Absurdly inventive: Students launch food business through a new course

April 18, 2022

Student Experience

Students from the University of Richmond started a business from the ground up. For senior Grace Mittl, the idea was a natural progression from how she was raised. 

“I come from a very food forward family,” Mittl said. “We celebrate over food. I grew up really comfortable in the kitchen.”

illustration of students holding absurd snacks

When the business major and student athlete first heard about Bench Top Innovations, a course for students to run a snack business from concept to launch, she wasted no time making contact with marketing professor Joel Mier.

“I immediately jumped on the phone with Dr. Mier and said ‘I’m so in,’ because it combined two of my greatest interests: business and food,” Mittl said.

“Students get the opportunity to learn through experience what entrepreneurship is all about,” Mier said. “They get to go from exploring a market and coming up with ideas all the way to building a product and commercializing it and running the business.”

The year-long course begins in the fall semester with a competition among 16 students to choose the food product they will bring to market. Split into four groups, students compete on the different benchtops in an industrial kitchen on campus. They bring the products together for a bake-off at the end of the semester, where leaders from campus and the Richmond entrepreneurial community taste test the different options. The winning product is chosen to move forward.

“In that moment we went from four competing teams to one company,” Mier said.

Mittl’s team brought a chickpea-based trail mix to the table, and won. After building relationships with manufacturers, vendors, and suppliers, the product, called Absurd Snacks, is now for sale on campus and in multiple local groceries and retailers around Richmond.

The snacks are manufactured at the Richmond food-and-beverage incubator, Hatch, which was co-founded by UR alum Brad Cummings. Students package it on campus, deliver it across the region, and ship it to online customers.

“I’ve learned that it takes a village,” Mittl said. “We’re at a great advantage that we have 16 people in our class. That’s the only way we’ve been able to move as quickly as we have.”

Mier admits that mistakes were made — but they become teachable moments.

“I don’t view them as failures,” he said. “You learn through doing. And that, to me, is what this is all about. You can do more than what you thought, regardless of your discipline.”

Come graduation day, the funding from the University of Richmond stops, but the intellectual property of the business lies in the hands of Mittl and her team. Mittl hopes to continue Absurd Snacks after graduation.

Bench Top Innovations is open to seniors of any discipline, and a new course, with a new product, will begin in the 2022-23 academic year.