New upskilling program provides real-world training to area food entrepreneurs

July 28, 2022
By: Nancy Sheehan

Jean-Luc Wittner prepares authentic French crepes. Photo by Matt Wright ’10

Jean-Luc Wittner, Owner, Suzette Crêperie & Cafe

Jean-Luc Wittner can still remember the irresistible aroma of the crêpes his mother used to make for him when he was a child growing up in France.

“I still can see my mother preparing the batter and feel my disappointment when she said it had to rest for two hours. Those were the longest two hours of my early life,” he says.

Obsessed with the memory of the smells and flavors of his childhood, Wittner dreamed of opening a crêperie after arriving in Massachusetts in 2011. Two years ago, he and his wife, Evelyn, opened Suzette Crêperie & Café in Worcester’s trendy Canal District, offering authentic French crêpes with a variety of fillings.

There are sweet selections, including “Strawberry Fields,” with strawberries, white chocolate, and toasted almonds, as well as savory options, including the Weintraub, a cheese, pastrami, bechamel sauce and tomato creation named after the iconic former Worcester delicatessen that now is home to the crêperie.

Wittner, a culinary-school trained chef, realized his long-held American dream was coming true with the opening of the crêperie, but he also wanted to explore selling another of his specialties, macarons, on a wholesale basis. To help with that business expansion, he turned to the Food Entrepreneurship Program at Worcester State University, which teaches the real-world, step-bystep skills needed for a successful food business.

Offered in collaboration with the Worcester Regional Food Hub, program courses are sixweek deep dives into very specific skills led by an industry expert. Courses are held on campus at WSU, and Chartwells, the company that provides food services to Worcester State, offers scholarships to those for whom the cost would otherwise be a burden.

The program aims to benefit not only entrepreneurs, but the larger community as well. “It’s a way to help small businesses in Worcester be more resilient and more financially viable,” says Elaine Vescio, director of entrepreneurship at Worcester State. “The entire region benefits when the smallbusiness environment is healthy and vibrant.”

Program courses are hyper-focused on the technical, management and business knowledge that entrepreneurs need to establish and grow their businesses. “These are deep dives into the really specific expertise that food entrepreneurs want and need,” Vescio says. “It’s things like everything you need to do to prepare for and get your wholesaling permit. We had several people who took that class the first time it was offered who now have their wholesaling permits.”

Preparing for Your Wholesale Permit was the class Wittner took last fall, with an eye toward wholesaling his macarons. The course teaches participants how to obtain a permit from the state and helps them clarify their ideas to ensure their wholesale business is a success. Wittner discovered that large quantities of hard-to-make macarons might prove a bit beyond the scope of his small shop.

“The class was really helpful and we learned so much,” he said. “I discovered that you need to find a product you can produce on a mass scale, which is not the case with macarons. So now we are working on a few different things that will lead to a wholesaling business when the time is right.”

For those who have completed the permitting course, the Food Entrepreneurship Program offers a next-steps blueprint through a course titled Wholesalers, Set Up Your Distribution Channels. “After they completed the permitting class, people were like ‘Okay. I’m going to have my permit soon. How do I get my food out there?’” Vescio says. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to focus on how to build their distribution network out.”

Briana Azier rebranded her candy business after taking a course through Worcester State’s Food Entrepreneurship Program. Photo by Matt Wright ’10

Briana Azier, Owner, Bri’s Sweet Treats

Among other popular food entrpreneurship program offerings are Food Business Strategy and Planning and Leverage Digital Media to Build Your Food Business, which helps food entrepreneurs connect with a wider range of customers. “We have people who went through that six-week program and they’re super excited because they are using digital media now for their business in ways that they would not have done without it,” Vescio says.

One of those people is Briana Azier, owner of Bri’s Sweet Treats. The former corporate recruiter began selling chocolate treats on the side after friends who had received them as holiday gifts encouraged her to start her own business. She began setting up a booth at farmers markets and fairs and soon her cookies, triple-chocolate brownies and Oreos covered in chocolate – milk, white and dark – were selling out. “My peanut butter cups developed a cult following and became by far my biggest seller,” she says.

Azier’s success prompted her to consider leaving the corporate world behind to become a full-time chocolatier. To help make the leap, she turned to the Food Entrepreneurship Program, starting with the digital media course.

“This was an amazing class. Well taught, class notes and lectures were clear and precise and relevant,” she says. “The networking alone was awesome, let alone the knowledge. Those six weeks helped me to rebrand, build my website (, hire a professional strategist, streamline and refocus. Every food entrepreneur should take this course.”

Every food entrepreneur should take Azier also took the wholesale-permit prepAzier also took the wholesale-permit preparation course and is remodeling her kitchen, top to bottom, at her home in the Rochdale section of Leicester getting ready for the busy summer vendor season.

“I am booked literally every Saturday at a food truck festival, a fair, a craft show – some type of big event,” she says. She also was accepted to sell her treats at the Worcester Tercentennial Celebration in June and at stART on the Street, Worcester’s largest arts, music and cultural festival, in September.

Gerardo Figueroa Jr., Owner, Taino Roots food truck

Gerardo Figueroa Jr. of Southbridge also signed up for the digital media course in hopes of launching a food-truck business.

Gerardo Figueroa Jr. and his wife Yeichi prpare a tripleta sandwich with pork, ham and steak.

“I graduated with a marketing degree, then went into corporate,” he says. “Great money, didn’t love it. Then went into teaching, loved the teaching, loved the kids, didn’t love the politics behind the teaching.”

As he worked his way through those jobs, he always remembered how he and his father had often talked about food and how much they both enjoyed cooking. “Every time we had a family event, it was always surrounded by food,” he says. “We could be in our darkest days but when my father went into the kitchen, it was like a sunrise. It would put a smile on our faces. Even as a grown man and once I had my own children, it was still the same thing. When we would cook, there was just that enjoyment, that happiness.”

So, Figueroa bought a large trailer and began outfitting it with a kitchen, hoping to start a business and share the food he loves with the larger community. He was especially eager to introduce people to the flavors of his Taino roots, the food of the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico. Eventually, however, the busyness of life got in the way and the food project languished.

Then, he heard about Worcester State’s digital marketing course and thought he would give it a try. “Wow, it really changed my life.”

“I had been in kind of a funk. It seemed like it was just too hard to start a business with everything else going on in life, but this course motivated me,” he says. “It inspired me to continue doing what I wanted to do and helped me pull my ideas together because I was all over the place. Every week, more questions would arise like, ‘What is my image? I sell food like anybody else, but why am I different?’ That helped me put my brand together and understand how to create my message, so it was great. It really made all the difference in the world.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Worcester State Magazine.

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