Last semester, the University of Richmond introduced a pilot entrepreneurship course, Bench Top Innovations, where students spent the school year building a food product company from the ground up. Absurd Snacks, the nut-free, vegan, alternative trail mix made of beans will be hitting the shelves today.
The chocolate and maple cinnamon bean trail mix can be found at Everything Convenience, Stella's Grocery, ShoreDog Cafe and Libbie Market starting March 21.
Absurd Snacks was chosen out of several student-designed food products to fully come to life as a running business. It was created by seniors Grace Mittl, Daniel Wolfeiler, Tyler Quinlivan and sophomore Jeffy Joshy.
The students will also be hitting the RVA Big Market in Bryan Park and the Farmers Market at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church on Grove Avenue on March 26 to promote their brand new product.
Mittl, CEO of Absurd Snacks, said the product had come out of an allergy concern.
“The inspiration came from my fellow team member Daniel Wolfeiler… he has a nut allergy,” Mittl said. “He found that he wanted to have a snack… and there was nothing really out there that was healthy, refined sugar-free, higher in protein.”
UR students got the chance to create their own company as part of this course, and business is already booming.
The idea for a hands-on, student-led course came from Marketing Professor Joel Mier and Shane Emmett, an executive-in-residence and CEO and co-founder of Health Warrior, a company that sells a variety of healthy snacks.
“The concept of Bench Top is that you go from idea to revenue in nine months,” Mier said.
During the first semester of the course, students were split up into four teams and tasked with creating a unique food product. They learned the core tenets of design thinking, a creative problem-solving methodology, to brainstorm ideas of products.
After they came up with their ideas, they hit the kitchen.
Students spent eight weeks in an industrial kitchen in the Queally Center experimenting with ingredients, taking feedback from friends and perfecting their products.
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“They’d go in there and cook something, they’d take it home and their roommates hated it,” Mier said. “They’d come back and they’d do it again, and they’d do it again, and do it again until they came up to the end of November, where we had our competition: the Great Bake Off.”
The Great Bake Off consisted of a panel of experts, including award-winning chefs, that heard each group’s pitch and tried their product.
“When that happened, we went from a class to a business,” Mier said. “We end the semester with our product, and that winner is the one that all sixteen [students] work to commercialize until May.”
The chosen winner, Absurd Snacks, is made out of beans with a granola component that contains oats, sunflower, flax and hemp seeds.
The reason Absurd Snacks won the competition was because of its novelty, taste and converging trends of health and allergen concerns, Mier said.
“You wouldn’t believe they were beans,” Mier said.
As the class transitioned to a running business, students elected a Chief Executive Officer and heads of finance, operations, tech, marketing, and sales. Everyone in the course plays a role to promote Absurd Snacks, Mier said.
The team landed on beans because she had a ton of lentils and edamame in her apartment, which sparked the idea for a bean base. The crunchiness simulated the familiar crunch from a nut-based trail mix, Mittl said.
“I think we went to every single grocery store in Richmond,” Mittl said.
Now that they’ve reached the manufacturing and selling stage of producing Absurd Snacks, the team has found a company that pre-roasts the beans, a manufacturer and co-packer and a packaging facility that makes their pouches. Throughout the research and development process, the team worked closely with a food scientist to perfect the recipe and a freelance designer who created the designs for the creative assets.
“We’ve been able to outsource a lot of help," Mittl said. "But all the internal communication and research… have all been by the students.”
The job of the sales team is to go to local markets and promote the product.
“They have secured a handful of locations already,” Mier said, “including Libbie Market, Good Foods Grocery and a few other smaller ones that are interested, and we are in discussions with Whole Foods right now, which is really exciting.”
Sophomore Cisco Cheng, an accounting major, took the course to gain business experience.
“My parents have their own business and I’ve always wanted to, when I finish my schoolwork, go back and take over,” Cheng said. “I want to expose myself in a real business world.”
The course is open to students of all majors, Mier said.
“We want to make it a very distributed and diverse class because, clearly, the more diverse in terms of background, the more ideas and the better chance of success,” Mier said. “Regardless of whatever you study, you’re going to have opportunities where you need to be creative, you need to be innovative, you need to be entrepreneurial.”
An idea is not required to take the course, Mier said.
“What we’re doing here, we have not been able to find anywhere else in the country,” Mier said.
Mittl said the results had been remarkable for it being a brand new course.
“Ideally, a creative program in a class like this would have taken two years,” Mittl said. “But Dr. Mier and Shane were just awesome and they somehow got it done in five months.”
The most important lesson Cheng has learned from this class so far is to take initiative, he said.
“The leader will not tell you what to do,” Cheng said. “You need to take initiative and think as an entrepreneur to think what kind of things we need to do now.”
There’s an application process to get into Bench Top Innovations. They only accept 16 seniors that need less than nine credits to graduate. The course is funded through the Provost’s Office and the Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship Initiative.
Contact features writer Emily Mason at email@example.com.
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