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Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 8, 2000. All rights reserved.

Learning Studio

Education may be wasted on the young, but school is

not: the lackluster teachers, boring seminars, stifling classrooms,

gum-littered desks, fluorescent lights, and tedious homework assignments

— these are enough to dull even the sharpest minds.

With that idea in mind, two entrepreneurs set out to create the anti-school

— a place where adults could satisfy their hunger for learning

outside of an institutional setting. The result: The Learning Studio.

Billed as a "Health Club for Your Head," the Learning Studio

began serving up educational fare, courses on cooking and self-improvement,

back in 1997 at a facility near the Oxford Valley Mall in Langhorne,

Pennsylvania. It started with only 15 courses; two years later, the

Learning Studio offers more than 300 courses on everything from holistic

health to dating.

On its way to becoming a national chain, the Learning Studio recently

opened a fourth location at 4250 Route 1 North, where students can

now take evening courses such as "Schmoozing Your Way to Success,"

(March 13, $55), "Exotic Dancing," (March 8, $59), "Great

Wines for $10 or Less," (April 12, $69), "Back to Black: Get

Completely Out of Debt" (March 29, $39), "The Ultimate Singles

Class: 50 Ways to Meet New People," (March 10, $35), "Aromatherapy"

(March 21, $35), and cooking classes taught by chefs such as Bobby

Trigg of the Ferry House (March 23, $45).

More like a Starbucks coffee shop than a school, the Learning Studio

has done away with traditional classrooms, and instead offers different

learning "environments:" an art studio, dance studio, computer

library, conference room, computer room, holistic study room, and

club room.

It’s education made a lot more fun, says David Mergen, who runs the

Princeton franchise. "It sort of takes the school out of learning,"

says Mergen, 28, a former chef at the Lambertville Inn. "People

can hang out at any time of the day."

Summer camp for adults is what co-founders Joy Miller and Rob Clancy

call it. In 1996, Clancy, the former CEO of Benetton, teamed up with

Miller, who worked in sales and marketing at Wilson Sporting Goods,

to research the market for adult education. They discovered a considerable

demand for adult education outside the traditional continuing education

venues such as the community college and YMCA. After launching the

pilot Learning Studio in Langhorne, Clancy and Miller found enough

enthusiasm to put more studios in Malvern, Pennsylvania, and in Cherry

Hill, while raising $1.4 million from investors.

A good portion of the financial backing comes from franchisees, like

Mergen, who sunk his life savings — roughly $50,000 — into

a partnership with the two co-owners. Mergen owns 49 percent of the

business; Miller and Clancy retain the other 51 percent. It’s an attractive

business partnership model for the beginner entrepreneur, says Mergen,

who had been considering running a franchise of Einstein Bagels or

Blockbuster. "If you are younger and don’t have all the capital,

it’s nice to know that these people have just as much invested in

getting your business up and running," says Mergen.

Mergen, a native of Washington Crossing who attended the Culinary

Institute of America, Class of 1993, was burned out after five years

working as the executive chef at Lambertville Station. An avid sailor,

he looked forward to the weekends, but almost never got a break from

work. "I wanted to get out of the restaurant business because

it’s all that I’ve ever done," he says. "But I still wanted

to be around people."

Meanwhile, he was also teaching a cooking course at the Learning Studio

in Langhorne. When he found out he had a shot at running his own Learning

Studio, he threw in the towel at work, and threw his savings into

the business.

The Learning Studio on Route 1 is the fourth studio to open since

1997 and Clancy and Miller have made it known that they intend to

open studios in Bridgewater, Montclair, and Red Bank once they raise

the necessary capital — $3 million. The company is also poised

to go on the Web, offering several of its courses, including chat

rooms, at this month.

Instructors for the Learning Studio come from a wide variety of backgrounds

— some are on the national circuit, such as Ed Pankau, who teaches

"Learn how to make $100K a year as a private detective," while

others are plucked from the community. Farida Mistry, for example,

a financial consultant at the Lawrenceville Edward Jones office,

teaches a course on financing long term care (March 13, $35), and

chefs from Marsilio’s, Lambertville Station, and the Frog and the

Peach all kick-in to teach cooking classes.

Seven Learning Studio catalogs are published each year, with courses

that run the gamut from kickboxing to Web design, massage to shamanistic

journeying. With courses like "Investment Club for Singles,"

and "Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right," the Learning

Studio has also gained a reputation as a singles haven. "If you’re

single it’s a great place to meet people — it keeps you out of

the bar scene altogether," says Mergen. "One of the best classes

teaches 50 things for singles to do outside of bars."

Not everyone who comes to the Learning Studio is single (Mergen himself

is recently engaged), but they do share at least one thing, says Mergen.

"Everyone that comes through the door has an open mind."

— Melinda Sherwood

The Learning Studio, 4250 Route 1 North, Monmouth

Junction 08852. David Mergen, manager. 609-688-0800; fax, 732-355-0617.

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