From a retrofitted 1959 ambulance-food truck, to a brewery twenty years in the making

June 3, 2016

Veterans make their vision a reality through the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) program at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration.

By Ryan Nowicki ’16 and Shirley Zhang ’18

In the fall of 2014, in the halls of the School of Hotel Administration (SHA), a longtime brewer and a man with a retrofitted 1959-ambulance-turned-food-truck formed a bond—grounded in their proud military service and bolstered by their shared entrepreneurial spirit.

For the next nine days, these motivated men and their classmates would participate in a bootcamp unlike anything they were accustomed to. The experience would transform their visions of being their own bosses from dream to reality.

Neil Tarallo, director of EBV-Cornell, with EBV participants

Veteran entrepreneurs: Neil Tarallo (far left), SHA lecturer and director of Cornell-EBV with Jim Mele (near center), Paul Kilgore (center right), and their fellow EBV participants

Jim Mele—the captain of the vintage food truck—described the methodical chaos that ensued over his nine days at the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV).

“EBV gave me the confidence that I can go through with this and handle the challenges that come with starting a business,” Mele said. “The intensity ramps up with the 15-hour days of the program, meeting business people and talking to restaurant owners and individuals who touch every aspect of the hospitality business. The opportunity to interact with other veterans was invaluable, and sharing my struggles with others often led to collective solutions and the formation of a support network that I still use to this day.”

Mele’s classmate, fellow veteran and friend Paul Kilgore, is making similar waves in this close community with a recent second-place finish at the 2016 D’Aniello Family Foundation Business Plan Competition, held in Charlotte, NC. The plan for WAORGANY Brewing (pronounced “War-Gah-Nee”) impressed judges and earned the entrepreneur $20,000 in funding towards the creation of his business.

“At EBV, they set you up for success in every aspect of starting a business,” Kilgore said. “You get unparalleled access to invaluable instructors and mentors, and while you won’t walk out of there with a fully written business plan, you will have the nuts and bolts for success.”

"The opportunity to interact with other veterans was invaluable, and sharing my struggles with others often led to collective solutions and the formation of a support network that I still use to this day." - Jim Mele, owner of Deli Rescue and EBV alumnus

These “nuts and bolts” led Kilgore to draft a 70-page business plan after leaving the program, which he had to cut in half in order to enter the national competition.

“Walking away from that competition with a favorable outcome really validated the vision that I have for this brewery, and the long hours had all been worth it,” he said.

Kilgore wants to start small, with a brewery that features ten taps in the brew house with tasting rooms offering four flagship beers and six seasonal ales. With WAORGANY licensed as a New York State brewery, at least 20% of ingredients used will be locally sourced, with the eventual goal of 90% by 2024. The business will be located near Fort Drum, a U.S. military reservation, in an effort to cater the business to active military stationed there as well as the local community. Within three to five years of opening the business, Kilgore is hoping to operate a brewery and tap room on a small scale, while adding employees and transitioning to multiple locations, including farmers’ market venues. His goal is to transform the business into a regional brewery with a 15-to-20-barrel restaurant location. For this man with a winning plan, the future looks bright.

ebv_paul-kilgore

Paul Kilgore in his element.  Photo: Justin Sorensen / Watertown Daily Times

Kilgore’s passion for brewing dates back more than 20 years, of which he says, “Family and friends had always told me that I should make it my career and take this thing to the next level, but I figured they were just being nice.”

After a 21-year career in the military, followed by seven years in a sales role that put him on the road most of the year, Kilgore realized his heart pined for his true vision: starting a brewery. A battle with cancer led him to end his time in his sales role in 2014, setting the soon-to-be entrepreneur on a soul-searching journey. Kilgore worked towards receiving an MBA while fighting prostate cancer, which is now in remission. It was during this time of confusion and struggle that he found EBV, and he has never looked back.

Kilgore’s EBV classmate, Mele, is following his own road to a fruitful business—quite literally—with his vintage food truck. While on a military deployment in South Dakota, the budding entrepreneur came across a gourmet-grilled-cheese restaurant that was unlike anything he had seen in his native Connecticut.

This unforgettable grilled cheese melted Mele’s heart, leading him to explore restaurant-business options of his own once he returned to the East Coast. Daunted by the requirements of a brick-and-mortar investment, and wanting something more mobile, he centered his business plan on a food truck.

