Students packed the University of Richmond’s Queally Center for Admissions on Nov. 15 for Bench Top Innovations’ third annual Great Bake Off, where participants devised sauces and business pitches.
The winning sauce, Noosh, was created by seniors Riley Maitland, Owen Fleming, Aamy Bakry, and Ava Geismann. It is essentially baba ghanoush, an appetizer comparable to hummus, but with a twist and pop of flavor. The ingredients in the sauce are eggplants, tahini, lemon, lime, olive oil, cumin, salt, pepper, vinegar, garlic, honey and cayenne.
The competition took place on the night of Nov. 15 where four groups of UR seniors in the Bench Top Innovations class pitched their sauces to a panel of three judges.
Joel Mier is the professor of the year-long Bench Top Innovations course. The course was made possible by a $1 million donation from the Jason & Jamie Brown Family Foundation and RB Charitable Foundation for entrepreneurial programming through the University’s Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship initiative.
Among the audience members were Grace Clarke, who won in 2022 with Twin Tail Brews, along with Grace Mittl and Eli Bank who won the competition in 2021 with Absurd Snacks.
In the first semester of the Bench Top Innovations course, each group is tasked with coming up with a product under a certain category, Clarke said. The students are given access to kitchens in Queally Hall to create their products. Once the winner is crowned at the bake-off, the class becomes the company and works with the winning product to manufacture it, scale it, bring it to market, and ultimately sell it around Richmond, Clarke said.
At the end of the academic year, there’s an option for the group who won in the fall to continue their business venture, which they own the rights to. Twin Tail Brews decided to close its LLC at the end of the school year last year. Absurd Snacks chose to continue its business.
The evening began with the four groups standing at their respective stations around the room with samples of their sauces and food options to pair them with.
The event had a maximum capacity of 250 people and sold out. There were also dozens of people watching online. Somiah Lattimore, the event organizer and director of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, said that they might look for a larger event space for next year.
The tension and excitement were felt in the room by the audience members as people enjoyed tasting the sauces as well as the heavy hors d'oeuvres and beverages while awaiting the pitches.
The room was made up of people of all ages including UR students, faculty and other community members.
First-year Holden Habermacher attended the event because she had a co-worker competing on one of the teams, she said. She was inspired by all the sauces and looked forward to hearing the pitches.
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“Everybody is here because they love food, they’re excited about what the students have to offer, and the room is buzzing. It is full of pure excitement,” Habermacher said.
After guests had time to sample all of the sauces, everyone was seated for opening remarks.
“It's always a good sign when we don’t know who is going to win,” Mier said, referring to the stiff competition between the sauces. “We love that.”
The first team to give their pitch was Noosh. They focused on comparing the health benefits of Noosh versus hummus. Noosh is Whole30 compliant, a popular diet where for 30 days you are restricted to eating meat, seafood and eggs; lots of vegetables and fruit; and natural, healthy fats. Noosh is low in carbohydrates and calories, and it is high in fiber.
“We’re looking to take on the healthy dips market as a whole. Our competition is hummus, salsa, guac, and tzatziki,” senior Owen Fleming, a member of the Noosh team, said during the pitch.
A large selling point for the group was that Noosh is keto and paleo-friendly, vegan and gluten-free. Noosh also has a third of the calories of hummus and half the carbs.
Other competing sauces included Spezia, a vegan and dairy-free sriracha pesto; Mesko, a spin on romesco sauce from Spain; and Gala, an apple cider vinegar glaze consisting of maple syrup, apple cider vinegar and chili peppers.
The three judges were Terry Baker, the executive director of Dining Services, Ben Pasternak, the founder of NourishCult, and Jerry Hoak, executive creative director and managing director at the Martin Agency.
All four teams received compliments from the judges upon completing their pitches.
“The competition was really significantly stiffer between each of the individual products this year,” Lattimore said.
At the Great Bake Off, Bank and Mittl announced that as of the morning of Nov. 15, Absurd Snacks is sold around Richmond and in 21 unique Whole Foods across the country.
There are no prerequisites for the course and it is not required to be a business major.
Clarke is an English major and had never taken a business class before the Bench Top Innovations course, she said.
“I definitely had a pretty narrow view on what constituted business,” Clarke said. “It’s so much more about people and innovation and taking risks and being able to work well with people, it really widened my view of what a business is.”
Senior Riley Maitland, a Noosh team member, said it was fun working in separate teams, but that she’s excited to be all together for the spring semester and see where Noosh goes.
“It was really nice to see the culmination of all of this,” Fleming said. “We’ve been jokingly working in secret together, but it was nice to see everyone’s work tonight.”
Contact contributing writer Carly Cohen at email@example.com.
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