John Fernandez’s position is one those with a sweet tooth dream about. As the founder of Daystar Desserts, Fernandez oversees the production of more than 15,000 cakes each day.

Having originally established Daystar Desserts in 1998 as a means to later purchase a restaurant, Fernandez says he “eventually realized that ‘the dessert idea’ was a better business than owning a restaurant.”

Following his culinary passion from a young age, Fernandez graduated from the Culinary Institute of America at 19 years old and began to explore the restaurant scene in New York. There he gained experience and furthered his appetite for the industry by working at some of the city’s top restaurants. After having his fill of New York, he decided to move to Italy for a year and a half to work in a 4-star restaurant in the capital city of Perugia.

“It was an amazing experience!” he says. Thinking he had found his niche, Fernandez returned to New York to notify family of his plans to permanently relocate to Italy. Then, “I serendipitously met my wife, and that changed everything,” he says.

Lucky for local dessert lovers, Fernandez remained in the U.S. and pursued his culinary plans by founding Daystar Desserts in a Long Island, N.Y., garage. His dedication quickly paid off with the acquisition of a partnership in a Quebec City, Quebec, plant in 2001, and later with the purchase of the World’s Best Cheesecake plant in Ashland, VA. 

The organization has since grown to enjoy approximately $20 million in annual revenue and 110 employees. However, Daystar’s success has not been without obstacles.

Like many organizations, Fernandez has been affected by the unstable economy, but has used the environment as an opportunity to push harder and outperform competitors. “Even though the economy is tough, people still want good food; we just need to be a little more thoughtful about how to reach customers where they are,” he says.

“The challenges we face seem to change every year, but they usually rotate around the three “legs” of our business - Finance, Operations and Sales. Every time we grow in one area, it causes us to have to go work on one of the other three areas later,” says Fernandez.

Fernandez was introduced to The Richmond MBA through the Greater Richmond Partnership/Chamber of Commerce, and has relied on students with The Richmond MBA to overcome these and other organizational challenges. Like many cannot resist another piece of World’s Best Cheesecake, Fernandez has gone back for seconds (and thirds, and fourths) with The Richmond MBA.

Each student in The Richmond MBA is required to complete a capstone project, where students are given a chance to apply their knowledge gained in the classroom to solve a specific business problem at a host organization. To date, four students have worked with Fernandez, using their learning to help him face business issues.

“With most other universities, a capstone project is treated as a simple academic exercise with no tangible value as it relates to a business owner, but this is not the case with those we have done at Richmond. We have tackled some serious business issues with the help of the MBA students at the Robins School of Business. We have worked on our cost accounting methods, we have developed a financial scorecard, we have built a strategic plan and we have also worked on an exit strategy,” Fernandez says.

The capstone experience benefits both the host organization and Richmond students. Jack Saville, a project manager at Capital One, is the most recent student to work with Fernandez on a capstone project. Saville’s spring 2012 project centered on the operations of Nicely Brothers Specialty Foods, a distributor of branded ice cream and sister company to Daystar Desserts.

"I was impressed with John's commitment to long-term growth for his cheesecake business as well as his genuine compassion for his employees. John's active engagement made the capstone experience that much more valuable," says Saville.

When asked about his plans for the company in the coming year, Fernandez outlines three major objectives, one of which was uncovered due to Saville’s capstone project. “We have realized (partly due to the most recent capstone project) that we need to sell a division of our company to fund growth in the most profitable areas,” says Fernandez.

Having worked with almost every university in central Virginia, Fernandez believes “the caliber of students (and instructors) at the University of Richmond are head and shoulders above the rest! There is a major difference in the work we get from Richmond students; they have a much more realistic knowledge-base, and it is evident that they have been taught by professors who have real business experience.”

Fernandez’s involvement with the local community and several non-profits and charities, most recently building a camp facility in Amelia County to enrich children and teenagers with unique wilderness experiences, makes his personal and professional life very busy.

Students at The Richmond MBA provide an additional resource to further his endeavors. “The work and insights we have gotten form the various capstone projects are invaluable to us and we are a better company as a result!” he says.

It seems The Richmond MBA students have yet to have their fill of Daystar Desserts.

For more information on Daystar Desserts, visit their website.