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On a sunny Saturday morning in a warehouse in Brooklyn, a young crowd milled about, sipping artisan cold-brewed coffee, snapping shots of their breakfast for Instagram, and posing for photo booth pictures with a large, silver spoon. Despite the heat in the unairconditioned space, the 250 attendees for the second annual Brainfood conference were excited for things to begin.
Two women took the stage and introduced themselves: Mackenzie Barth and Sarah Adler, the founders of Spoon University, the company that brought everyone together that day. One look at the two — both 24 years old and recent college graduates — and it was clear that Spoon, an up-and-coming player in the food media world, isn’t your grandma’s publication.
With more than 3,000 contributors at 100 college campuses across the U.S., Spoon University is a network of digital food magazines dedicated to covering the culinary world from a millennial perspective. On any given day, readers will find an eclectic mix of recipes, tips, restaurant coverage, pop culture features, and think pieces. Spoon’s voice is clear in headlines such as “9 Signs You’re One Hangry MOFO” and “21 Cold Dishes to Make When It’s Hot AF Out.” The national Spoon University site features a rotating aggregation of articles from the various local college chapters.
The site’s founders met as freshmen at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL., and became fast friends. Adler, a native of Texas, was brought up in a family that frequently traveled and enjoyed trying adventurous foods.
Barth, on the other hand, had very little interest in food whatsoever: “I was a bland, bad eater… I was on the ‘beige diet.’ Chicken. French fries.“
When Barth moved into an off-campus apartment her junior year, a switch was flipped. “I had to start thinking about food more and force myself to get out there and try things — that was the beginning of appreciating food in a new way.”
Barth then had an idea. There had to be other students with a desire to expand their knowledge of food but no obvious way to do so. She reached out to Adler, who had been the editor-in-chief of another campus magazine, and the pair set about recruiting staffers to join their new print publication — Spoon University. Interest was off the charts.
“People were in the same boat, looking for an outlet to talk about food and to learn from each other,” Barth said. On-campus popularity of the magazine soared and their staff grew to more than 100 members by the time they were seniors.
Word spread to other schools, and soon Adler and Barth were fielding calls from students who wanted to create Spoon chapters on their own campuses. The pair began coaching these interested groups and building websites for different major schools across the country, from New York University to Penn State to the University of Illinois.
As graduation neared, Barth, a communications major, and Adler, who was studying journalism and religious studies, felt pressure to jump into the workforce and take entry-level jobs. Instead, they detoured and took on chance on their creation. “We decided we’d give it the summer and see if Spoon could be a viable business for us,” Barth said.
They weren’t deterred by the glut of food content, both on and offline. “Nothing really focuses on young people exploring for the first time — being adventurous, feeling curious, not really knowing anything — starting from scratch but wanting to have cool conversations and experiences around it,” she added.
The pair stayed in nearby Chicago and continued to work with interested schools. The number of Spoon University chapters was growing — and growing fast — legitimizing their leap of faith. “We could see that food was a really huge movement. There was a shift in how people thought about it and talked about it and wanted to share that information with their peers,” Barth said.
They created an online training program, nicknamed “Secret Sauce,” that gave each new chapter access to a suite of skills to train them in everything from Spoon’s style and tone, to Wordpress (their content platform), to social media. With this system in place, the company was able to grow faster and more efficiently.
“Up to that point, we were working as hard as we possibly could to turn Spoon into something real. We were doing a lot of things right on gut instinct — and a lot of things wrong because we weren’t analytic enough,” Adler explained.
The two decided to pursue a spot in Techstars, the startup accelerator program that provides seed funding and intensive mentorship in exchange for a 7 to 10 percent equity position in the company. Admission into the program isn’t easy to come by, but after an extensive application and interview process, Spoon landed a spot — becoming the only media company in the 2015 class.
“Techstars helped us put our structure into place and make everything feel more purposeful and directed,” Adler said.
Over the 12-week program, Barth, now the chief executive officer, and Adler, the chief technology officer, began to see the long-term potential for Spoon. They expanded their team to a full-time staff of eight, and are currently hiring for five other positions. The Spoon founders also brought on additional investors and raised $2 million in seed money to support their growth.
At this point, Spoon was grownup enough to get its own place. Previously based in the Techstars’ co-working space, the company made the move to an office in midtown Manhattan.
Last week, a few days before the Brainfood conference, the new Spoon University headquarters were buzzing. Boxes littered the floor, overflowing with samples from conference sponsors and Spoon totes emblazoned with a cartoon pickle and the words “We’re Kind of a Big Dill.” At the rear of the large sunny room was a kitchen, the countertops crowded with a trusty waffle maker, bottles of Momofuku’s Ssam Sauce, and other ingredients necessary for the wild #foodporn mash-ups and boozy brunch cocktail creations that have become their signatures. Everything gets documented on the Spoon Snapchat account, of course.
The staff is young and exuberant; only one employee is barely over the age of 30. By appearance, it’s hard to discern higher-up editors from interns, and the mood amongst the staff is one of equality and fraternity. Adler and Barth themselves share the communal desks with the rest of their team. “Us being our age definitely affects company culture,” Adler said.
But it hasn’t affected their desire to grow the business. In addition to editorial and social media, one of the areas of focus is video, and the team has been experimenting with new, interactive ways of presenting information that feels “very young, fun, relaxed, and accessible,” said Barth. “We have content and recipes that fit into their lives, that are relatable to the every day — whether it’s having no time, or being hungover, or going to a potluck. We want it to feel like we’re your friend who happens to have really great taste in food.”
This relatable content comes straight from the source — their wide network of writers. However, Adler clarified that Spoon “is not just a contributor network like a lot of media companies have. It’s a community that gives back, and every person in the network feels passionately about Spoon and their role.” The writers have the opportunity to see their bylines on Spoon’s big-name partner sites, including Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, USA Today, and Yahoo Food.
Several of these writers were in attendance at the Brainfood conference, a unique opportunity for Spoon’s virtual community to come together in real life — or IRL, as their average reader might say. These eager future chefs, nutritionists, foragers, and food writers — hailing from schools such as Dartmouth, Michigan State, and Boston University — had the opportunity to gain insights from food startups, culinary professionals, and experts in the tech, sustainability, and food sourcing fields. This year’s conference featured speakers from Hampton Creek, The Meatball Shop, VICE Munchies, Luke’s Lobster, and more.
Between panels and discussions, the predominantly female audience scribbled notes and tapped away at tweets to record the advice dispelled to them, inspired by the presences on stage.
And perhaps none were more inspiring to the audience than Adler and Barth, the ultimate exemplifications of empowering young people through the medium of food. And that, after all, is the message at Spoon’s core.
“Our mission is changing the way that media works,” Barth said. “Especially for our generation, people want information from like-minded individuals — from their friends, from their peers. So our goal is to figure out how to empower and educate an entire generation to create content in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
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