Black Cypress owner Nick Pitsilionis, pictured with employees, is working with Carson Business Solutions on new revenue opportunities. (Robert Hubner/WSU Photo Services)

Carson Business Solutions Provides Free Consulting for Companies, Hands-On Experience for Students

By Becky Kramer

Nick Pitsilionis
Nick Pitsilionis is pondering new revenue streams for Black Cypress, the fine dining restaurant he founded in Pullman in 2009.

Even before COVID-19, Pitsilionis says independent restaurants like his were taking a hit from rising costs and shortages of chefs and cooks. As he mulls changes to his business model, Pitsilionis is turning to Carson Business Solutions for help.

The program pairs teams of WSU business students with small companies for 13 weeks of free, confidential consulting. The Carson College of Business launched the program last fall, and it’s open to small businesses and nonprofits across Washington.

Carson Business Solutions has a dual mission, says Garth Mader, the program’s director and a clinical assistant professor in the college’s Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship.

“For companies, we’re a free resource helping them address challenges, develop new opportunities, and drive business innovation,” he says. “For students, we offer the opportunity of working with a real business on timely issues.”

Along the way, “we want to provide real value to Washington businesses,” Mader says. The new program is a companion to the college’s Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program at WSU Vancouver, which has been serving southwest Washington companies for 10 years.

Learn more about Carson Business Solutions.
WSU Vancouver operates a similar program serving southwest Washington, the Business Growth Mentor and Analysis Program.

“For me, the timing is perfect,” Pitsilionis says. “Because of the COVID slowdown, I’ve had the chance to look broadly at my operation, scrutinize finances, and reassess everything. Last year, I wouldn’t have had the time to do it.”

“As real-world as you can get”

Pitsilionis wants to keep his focus on high-quality food with locally sourced ingredients. He’s launched a to-go service with new menu offerings, which is still in its infancy. He’s also contemplated retail sales and a “ghost kitchen,” an online only concept where restaurateurs sell their food through DoorDash or other third-party apps.

And he’s eager to hear what other ideas students have.

“Garth has been extremely good about encouraging them not to just react to what we’ve mentioned, but to truly act as consultants and explore other possibilities,” Pitsilionis says.

Pitsilionis and his general manager meet weekly with a team of five students who are participating in Carson Business Solutions for their senior capstone class. In addition to having Mader as their professor, a volunteer coach oversees their work.

Hannah McArthur

Hannah McArthur, a marketing major from Port Orchard, is part of the team working with Black Cypress. She’s learned that local restaurants are largely dependent on college students for their wait staff, which produces a constant churn of workers. And by providing meal options beyond special occasion dining, Black Cypress could increase sales among college students.

“I’m more knowledgeable about the hard work that goes on behind the scenes when it comes to running a small business,” she says. “This is one of the most valuable classes you can take at WSU. It will push you out of your comfort zone.”

By the end of  the semester, McArthur and other team members will have researched and vetted different options, presented ideas to Pitsilionis, and begun implementing the approach he chooses.

“We are creating a plan Black Cypress can follow to help improve profitability,” says Torr Christenson, an accounting and management information systems major from Lake Stevens. “It’s about as real-world as you can get.”

“My team helped with this”

Carson Business Solutions will work with 24 companies and nonprofits during the 2020-2021 academic year. The Colfax Chamber of Commerce is one of the program’s other clients.

Executive Director Val Gregory says the chamber also has been affected by COVID-19.

“Our mission is to advertise and market our members,” she says. “We bring people to town and hope they shop locally.”

But the community festivals the chamber hosts to attract visitors have been on hold. The town also is feeling the lack of weekend traffic from WSU football games, Gregory says.

Veronica Miranda

In working with the chamber, the students are probing beyond COVID’s immediate impact, says Samuel Garcia, a management information systems major from Sedro-Woolley.

“We are tasked with looking at the business model and identifying areas that can be improved in the long term,” he says. “We want to make sure we’re not just looking through the lens of a single event.”

The chamber’s end goal is a healthy business environment that supports companies from downtown boutiques to large international firms, he says.

Teammate Veronica Miranda says working with the chamber has helped her polish her professional skills in business communication, meeting deadlines, and project management.

“Taking on a real-life project is exciting,” says Miranda, a double major in international business and entrepreneurship from Woodinville. “One of the areas we are exploring is redesigning the chamber’s website. In five years, that’s a project I could look back on and say, ‘my team helped with this.’”