Waitress holds full plates next to Yale motto

Yale Students Impact Food Business

Fresh, affordable and healthy food options are at the center of several recent start-ups that have one other thing in common. Their founders are either current students or alumni of Yale University.

Their companies are in sync with their generation’s trend towards health-conscious foods. They also are showing they have an eye for healthy profits. The  health and wellness market is predicted to be the next trillion-dollar industry. Healthy eating, nutrition, and weight loss sales have collectively grossed $277 billion (just behind beauty & anti-aging products at $679 billion, and fitness & mind/body exercise at $390 billion).

Even back in 2015, when they started, The Tab (a university news network) labeled the restaurant as one that will “revolutionize American fast food.”

Today, more and more “Yalies” have explored the possibility of creating food businesses. Zoni Foods co-founders Nilofer Ahmed (SOM ‘16) and Zoë Lloyd (FES/SOM ‘17), who both took their MBAs at Yale say that convenience, health, and sustainability are the primary reasons many fellow Yale students and grads launched similar ventures. They took that good idea, and put some bold action behind it, to create an entirely new food line.

Ahmed states that this generation’s lifestyle led her and Lloyd to create their frozen fresh meal kit company. The two banded together to create easy, healthy, and affordable food – a holy trinity that many college students used to only dream of.

Zoni Foods is something the duo would have wanted for themselves – access to reasonably priced food that doesn’t skimp on nutrition or ease of preparation. On their website they have stated they were “frustrated by the lack of healthy, convenient meal options on the market to get them through the midweek time crunch.”

Meals from their upcoming frozen product line are all plant-based, and easy to prepare. They cook in a single pan on your stovetop. Each flash-frozen meal kit, such as their Sweet Potato Spirals in Cashew Garlic Sauce or Lentil-Kale-Mushroom Fritters, have only three cooking steps and are done in less than 15 minutes. They also come with a recommended additional protein, herb, and wine or beer pairings, so food choices can feel as personalized and homemade as needed.

Perfect Food Trio: Healthy, Affordable, Easy

Ahmed says that students and young professionals are busy and often spontaneous, which makes them “want the flexibility of having something in the freezer.” This entrepreneurial move by the duo has been well-researched, and is only one of the many food-related companies that have started by Yale students in the past few years.

Meals from Zoni, Yale students

Most meals do not fit perfectly into the healthy meal Venn diagram. This is why many people get frustrated with current food options, and led to new and innovative ideas from the “Yalies” as a response. It’s no surprise, that the Ivy League institution located in New Haven, Connecticut is number 8 on the list of USA’s top universities that order vegan and vegetarian, coming in at 130 percent above average (as compared to other universities).

Junzi Kitchen was cofounded by three Yale graduates, namely Yong Zhao (FES ’08 Ph.D. ’15), Wanting Zhang (FES ’11) and Ming Bai (ART ’13). They are one of several Yale food start-ups that were granted $100K from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) Innovation Fund last January. Junzi is quite popular in New Haven’s Broadway scene, they have Northern Chinese food reimagined into easy-to-eat forms like wraps (a.k.a. “bings”) and made to order noodle dishes which include Chinese vegetables, braised meats, garnish, pickles, and sauce. Even back in 2015, when they started, The Tab (a university news network) labeled the restaurant as one that will “revolutionize American fast food.” The restaurant also recently opened a new location near Columbia University, maintaining both within the tristate area.

Another company cofounded by two Yale undergrads is Chops Snacks, the second Yale start-up that received a $100K grant from the YEI Innovation Fund. The beef jerky business that Luke Sellers (YC ‘17) and Aaron Jones (YC ‘17) created, improved on Sellers’ father-in-law’s original small idea. The pair banked on creating tender beef jerky that uses only high-quality ingredients, especially premium USDA Choice & Select beef brisket, for easy-to-chew and flavorful jerky.

Walden Hill, a food venture by Jennifer Milikowsky (MBA/FES ‘15), was created to support local farmers in New England. She, along with Tylan Calcagni, built the business around sustainable acorn-fed pork. “From the farmers, to the chefs, to the butchers, it’s exciting to help support local agriculture and connect all these different pieces,” says Milikowsky. As a result, both cooks and customers alike have nothing but praise for the tastier pork.

Four Yale undergrads Matt Czarnecki (YC ‘18), Andre Monteiro (YC ‘18), Bennett Byerley (YC ‘19), and Isaac Morrier (YC ‘17) created Verb Energy, Inc. What started as Czarnecki’s dorm room pitch, Verb is all about caffeinated energy bars, powered by green tea and a few other recognizable, simple ingredients. The idea of an automatically renewed subscription allows buyers to have discounted Verb bars delivered to their door with no need to reorder, saving customers time and money. Yale alumni Kevin Ryan, who founded the Business Insider, helped fund the project along with YEI’s fellowship.

Other YEI-supported food start-ups include Umi, a home-cooked food delivery service by Jason Gilliland (LAW ‘17) and Khalil Tawil (LAW ‘18); Re-Harvest Foods, a guilt-free snacking service conceived by Cat Wu (SOM ‘17); Renewal Mill, a sustainable food production company by Sumit Kadakia (MEM/MBA ‘16) and Claire Schlemme (MEM ‘11) created FiberPro™, a flour blend that has white flour taste but whole wheat nutrients; as well as Mud Snacks, a gluten-free, vegan, low-sugar snack brand by Georgiana Wagemann (YC ‘15) and Tess Maggio (YC ‘16).

These bold ideas by Yale students and graduates, all have one major thing in common; answering the demand for food that meets the needs and wants of an entire generation. “Our lives are frantic, we’re eating on the go, and our values have changed, Ahmed explains. “We’re thinking about what we’re eating and the impact it’s having.”

About Imee Malabonga

Imee Malabonga is an experienced web content and technical writer/editor. She's almost always in front of a computer, either writing something or trying to crawl out of a Wikipedia black hole. In her spare time, you can find her in the company of family or friends, talking to dogs, jumping around in a music show, or downing a great meal. She has a mildly acceptable obsession with ice cream and will find any excuse to eat some.

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