Entrepreneurial Energy

One student’s journey toward launching a business

Ben Sokoloski used his experiences with UM’s Office of Technology Transfer and Business Plan Competition to help start the Market on Front in his hometown of Missoula.

By Erika Fredrickson

The Market on Front, a new Missoula business, brims with the smell of roasted coffee beans and savory panini. Ben Sokoloski, the young, lanky owner, chats up customers in front of a case full of salads that includes sweet potato, salmon and couscous, broccoli and cranberry. At another counter, cooks prepare several ready-to-go breakfast items with a healthy dose of bacon.

“How was it?” Sokoloski asks a customer about her breakfast quiche.

“Delicious,” she says. “We’ll be back.”

Sokoloski beams.

The market, which opened in mid-August, is located in a recently built parking garage on Front and Pattee streets. There’s a rustic-chic style to the space, but it also feels practical and modern. The floor, paneling, tables and coffee bar are made with reclaimed wood, which contrasts elegantly with the shiny metal siding. In the center of the warmly lit market, customers peruse the shelves of fresh produce, cheese, organic chips and pickled goods. It’s not a big selection — yet — but it’s a carefully curated one.

“This is a small showing of what we’re going to be offering,” Sokoloski says. “We’re a few months behind schedule. But we wanted to open the doors anyway.”

Sokoloski, a Missoula native, created the Market on Front with the help of UM’s Office of Technology Transfer. In the last couple of years, the office has made it a goal to support students who have entrepreneurial ambitions. The result is that students such as Sokoloski have crafted business models, gained hands-on experience and received the appropriate guidance to bring their dreams to fruition.

The Market on Front is a work-in-progress, but Sokoloski has big plans for it that go well beyond the walls of its downtown location.

“It’s a kind of living breathing organism,” he says. “And it’s slowly growing into what we want it to become.”

In Australia they call it a walkabout, in Amish culture, a rumspringa. For a Montana kid venturing into the wide world, they call it getting out of Dodge. Sokoloski left Missoula after graduating from high school at Loyola Sacred Heart in 2004. First, he landed in Denver, where he enrolled in school for finance real estate and Spanish, thinking he’d like to work for a real estate development company or investment firm. After graduation, however, he decided to journey around the world from South America to Dubai to Singapore to New Zealand.

“I went just about everywhere but Antarctica,” he says.

In every country he visited, he immersed himself in the bustling food markets found at the center of each town.

“I loved the energy,” he says. “That’s where the people go. South America was unbelievable and the same with places in Africa where they are so poor, but they barter. They don’t have a Sysco truck. Their food is straight from the heart.”

After his world tour, Sokoloski returned to Denver where he worked for a private equity startup. He liked the challenge of the job, clocking in 70 hours a week in a “fast and furious” environment where million-dollar transactions were commonplace. But the nature of the business got to him.

“We would basically charge obscene rates for people to borrow money,” he says. “And I kind of had an internal dilemma about that.”

One place in Denver where he didn’t feel conflicted, however, was Cook’s Fresh Market. The locally owned corner market makes fast-casual cuisine out of local and fresh ingredients and offers chef-inspired meals, imported cheeses and meats, homemade sauces and artisan pastries. Like the markets he’d visited around the world, Sokoloski saw how Cook’s brought community together in a positive way.

“They would host town meetings and talk about how can we do things better in Denver,” he says. “There was no benefit to them; they just wanted to make sure their town was amazing.”

Sokoloski started thinking of his hometown of Missoula. He began putting feelers out to get a sense of why Missoula didn’t have a big central market like a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

“We have the Good Food Store, which is the heartbeat for natural and organic foods in Missoula,” Sokoloski says. “But why isn’t there something downtown?”

As it turns out, big chains such as Whole Foods have a population criteria: They won’t come to a community smaller than 250,000 people. But in the process of learning about food-market models, Sokoloski stumbled across an interesting fact about Missoula.

“I spoke with the distributor of the West Coast for United Natural Foods, and he told me that Missoula, Mont., was one of the most health-conscious purchasers in the U.S.,” Sokoloski says. “Individuals here buy more local, regional and organic food per capita than any other place aside from Berkeley, Calif.”

Armed with the sense that Missoula was ripe for a downtown market, Sokoloski returned home and enrolled in the MBA program at UM, where he began working on a plan.

As UM director of technology transfer, Joe Fanguy works to interface the University with the private sector in the area of research and creative scholarship. His background, however, is in chemistry, not business, and so, when he was looking to help students in the area of entrepreneurship, he wanted to reach out to all academic disciplines.

“I have a passion for helping folks that might be outside of the traditional business school track to explore their own opportunities and ideas,” he says. “We know that every entrepreneur — every student — has different needs when it comes to starting a business.”

In 2010, Fanguy began working with John Beltram, a student intern for the Office of Technology Transfer, to start up an entrepreneurship club and begin doing campus outreach. They brought in guest speakers and developed the framework for an internship program for which students could apply.

Sokoloski was one of the first to receive funding. In his internship proposal, he suggested returning to the place that had truly inspired his idea for a market: Cook’s Fresh Market in Denver. After Sokoloski was awarded the internship, he spent 10 days at the marketplace working from 7 a.m. to sometimes as late as 9 p.m. in order to learn the business.

“It was unbelievable,” he says. “The chefs were unbelievable. The food was so cool, and it was such a hub. I aspire to do what they’re doing.”

In Don Gaumer’s business entrepreneurship class, Sokoloski worked with two other students — Brint Wahlberg and Suzanna Simmons — to develop what they called the Fresh Finds Market and Deli plan. Their hard work paid off. In 2012, the students knocked it out of the ballpark at the John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition, where entrepreneurs from all of Montana’s higher education institutions compete for awards. They won the People’s Choice Award, placed first for elevator pitch and third in the high-growth category.

One innovative aspect of the Fresh Finds business plan came out of the students’ research on Whole Foods. As it turns out, the company has made it a policy to set up shop near large parking areas offering easier access to the store. That idea struck a chord with the students and the fact that Missoula’s new Front Street parking garage had an empty real estate space seemed like serendipity. In February 2013, Sokoloski launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to help with the final push of moving into the space.

The plan for the Market on Front is to continue to expand the menu and grocery items. He’s also looking to duplicate the model in places like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Whitefish. If big chains such as Whole Foods don’t cater to small cities like Missoula, perhaps the smaller Fresh Finds Market can fill that niche.

“Maybe each market has the exact same coffee or the same Hutterite hens that we’re serving in the chicken salad sandwich here,” he says, “but it would still be that town’s market.”

As UM’s entrepreneurship program continues to grow, Fanguy hopes to help more students such as Sokoloski realize their dream projects. For him, success is a good goal to shoot for, but it has to be fueled by passion and a willingness to learn.

“To get up each day and have an opportunity to do something you really care about — that helps you push through during challenging times,” Fanguy says. “One of the key aspects I really applaud Ben for is his willingness to be mentored. And I think in the long term that will help him be more successful.”

For more information email joe.fanguy@umontana.edu.

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