Integrated Capstone Experience Student Team Delivers Results for Mexico-based TOKS Restaurante Group

As part of their integrated capstone experience, MBA students made multiple visits to Mexico to execute a multi-disciplinary consulting project

A pivotal juncture of a Crummer Early Advantage MBA student’s journey is taking the integrated capstone experience– choosing between consulting with an external client, developing a NASA patent, or starting a new business.

A group of six MBA students who chose the international consulting route had the unique experience of working directly with TOKS Restaurante Group in Mexico, which is one of the leaders in corporate social responsibility (CSR) in Mexico.

“They are the marketing leader in the CSR space in Mexico, but were not always,” said Michael Wallace, EAMBA 31. “They also understand they don’t have all the answers and want to be transparent in the process.”

TOKS Restaurante Group has been operating in Mexico for 47 years with over 200 locations throughout the country. Part of the organization’s core mission is social responsibility and helping create a prosperous Mexico.

Dr. Mary Conway Dato-on connected with Gustavo Perez Berlanga, the CSR Vice President for TOKS Restaurante Group, through Crummer’s partner school in Mexico, IPADE Business School.

“We started talking about the challenges that TOKS has, and that created a window of opportunity when I said we have students who work on projects that deliver results,” said Dr. Conway Dato-on.

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The students selected for the project—Michael Wallace, Manuel Andres, Alexis Paxton, Max Pinsky, Rafa Barnoya and Sophie Chateauvert—have spent the past four months fully immersed in TOKS Restaurante Group. They have been developing recommendations to advance TOKS’ corporate social responsibility strategy and ultimately, bring an end to poverty in Mexico through job creation.

Up Close and Personal

After an initial video conference call and introductions, the students conducted an environmental scan of the TOKS organization.

They studied why Mexico is a fertile ground for CSR projects and learned everything they could about the socioeconomic situation in Mexico and TOKS Restaurante Group’s mission.

After that phase, in true Crummer fashion, the team of six students joined Dr. Conway Dato-on and Dr. Misty Loughry on a week-long business immersion in Mexico and experienced what they were researching first-hand.

The students’ task revolved around market development and sales growth across three projects within the TOKS Restaurante Group: coffee production by the producer cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico, jam produced by a team of women in Santa Rosa – both of whose products are used in TOKS restaurants, and artisanal beer brewed and sold by the Beer Factory.

One of the highlights on the business immersion was seeing the coffee plantation in Chiapas, Mexico, and how the coffee makes it from the farm to the coffee mug.

For Manuel Andres, who was born in Mexico, it was an eye-opening experience.

“We went to the coffee plantation thinking it was going to be an organized, high-scale operation, and then we were at the top of this volcano picking wild coffee beans ourselves. That’s how the producers do it every day, traveling up and down a mountain with 70kg sacks of coffee beans,” said Andres.

The group got to pick the coffee beans, see how they cut out the shell, dry the shell and then see the roasting process.

“It was absolutely a humbling experience. We all have to have a better appreciation of where our food comes from and better understand the process of how something goes from farm to table,” said Wallace.

For the student team, seeing this process really made them realize the impact of having a strong social responsibility mission. TOKS wants to help the people of Mexico by buying the quality products produced by marginalized segments of society, which creates employment opportunities, and incorporating them into the restaurant’s supply chain.

The team also visited Santa Rosa, Mexico where they met with the women who own and operate Conservas 1998, which produces the jam used in the restaurant chains and sold onsite and in TOKS. The women making the jam have incorporated learning about corporate social responsibility learned from TOKS into their business by paying livable wages above Mexico’s minimum wage to their employees.

“TOKS has become one of the most respected restaurant chains in Mexico by far, and you can attribute it to the way they treat their employees,” said Wallace.

Dr. Conway Dato-on says this immersion experience is absolutely vital for the team to develop realistic, actionable recommendations for the client.

Along with seeing the socioeconomic situation first-hand, the students are also forced to adjust and learn new skillsets in a foreign country.

“During our time in-country the students are completely immersed; at the same time, they have to balance their responsibilities back here in the United States. This genuinely reflects the expatriate manager’s experience. At the same time, when the students are in Mexico they see and appreciate the diversity within the country. They observe the poverty in rural areas such as Chiapas and the sophistication of Mexico City. When they return their perspective on the country and the challenge of working overseas is changed.”

Actionable Results

Upon returning to the United States, the students completed a deep download of data on TOKS, spending the next four weeks analyzing and refining their suggestions.

They met via conference call with TOKS once a week to discuss their ideas and pivot recommendations as knowledge grew.

In the spring term, the team immersed themselves Mexico again before working on their final ideas to present to the CEO and other TOKS Restaurante Group executives.

It’s an intensive period of adjustments and research.

“It’s all about pivoting at this point. They come up with an idea, adjust, pivot, find a new idea and research more,” said Dr. Conway Dato-on.

Gustavo Perez Berlanga says the help of the Crummer students will directly affect how to TOKS Restaurante Group does business.

“They gave us very interesting ideas on how we can reach overseas markets and help our communities,” said Perez. “It’s been a win-win situation. It was an eye-opener for us and it’s a life-changing project for them, with all the things they’ve been able to see.”

Manager of Social Responsibility and Special Projects, Ricardo Medina Navarro, echoes how Gustavo speaks of the project.

“They are bringing us some really interesting ideas. It’s been really great working with students putting their hearts into this project,” said Medina.

Dr. Conway Dato-on says the quality of work the students are doing during the integrated capstone experience projects keep companies like TOKS Restaurante Group willing to participate in the consulting projects and sponsor the students to visit them, like they did with this consulting group.

“We can go back to IPADE, show them our students are doing high-caliber work on these projects, and now they know our students can deliver, so they are willing to help us look for the next one,” said Dr. Conway Dato-on.

The students, slated to graduate in May 2019, leave Crummer after this project with sense of confidence and new global perspectives.

“Before my MBA, when I thought about the business world, I thought about just profit, maximizing shareholder value and things like that. Now it’s more than just the profit side of things; it’s how you can make an impact for the long term,” said Andres, who plans to work in finance after Crummer.

Dr. Conway Dato-on says seeing actionable results from a Crummer consulting project – for clients and students – is what truly makes the Crummer experience remarkable.

“For me, these immersive global experiences are lifechanging, and that is what education means to me. Seeing the transformation in our young professionals is incredible,” said Dr. Conway Dato-on.