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District students learn business and make some serious cake

From school lunchrooms to supermarket shelves, Rebel Ventures keeps up the fight for deliciousness.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last year, Rebel Ventures made history.

Its product, the Rebel Crumble — an apple-cranberry breakfast cake — became the first student-produced item to be made available in all District schools.

Now that just about every student in the District is able to enjoy the tasty pastry, Rebel Ventures is extending its reach into local communities by bringing Rebel Crumbles to ShopRite in Parkside.

Rebel Ventures is a student-led nonprofit enterprise supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

“I felt good because kids say the things served at schools are freebies and stuff like that,” said Zaire White, entrepreneurial leader at Rebel Ventures and a junior at Parkway Center City. “So I feel like they’ll think our product is valuable to them because it’s sold in a ShopRite and given to them for free at the school district. So I think they’ll think differently about the product.”

Rebel Ventures is a student-led nonprofit enterprise supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships.

The yearlong process started with a series of market testings initiated after Jarrett Stein, co-executive director of Rebel Ventures, reached out to ShopRite’s Sandy Brown to inquire about selling the crumbles in the Parkside store.

First, the students set up a stand at ShopRite and sold the crumbles themselves. In five hours, the crew sold out of 324 crumbles at $1.50 each.

After that success, it took several months for the team to move to the next test: being added to the store’s shelves.

“We had to have a lot of patience,” said Tre-Cia Gibson, co-executive director and a senior at Parkway Center City High School, referring to the months-long email back-and-forth with ShopRite.

“It took a lot of responses to add up to where we ended,” Gibson said. “So when that finally happened, we got the crumbles into ShopRite – that was a wonderful feeling. It was almost a year experience of trying to get in there, and we actually did it and it was a good feeling. The wait was worth it.”

Brown said that, if the crumbles are a hit at the Parkside location, then ShopRite will consider bringing the crumbles to other locations in the city. The possibility falls in line with the vision that Gibson has for Rebel Ventures.

“We want to get out of Philadelphia and broaden,” Gibson said. “We don’t want to just be in Philadelphia; we want to be in different states.”

Brown said she has been working to make sure the crumble receives the visibility and awareness that a product needs to sell well, but it all comes down to whether customers want to buy. Either way, Brown said, if the product doesn’t meet the goal, that doesn’t mean things have to end there.

“It’s a good learning experience and we might continue to do things with [the students] in that one store to get them experience and exposure,” she said. “So either way, it is a win-win.”

For the Rebel crew — consisting of nine students from different high schools, including West Philadelphia High, Palumbo, and Science Leadership Academy — the program is a chance to learn about business and entrepreneurship. In addition to District schools and ShopRite, the crumbles are available in some archdiocese schools and were tried in 40 charter schools.

Rebel Ventures is still waiting for the vendor to make a decision on broad distribution.

Certainly, the students on Rebel’s crew are receiving valuable business experience, but Stein, the co-executive director, said Rebel Ventures seeks to benefit students throughout the District. While the Rebel crew is in class, Stein has been working to expand Rebel’s mission of bringing “healthy deliciousness” to students from “breakfast in the cafeteria into learning in the school day.”

Students from the Workshop School and Dobbins’ culinary program incorporated Rebel Ventures into their lesson plan by helping them to improve their recipe. After surveying students and cafeteria managers, Rebel wanted to make the crumble less dense and sugary.

Rebecca Coven, a 10th-grade teacher at the project-based Workshop School, said she partnered with another Workshop teacher to teach students about the chemistry of baking. Coven said they’re looking to do a similar project next year — a hands-on approach to teaching students how to apply science in the real world.

“It was a really positive experience for students for a number of reasons,” Coven said. “It made them feel empowered, like they can make a difference in the food that is served in the cafeteria and served in the cafeteria throughout the District.”

Rebel Ventures is also working with food service managers to identify students who are “creating a healthier school,” so they can be rewarded with Rebel Ventures’ “Student Powered” T-shirts.

“These are just small examples,” Stein said. “But there are more, in terms of just partnering with schools directly and seeing how we can support schools directly and their efforts to bring young people and adults together to work … toward creating a healthy school.”

Despite its success, the Rebel crew continues to focus on improving the product. After considering student feedback, the team decided to adjust the apple cranberry crumble and introduce a new one: the Apple Delight, a crumble in which apples are the only fruit.

Zaire White hopes students will enjoy this new, improved creation.

“Everything we do is a learning experience,” White said. “This is a youth-run business. Everyone is new to this. This business hasn’t been out for that long.

“We’re really just starting to get out there to many stores and many people. So everything we learn and everything in the past, we try to get better and expand our business.”