October 7, 2014

In a First, Oakwood Opens a Fruit Franchise

Oakwood University has become the first Adventist educational institution in memory to open a business franchise as it looks to cut tuition costs and provide business students with hands-on experience

The university celebrated the grand opening of its Edible Arrangements fruit gift store with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by 50 people last week.

The concept is simple: Instead of giving flowers, the store puts together bouquets of fruit arranged like flowers. The fruit can also be dipped in chocolate.

The naturally delicious food combined with healthy revenues makes the franchise a good fit for the Adventist university, said Oakwood president Leslie N. Pollard.

“This store is unprecedented, I believe, in Adventist higher education,” Pollard said. “We are going to use it to create revenue and employ students. We’re going to use it as a practicum for business majors.”

Adventist high schools and colleges have long operated industries where students could work to pay tuition costs. Oakwood, a historically black university founded in 1896, had a laundromat, a bakery and a dairy among its businesses as recently as the 1970s. But top Adventist educators could not recall any college or university that has operated a franchise before Edible Arrangements.

“We are supportive of institutions finding innovative ways to supply student labor, thus reducing rising tuition costs for students,” said Larry Blackmer, the Adventist Church’s top education official for North America. “So if this works for Oakwood University, then I think other institutions will look to see if the model fits for them.”

<strong>INSIDE THE STORE:</strong> Howard Weems, special assistant to the Oakwood president for spiritual life, speaking with student workers in Edible Arrangements. Credit: Oakwood University

Blackmer said the Adventist Church has no discussions or policy regarding industries on college campuses. “Each school makes those decisions on its own, based on the needs and situation at each institution,” he said.

Pollard, who started talks with Edible Arrangements in November 2013, did not provide specific financial figures for the store, including the cost of opening it. Oakwood acquired the six-year-old store from a private owner three months ago, becoming the first institutional owner in the franchise.

Edible Arrangements’ parent company puts the cost of opening a new franchise at $156,000 to $277,000, and says it must pay a royalty fee of 5 percent of gross sales.

Oakwood has earned a profit every month since it took over the store, said Pollard, whose three graduate degrees include an MBA in organizational management.

“The store is making money already,” he said. “We haven’t had a down month yet.”

One other Edible Arrangements franchise also operates in Huntsville, a city with a population of about 180,000.

The profit will go toward scholarships and other educational needs at the university, where student tuition and fees cover 60 percent of its $50 million annual budget.

Anyone can order from the store and assist Oakwood students, Pollard said. For example, a person living in New York could send a fruit bouquet to a recipient in Los Angeles by placing a phone order — but not an online order — with the store in Huntsville.

“Just for the referral, Oakwood gets 20 percent of the order,” Pollard said. “It doesn’t cost you a dime more.”

Currently, four part-time students work at the store located in the Whitesburg Shopping Center on 5000 Whitesburg Drive, and another 15 to 20 students may hired as needed on a seasonal basis.

“The great thing is we can work around their schedule,” said Cierra Taylor, the store’s operations supervisor and a recent Oakwood graduate.

“If they need to go to class, homework, whatever the case may be, we make sure that everything is in the right order for them,” she said in an interview with local WHNT television news.

Oakwood, which has about 1,900 students, has taken steps to insulate itself from any possible liability by creating a limited liability corporation to own and manage the store.

The franchise comes amid a concerted effort by the university to become more self-sufficient. Another step in that direction is expected next week when Oakwood’s constituents will vote on a plan to transfer ownership of the university from the General Conference, which oversees the Adventist world church, to the church’s North American Division.

While Pollard voiced hope that best business practices would help the store succeed, he stressed that prayer and God’s blessings would be key. The store may be alone among the more than 1,000 Edible Arrangement locations in the United States that is open for a part day on Fridays and is closed on Saturdays in line with the seventh-day Sabbath.

“We solicit the prayers of all who are committed to Seventh-day Adventist education; otherwise, there are no guarantees that anything that we try will work,” Pollard said. “However, we do know that God will bless if we put our best effort forward and trust in His providence.”

Contact news editor Andrew McChesney at [email protected]. Twitter: @ARMcChesney

Related links

WHNT News, Sept. 30, 2014: “Oakwood University buys Edible Arrangements to Help With College Fees” (with video)

Al.com, Sept. 30, 2014: “Oakwood University Revisits Student-Business Roots With Purchase of South Huntsville Edible Arrangements”

Corporate website with information about Oakwood University’s Edible Arrangements store

Oakwood Magazine interview with Oakwood president Leslie Pollard about the franchise, starting on p. 14 (PDF)

Adventist Review, Sept. 26, 2014: "Oakwood Seeks to Become NAD Institution"