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IE Students Help a Local Caterer Develop a Recipe for Success

Swanson School undergraduates design a method to help Leeretta Payne increase cookie production and spread the word about the Hill District’s history

PITTSBURGH (August 21, 2019) … A team of industrial engineering (IE) students from the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering created a solution to help a small business owner increase production of her popular cookies that tell the tale of Pittsburgh’s storied jazz history. With the students’ help, Leeretta Payne will be able to expand operations of her catering company, the Legacy Café, and help preserve the jazz culture in a time of rapid revitalization.

Throughout the twentieth century, Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District neighborhood was home to many clubs frequented by local and national artists. The Hill was an influential part of Payne’s life so she uses her business as an opportunity to teach customers about the neighborhood’s celebrated past. This goal was the inspiration for the Legacy Café’s “Heritage Collection” menu, which features items named after famous entities of Pittsburgh’s jazz era, such as Calloway Beans and Rice, GreenLee Spicy Cucumber, and her most famous offering - the Loendi Club Chocolate Chip Cookie. 

“The Loendi Club was a very elite establishment that, I believe, paints the picture of the Hill District during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s,” said Payne. “My aunt was a singer and used to let jazz musicians spend the night at our house while they were in town. It was a fun environment to grow up in, and I want to share this history with my customers.” 

According to Payne, making the Loendi Club cookies is a laborious process so she sought the help of Swanson School students to develop a more efficient procedure that would increase production and reduce pain in her hands. IE students Ashley Dacosta, Elsie Wang, Keegan MacDougall, and Yang Ren embraced the opportunity for their senior capstone project, an undergraduate program where students help local businesses grow while they gain valuable industry experience.

“The Industrial Engineering capstone program provides our graduating seniors with opportunities to work with a company on a real problem without a structured solution,” said Louis Luangkesorn, assistant professor of industrial engineering and coordinator of the capstone program. “Working with a small company that is community-focused like the Legacy Café requires that the students deal with issues that are very different than the big companies usually featured in their textbooks. This forces them to think differently and be creative in how they approach the problem and come up with solutions that are very specific to the individuals involved, skills that are invaluable in the world that they will be entering.”

The student team met with Payne to discuss her difficulties and create a strategy to improve the way she bakes the chocolate chip cookies.

Payne_NSBEMs. Payne with students from Pitt's National Society of Black Engineers

“There are two main time-consuming steps in this process: weighing each piece of the cut cold dough and molding the dough into a specific pan using one’s fingers,” explained Wang. “Ms. Payne’s current system would not be effective enough to produce the numbers demanded so our team came up with a solution that could potentially remove the weighing step and move the stress from her fingers to her arm.”

The students used a mechanical extrusion tool to pump the warm dough into a uniform cylinder which was then cooled and cut into equal sized cookies, giving a uniform weight throughout. It also incorporated a tamper that would allow the cookies to be pressed into the mold, moving some of the force and pressure from the fingers to the wrist and the lower arm.

“Testing showed that this new method would increase throughput by 40 percent, allowing our client to meet current demands,” said Dacosta. “Since Ms. Payne rents time at different certified kitchens, we made sure that our design was portable enough to fit her needs.”

Increased demand for the cookies necessitated an updated process, and the students’ new method will help Payne produce the quantity needed for her customers. Throughout the warmer months, she is the sole cookie vendor at Pittsburgh farmers markets in the Carrick, Larimer, Southside, and Beechview neighborhoods. New opportunities like this will help Payne expand her business and spread the history of the Hill District to a wider audience.

“The students and I had fun with this project,” said Payne. “I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with them, and I want to use my positive experiences with the University to show residents in my community the impact that can be made if we, as a greater Pittsburgh community, work together to improve our city.”

The University’s work with the Legacy Café is just one example of its growing partnership with the Hill District. Pitt is opening a Community Engagement Center in the neighborhood, and while the University not yet secured a permanent facility, it continues to offer educational programming to residents. The University is also working to strengthen its relationship with a community scarred by public housing issues and displacement during the urban redevelopment movement of the late 1960s.

“The University’s Community Engagement Center in the Hill District is an opportunity to reimagine the relationship between the community and Pitt, fostering mutually beneficial collaborations that advance the community’s agenda by putting our teaching, research, and capacity building programs at the service of the community,” said Kirk D. Holbrook, Director of the Community Engagement Center in the Hill District.

Payne wants to see her neighborhood shine like it did during the jazz era and help current residents feel proud of where they live. She said, “I use the Legacy Café to teach my customers about the Hill District’s past because it is our history, and I don’t want people to forget it.”


Contact: Leah Russell