Oregon is known by many across the world for its incredible food, beverage, and agricultural products. Temperate climate and rich soils allow Oregon to produce more than 250 commodity crops, with almost all of these being produced on the west side of the Cascades in the Willamette Valley. Anchoring the southern Willamette Valley, the greater Eugene area alone is home to 172 food and beverage manufacturing companies that employ more than 4,000 people. Any reasonable estimate suggests that this is a billion-dollar industry operating in direct proximity to Lundquist College of Business and the University of Oregon.
Students from all over the world come to the University of Oregon for the opportunity to study business in a community with a rich food culture and substantial career opportunities is an attractive proposition.
Many Lundquist College alumni are also the entrepreneurs behind some of the region's most exciting companies, including Brew Dr. Kombucha, Red Duck Foods, Picky Bars, Sohr Foods, and Wheyward Spirit. Still more alumni bring their skills to management positions at such established operations as King Estate Winery, East West Tea Company (makers of Yogi Tea and Choice Tea), Organically Grown Company, and Springfield Creamery (makers of Nancy's Probiotic Foods)—just to name a few.
Over the past few years, the Lundquist College of Business has invested in curriculum and programming that deepens its offerings for students looking to build careers in the food and beverage industry. Beth Hjelm, Edwin E. and June Woldt Cone Senior Instructor of Management, spent her 2017 sabbatical developing the Business of Food course, an elective offered to undergraduate and graduate students across UO.
“Students are passionate about food as consumers," said Hjelm. “But they really don't know much about the industry structure or the firms that actually produce their food. This class allows students a more detailed look into the economic and business structure of this industry."
Hjelm's Business of Food course surveys the many facets of the food industry, providing students with a quality foundation in food business while simultaneously growing connections with regional firms.
“It is not just about the firms that manufacture food. Students get a chance to learn about how industry players—like distributors, supply chain logistics, retailers and even infrastructure firms, like cold storage—support getting products to their plates," said Hjelm.
The 2020 spring term course filled with students from across the university including food studies, environmental studies, journalism, public policy, and business majors. Although Hjelm had originally arranged site visits to 27 firms across the state of Oregon, COVID-19 considerations forced a quick change of plans. Despite the complexities and rapidly changing situation, 14 industry members were still able to sit in virtually as guest speakers.
The Lundquist College's connection to the food industry also extends beyond the classroom. Kate Harmon, instructor of management and director of cross-campus engagement, was a lead organizer for last fall's Startup Weekend Eugene Food, the first-ever food industry focused Startup Weekend on the west coast. Harmon helped coordinate dozens of regional entrepreneurs and more than 30 experienced mentors in a 54-hour startup business competition focused entirely on food, beverage, and agriculture.
In addition, Hjelm was part of the industry advisory committee that helped launch Eugene's Table, a regional partnership of food and beverage manufacturing companies. The college's Lundquist Center for Entrepreneurship and Eugene's Table are now partnered to provide ongoing mentoring to students working on food projects or looking to get better connected to the industry, including providing students with access to Eugene's Table industry events that attract nearly 100 local professionals. In just the first several months of the Lundquist College and Eugene Table partnership, 18 students received one-on-one mentoring and many more participated in events across the region.
“Eugene's Table has not only provided opportunities that helped me develop valuable contacts within the local food and beverage scene, but has also made me feel at home among professionals who share the same values around sustainability, resilience, and community," said Christine Scafa, MBA '20.
The partnership has also benefited local businesses, even helping one company be in a position to pivot in response to COVID-19.
When John Broadway, MBA '21, approached Eugene's Table in early January to discuss opportunities in the industry, his background in sales and business development paired well with the needs of Tom and Sue Hunton, the owners of Camas Country Mill, a premium grain and flour producer based in Eugene. Camas Country Mill was in need of consulting to inform the expansion of their retail product line, as well as to assess opportunities to grow its e-commerce consumer direct sales and marketing. Working with Hjelm and Eugene's Table, Broadway and Camas Country Mill scoped out a project.
While Broadway tackled the product-line expansion project for Camas Country Mill, Hjelm's Business Strategy course for honors students assessed and recommended e-commerce sales and marketing opportunities.
“Camas Country Mill challenged our students to rethink the firm's overall social media and e-commerce strategies including content, human resources, processes and infrastructure. Camas gave students enough freedom to explore innovative solutions but also forced them to consider the feasibility of implementation. It required the same balancing of strategy and execution the students will be expected to demonstrate when they graduate," said Hjelm.
The students presented their findings to Camas Country Mill in March 2020, just as the realities of COVID-19 were setting in for everyone. With shelter in place orders in effect, Americans turned to e-commerce for many of their needs, including grocery products, and Camas Country Mill's consumer direct sales channels exploded.
“No one, not the Huntons, the students, nor I, could have ever imagined that the e-commerce orders would have blown up as the full impacts of coronavirus were hitting the grain and flour market. The volume projections, process improvements, and social media strategy and tactics laid out by the students were put into action within weeks of delivering the reports," said Hjelm.
With sales spiking, Hunton and his team at Camas Country Mill have been able to use student recommendations to make key equipment purchases and develop inventory management strategies.
“With this pandemic happening and our direct to consumer sales growing so quickly, we are reflecting daily on what was contained in those pitch decks," said Hunton. “The students' work helped us respond much more quickly when the current opportunities and challenges surfaced. Without their support, we would have been spinning our wheels so much more."
As for Broadway's experience with the product-line expansion for Camas Country Mill, he highlighted the powerful impact the Lundquist College's partnership with Eugene Table has on students' careers.
"Connecting with the broader Eugene's Table community allowed me to look outside the classroom and connect with professionals doing the kinds of work I'd like to do after graduation," said Broadway. “It is really the holy grail of opportunities that every student wants to find. I was able to do real, meaningful work. More than that, it allowed me to learn tangible, employable skills, build my portfolio, and expand my network, all in my area of greatest interest. Truly an amazing opportunity!"
—Micah Elconin, MBA '12, Director, Eugene's Table