Updated 10/19, 12:31 PM
STORRS – The University of Connecticut’s Storrs Center has been home to more than 50 different cafés, restaurants, and stores since it opened in September 2013.
However, the center has never had a crêpe-only restaurant. Until now.
Farmhouse Crêpes officially opened last Wednesday and offers more than a dozen different crepe options to visitors.
First-time business owner and UConn student Tahj-Anthony Jean says his inspiration for choosing the light French pastry comes from his childhood.
“I love crêpes. I’ve been making [them] for my mom on Mother’s Day since I was 12, so that’s how the crepes came about. At first it was [going to be] a pancakes/waffle place and I was like, ‘You know what? I love crêpes. I think everybody else will like crêpes too,'” Jean says.
Before starting his own business, Jean played for two years on the UConn football team. Now a junior, he says he retired from the sport he loves so he could focus on managing the store.
Jean says he began thinking about opening the store in April and then planned the project during the subsequent months.
“I always thought there should be a pancake or a waffle place [in Downtown Storrs], and I saw this spot open as was like, ‘Hey!’ I talked to my family about it and they were like, ‘I got your back if you want to do it,’ and they supported me the whole way.”
Jean has gone from one full-time duty to the next — from Division-I student athlete to full-time student business-owner. He hires and trains new staff, oversees everyday operations, and operates the company social media pages.
The former UConn football player is pursuing a major in economics with a minor in computer science.
At the end of the month, Jean turns 20 years old. This is a surprisingly young age for his position, as only an estimated 16% of small business owners in the United States are younger than 35 years old, according to Babson College’s June 2016 study, “State of Small Business in 2016.”
Although Jean is young compared to the average American small business owner, he says he has a very experienced mentor to help him.
Chef and business consultant Frank Lepri advises Jean about how to open his first restaurant and also helps train new employees. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Lepri has decades of culinary experience from a variety of places.
“I’ve been doing [the restaurant business] 30 years. I’ve been an executive chef [in places] from New York City, to the French restaurant downtown in Hartford — Pastis — to a country club, to having my own restaurants. We actually had three of them.”
Lepri and his wife Debbie currently co-own the Trattoria Da Lepri in Ellington, Connecticut, where he says they prioritize buying local ingredients.
He says Farmhouse Crêpes will get fresh produce from the same farm he uses for the trattoria — Hop Top Organic Tillage in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. The store will locally buy ingredients such as mushrooms, peppers, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and others depending on growing seasons.
“We try to use all local. As much local as we can possibly use, we use, only because that’s what our name specifies — Farmhouse,” Lepri says. “We want to be the freshest, we want to have the freshest ingredients as possible.”
For staff members, Jean has hired mostly students — the majority from UConn but some from Mansfield’s E.O. Smith High School.
Sophomore mechanical engineering major Khaled Dulli is one of the new student employees; however, he says he’s far from new to baking crepes.
Before moving to Connecticut last year, Dulli lived in Lubbock, Texas where he worked extensively at the La Madeleine French Bakery & Café chain store. Dulli explains how he went from handling smaller duties to being one of the top employees.
“I started off as just a busboy, went up the ranks, and I was doing everything at the end. I was making cakes, I was making croissants, I was making everything,” he says. “I did prep, bakery, sauté — everything, literally. I did salads, sandwiches, all of that. Anything you can think of there, I did it.”
Dulli is considering a double-major in business and says “you need business on the side” no matter what, because he believes in always having a backup plan “if anything else fails.” He says he thinks the Farmhouse Crepes business model is unique not because it has crepes, but rather because it’s crepes-only.
Another important aspect of the restaurant’s model is an emphasis on giving back. Jean says a “big percentage” of the profits will go toward feeding the poor, although he says he doesn’t know the exact percentage yet.
“When I was little I always wanted to give back to people. Growing up in New York, going to the city, seeing people homeless on the streets, [I would] always give them a dollar,” he says. “I [would] actually sometimes buy them food so they don’t use my money for elsewhere.”
The Farmhouse Crepes menu has gluten free options and doesn’t include nuts. There’s also a “create your own crepe” option.
Jean explains that he made up the store name when he was walking his dog near Horsebarn Hill and thought of the “farmhouse” theme. He plans to open four more stores over the next 18 months. He says he’s looking forward to sharing his product with the UConn community.
“I’m just excited to see people’s reaction on how you make a crepe, and [excited to] introduce [the crepe] to Storrs.”
* CORRECTION: A previous version of the story incorrectly said that Anthony-Jean is in the UConn School of Business majoring in management information systems. Anthony-Jean is actually majoring in economics and minoring in computer science. *