Pairing an industrial engineer and an environmental researcher shouldn’t result in baking pepperoni rolls. But for West Virginia University alumni Eric Martin and Mathias Hickman, it just made sense.

Martin, a 2010 industrial engineering graduate, and Hickman, a 2008 wildlife and fisheries management graduate, teamed up to start a pepperoni roll baking business in Charleston, S.C. Together, the pair from Fairmont, W.Va., are bringing a piece of their home state to a new group of people.

After graduating, Martin headed to Germany for a year-long internship before returning home, while Hickman worked for five years in environmental research. After reconnecting, they dreamed up the idea of heading to Charleston to start their own business—not knowing what type of business they’d start.

“We felt as though we had progressed individually and grown as much as we could in our jobs,” Hickman said. “Private business is the only opportunity that offers unlimited potential.”

They dove in head first and began networking and reaching out to local business owners, building relationships and gaining knowledge for running a business.

“We thought that we would have to do something first before the pepperoni rolls, but it turned out that it didn’t require as much capital to get that business started as we thought it might,” Martin said.

The pepperoni roll, recognized as the “state food of West Virginia,” can trace its origins back to Fairmont, where it was baked as a meal for the Italian coal miners in the region. Despite being common knowledge to West Virginians, Martin says most people in Charleston didn’t really know what it is they were eating.

“They call it a pizza roll, but they usually catch themselves,” Martin said.

Starting out was not easy for the team, as their first project was to figure out how to make pepperoni roll dough.

“We had no idea how to do it other than some old cookbooks and an Internet recipe,” Martin said. “The first couple batches we made were not good. Looking back, I laugh at how we thought we had made it well.”

Like any good engineer, Martin tested different recipes and combinations of wheat. The final recipe has a mix of white wheat and whole wheat.

In September, they began renting a space from a cake bakery and started selling pepperoni rolls in dozens and half-dozens to locals. Their business, Pep Rolls, hit the streets in January when they bought a food cart.

Now, the team enjoys working for their own sake every day, pushing themselves to better their business.

“It’s nice to know that everything you do is for you,” said Hickman. “It makes work not feel like work.”

As young entrepreneurs, Martin and Hickman know how important making connections and being true to themselves are to the success of Pep Rolls.

“We gave up on being serious and started acting like ourselves. Now, for business meetings, I don’t dress down, I dress like me,” said Hickman. “We have a lot of business connections that are now friends and friends that are now business connections.”

Martin’s industrial engineering education prepared him surprisingly well for this venture.

“In IE 377 we had to run a pretend business,” he reminisced. “We had to create three products and build a business plan that included building a plant, a distribution center and a budget. That class taught me a lot about production and product research.”

While a novelty to local natives, the business has attracted displaced West Virginians and WVU alumni looking for a taste of home.

“They come visit us to talk and eat pepperoni rolls,” Martin said. “West Virginians are more dedicated to their state than anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s nice to be that person to bring them a small piece of their home state.”

Though the traditional pepperoni roll is just pepperoni and bread, the duo slices open the roll and adds different toppings. The favorite so far has been mozzarella and marinara sauce. They are currently experimenting with a South Carolina twist, adding local toppings, like country gravy, cole slaw and she-crab soup.

Martin believes his inspiration for cooking and baking comes from his mother and grandfather, who both loved to cook.

“By doing this, I think it satisfies the family dream,” he said.

When they brought their rolls back home, the entrepreneurs received overall positive reviews—most importantly, from mom.



CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

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