But not just any old food truck. Wanting to challenge himself and present a food truck with a unique flavor and flair, Mele purchased and retrofitted a 1959 ambulance. He installed all the fixings for a food-truck operation, including industrial meat slicers and steam tables. This antique truck, inspiring the name of the business—The Deli Rescue—boasts a personality of its own and enables him to travel to events between 45 and 50 miles away—all, of course, at the truck’s top speed of 50 mph.

Then and Now: Jim Mele's "Deli Rescue" has been retrofitted from a 1959 ambulance into a flashy food truck, pleasing taste buds on the road.

Then and now: Jim Mele’s “Deli Rescue” has been retrofitted and converted from a 1959 ambulance to a flashy food truck, pleasing taste buds on the road.

Since October 2014, the business has seen success and continues to grow largely through word of mouth, event networking, and Facebook and other social media sites.

“When I first began, I would drive to various locations including ESPN’s offices

[in nearby Bristol, CT] and vintage car shows to serve food and spread the word,” Mele said. “Through this organic growth, I am now proud to be booked out through the entire summer of 2016 for events including birthdays, farmers’ markets, and music festivals.”

Much of this success has arisen from the Deli Rescue’s unique menu, which changes based on each event. Customers are pulled in by the unique exterior of the vehicle— which features flashing lights and bright colors—and they stay for the crowd-pleasing food. The truck’s menu is never the same twice and is planned to cater to the palate of the audience attending a particular event.

The groundwork for Mele’s success was laid during his time at EBV, and he could not be happier about discovering the program.

"If you are absolutely serious about running your own business or even want to get involved in a leadership role, the EBV program is a necessity." - Jim Mele, owner of Deli Rescue and EBV alumnus

As he says, “If you are absolutely serious about running your own business or even want to get involved in a leadership role, this program is a necessity. For many veterans, college experience is limited, and it is difficult to find the time and money to invest in an entrepreneur’s business education. This program removes those hurdles and wraps everything into nine days, and the connection goes far beyond your time in the program. I am still in regular contact with many of my classmates and mentors who I made connections with while at Cornell.”

Moving forward, Mele would like to grow the vintage and classic brand image of his business, and he is always on the prowl for vintage trucks to eventually build a fleet and create a Deli Rescue family. The serial entrepreneur also hopes to transform the venture into a self-sustaining business, and pass off the reins to start his next entrepreneurial adventure.

About EBV

EBV is a unique initiative designed to equip veterans with the skills, resources, and support to start their entrepreneurial businesses. Founded at Syracuse University in 2007, EBV programming now exists at ten other universities nationwide. Neil Tarallo, senior lecturer and EBV-Cornell program director, brought EBV to SHA when he left Syracuse University.

At SHA, the annual EBV program starts with a three-week online program focused on providing general business education to veterans. Veterans then come to the Cornell campus for one week with all expenses paid to further develop their business plan, network, and grow their business acumen.

“EBV sets you up for success in every aspect of starting a business. You get unparalleled access to invaluable instructors and mentors, and while you won't walk out of there with a fully written business plan, you will have the nuts and bolts.”

Veterans are also supported by a one-year technical assistance program, which includes mentorship, advice from large law and accounting firms, graphic design, and website development. More importantly, the veterans leave SHA with the lifetime relationships they have developed with other veterans, faculty, and students.

SHA’s EBV program is extremely competitive, seeking applicants who are ready to start their businesses within the next 18 months. Every year, SHA’s EBV program accepts 25 veterans to participate. However, those who aren’t accepted still receive support materials, so they are more prepared the next time they apply.

The focus on food and beverage (F&B) and the veterans’ access to experienced SHA faculty sets this EBV program apart from other institutions.

“It is really amazing to connect expert F&B faculty members with veterans,” Tarallo said. “[SHA]…is all about service, and the military veterans are examples of the utmost service anyone can provide.”

Thus, the EBV program has really benefited everyone involved: Cornell University, veteran entrepreneurs, and the customers that their wonderful businesses serve.

The EBV program has helped veterans start their entrepreneurial journeys and has helped faculty members and student volunteers “gain a sense of appreciation for the role military plays in our society.”

The businesses and approaches of these two EBV alumni are unique, but they are just two of many EBV success stories. SHA continues to support veterans who have concrete business ideas in the F&B sector, encouraging motivated individuals to join this entrepreneurial family, united by a commitment to duty and passion for service.

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