they'll be reading another book in the spring.

In addition to reading, each intern must also develop a small business idea.

"They have to come up with the name of a company, what they're going to sell or make and how they're going to sell or service it," Cooke said. The group will then take those ideas to a place where they can sell their goods, like the farmer's market, he added. "They're taking it from concept to business."

Vermilyea is working on a music venue. Home-schooled senior Tessa Reed, 15, is thinking of opening a photography business, and Derek Eaton, 17, another senior at Bluffton High, wants to open a sandwich shop.

If the students complete both semesters, each will receive a $500 scholarship for college.

The students said they have learned important aspects of running a coffee shop and running a small business in general.

"One things sticks out to me," Eaton said. "Before, working at other places, I would just do my job and get out. Here, most of the time I close, and there is so much I'm responsible to do... There's a lot of adults who can't manage a place, and it's awesome [that we are]."

Cooke also has a few other volunteers who are learning the ropes, but are not necessarily part of the full program.

"I am able to teach them responsibility, time management, general management because we run the shop with just one person usually," he said. "They can count it for volunteer hours for their school, but it looks great on their resume, not only for volunteerism and a mentor program and an internship, but for being a shift manager. What 17- or 18-year-old can say they were a manager?"

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