Robert Sales arrived at UNI knowing he wanted to be an entrepreneur.
The Pella native’s business instincts had been apparent since he was a first-grader who won a contract mowing vacant lots in his neighborhood. At UNI, Sales focused on the food industry, launching a food truck business and then, with help from professors and mentors, narrowed his focus to selling mini doughnuts.
Sales was a fixture this year at the UNI-DOME and McLeod Center, selling his trademark cinnamon-and-sugar doughnuts before social-distancing restrictions in the wake of a COVID-19 pandemic brought food sales to a halt. His Rob’s Mini Donuts operation has been named the MAC Impact Student Business of the Year for 2020 from UNI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC).
He will be recognized April 24 in an online ceremony. The business helped him reach another milestone - graduating from UNI debt-free just 18 months after launch.
“(All those) risks will pay off by graduation in December 2020,” said Sales, a senior communications major. Like all business owners, he’s now doing his best to keep his operations afloat and waiting for the day when people are able to congregate again.
“I have been lucky, I have been given time to prepare,” he said. “It is all unknown and I’m taking it day by day. Just looking forward to seeing smiling faces eating doughnuts.”
Sales credits JPEC, which helped him develop a business plan to expand his doughnut operation, along with Kevin Launderville, UNI Athletics’ concession and retail operations manager, for helping him reach his goals. Launderville was a “great mentor” who pushed him to pull the trigger on expansion, Sales said.
UNI JPEC Associate Director Laurie Watje praised Sales’ industriousness.
“He’s a go-getter,” Watje said. “He’s going to make it happen no matter what. Once he sets his mind to an idea, he’s very independent. He figures it out. He is confident enough to reach out to the right person to make it happen.”
Sales got his start in the food industry about eight years ago at various restaurants and in dining services at Central College, where he worked as a high school student.
“I grew up around food: serving food, eating food,” Sales said. “I absolutely loved it. Whenever I travel, food is the first priority of what to do and where to go. It’s all about the food.”
He started with a food truck but then upgraded his doughnut-making machine just before the fall semester. That doubled his capacity, allowing him to make about 2,400 of his trademark cinnamon-and-sugar doughnuts per hour, and equipped him for a year-round stand in the concessions industry.
But since this wasn’t Sales first business, he knew the biggest challenge was figuring out how to sustain the company. He said working with JPEC helped him walk through the steps more clearly before jumping into the business.
Watje said Sales has been mentoring other students on campus and people in the community, including other food trucks in the Cedar Valley.
“He’s just really great about giving back and helping other people in this industry be successful,” she said.
Sales is expecting to graduate with no student debt. His graduation plans include staying in Cedar Falls for at least one more year, which means at least one more year of doughnuts for UNI sports fans. Possible expansion opportunities could keep him in the area for longer.
“Expansion is definitely on my mind when I get out of school,” he said. “ I will have a bunch of free time to put into building an infrastructure to have multiple locations, to have multiple employees and almost like a franchise model – opening up a Rob’s Mini Donuts location at a different school, at a different venue. When I have more time to think about it and plan it, there could be more opportunities that arise.”