Students across the globe now have a new fun way to learn how to transform latkes, prepare gluten-free potato pancakes and other innovative foods: from each other.
Thanks to the efforts of two young women, MacKenzie Barth and Sarah Adler, their Spoon University online initiative not only teaches the basics of food prep, but also how to set up a first kitchen away from home. In addition, the crowdsourced start-up doubles as a way for its fans to learn more about the world of online publishing, marketing and event planning. And it serves as a launch pad for its founders to venture into the world of start-ups and venture capital funding.
“It was soon apparent that we could help even more students build food communities on campus, gain professional skills and create something meaningful at their schools,” says Barth.
Indeed. New York-based Barth and Adler, the CEO and CTO respectively, have attracted $2.5 million in funding.
“We’re young and have never run a company before, so we’re blind to a lot of the challenges that lie ahead,” Barth says. “But this blindness allows us to move forward unafraid and as long as we learn from our mistakes quickly, we can keep pushing ahead. Sometimes not knowing what you don’t know can be the best driver for success.”
The pair now direct a team of 10 other full-time employees as well as more than 3,000 volunteer members who write, edit, photograph, make videos and throw events. In the site’s short history, its Chanukah-themed greatest hits include a gluten-free recipe with an apricot, dijon and chipotle mayo from Penn State, instructions for parsnip potato latkes with horseradish cream from the University of Pennsylvania, sweet potato latkes with curried ketchup from New York University and this year’s eight ways to enjoy the classic holiday dish, including a latke pizza, latke with egg and avocado, “latke balls” and spaghetti, latke brie and blueberry grilled cheese and even a latke ice cream sandwich.
With the old college try hard at work, the site, which offers a wide range of recipes, also instructs readers on Jewish foods that “even goyim love,” as well as the classics.
“We hope to continue to create a space for people to come together over common passions and create amazing things together,” Barth says. “This could extend beyond college and beyond food, as long as people feel of something larger than themselves and have the autonomy to create and share meaningful work.”
The brainchild of the two Northwestern University graduates, the project began as a print magazine in 2012. While still in school, when the pair first moved off campus, they were shocked at how little information was available to them to create their first kitchens.
‘We wanted to create a community around food to help explore food in our kitchens, our town and in the dining halls’
“We wanted to create a community around food to help explore food in our kitchens, our town and in the dining halls,” MacKenzie says. “Senior year, when our staff was about 100 students, we started getting emails from students at other schools that wanted to start something similar.”
The team began building websites for other campuses, guiding them, helping them lead their teams, organize meetings and publish online, ultimately expanding to more than 100 universities in North America, India and Scotland over the last two years.
“We ultimately built a training and chapter management program called Secret Sauce that has courses and lessons for students to learn everything from headline writing, social media strategy and event management,” says Barth, a communication studies major with an integrated marketing communications certificate.
With more than two million visitors each month, the typical reader is not a “foodie” with a ton of skill, knowledge, money and time. “It’s for the rest of us, who enjoy a good meal, spending time with friends around food and drinks, and are curious about learning more,” Barth says. “Our typical reader is the average college student curious about food and the way it fits into their lives.”
Barth grew up in a Reform synagogue in a Chicago suburb where she celebrated a bat mitzvah and observed the major Jewish holidays. “I was part of the campus engagement corps at Hillel at Northwestern,” Barth says, “where I was tasked to engage uninvolved Jewish students on campus through meet-ups, activities and events. I went on Birthright while in college and I’ve always felt connected to the past in identifying as Jewish.”
‘I wanted to understand the kind of belief and faith that I’d seen so much of growing up’
Adler, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is Christian, grew up in a strongly identified Christian community in Texas.
“Seeing that kind of religious homogeneity, and being on the outside of it, is ultimately what inspired me to double major in religious studies,” Adler says. “I wanted to understand the kind of belief and faith that I’d seen so much of growing up.”
These days, Barth and Adler focus on helping their student volunteers gain professional skills.
“They get to practice writing, editing, photo and video, have their work published and seen by thousands, sometimes millions of people,” Barth says. “Leaders gain a ton of experience in leading a team, managing people and setting goals. Students interested in marketing have the opportunity to learn social media strategies and event planning. Mostly though, they feel a sense of belonging by meeting new, like-minded people and build a community on campus and across the world.”
Through the Techstars accelerator program in New York City, Barth and Adler focused on growth, learning how to prepare for pitches and ultimately navigate the VC fundraising process.
Barth put on her “most confident face and pitched dozens of investors in NYC, SF, Chicago and Austin,” she says. “The number of inspiring people we’ve met and built relationships with over the last two years is incredible. The startup world encourages you to get out there and talk to people — ask for advice, give advice. It’s an amazing community of smart, driven, passionate people.”
The site’s seed round was led by SoftTech Ventures based in California, Barth says. Other investors include Lerer Hippeau Ventures, Box Group, VaynerRSE, BBG Ventures, and others.
Both women interned at magazines and websites throughout college, says Barth. “But I don’t think we ever imagined starting and running our own publication… Every day is a challenge, which keeps it interesting. It’s also rewarding to see the community of people who are excited about what we’re building. That energy pushes us every day to make the Spoon experience even better for our employees, contributors and readers.”
‘Every day is a challenge, which keeps it interesting’
Learning how to manage their rapid growth has been a rewarding experience, Adler says.
“It’s one thing if you build something and have it take off organically — and mysteriously,” says Adler. “Then, when that magic changes, you have no way to control or affect anything. You don’t know why it took off in the first place. Learning how to run tests, isolate variables, and move the needle purposefully was a huge part of our Techstars experience, and it’s been invaluable for us since.”
The women envision their company as a new paradigm for the web and for reporters.
“We’re creating a new model for media and content creation, so hopefully it can inspire other journalists to challenge the norm,” Barth says. “What’s worked well for media in the past isn’t necessarily going to work in the future.”