Entrepreneurs Launch Absurd Snacks

March 30, 2022
Multi-disciplinary students in pilot course collaborate to launch bean-based snack product

Daniel Wolfeiler, ’22, and English fairytale hero Jack have something in common. Both believe in the power of seemingly ordinary beans to grow into something extraordinary.

Wolfeiler’s connection to beans took root in the inaugural Bench Top Innovations class co-taught by Robins School of Business lecturer of marketing Joel Mier and entrepreneur-in-residence Shane Emmett. Emmett is the founder and former CEO of Health Warrior, the chia seed bars health company acquired by PepsiCo in 2018.

Mier and Emmett divided their 16 students from 10 majors into four teams. Their charge: to conceive and create a packaged food product during the fall semester and bring it to market during spring semester.

After mulling over the challenge, a lightbulb went off, said Wolfeiler, who is majoring in business administration and leadership studies.

“When I’m on campus for several hours at a time, I often want a healthy snack that is high in protein,” said the trim, fitness-conscious senior. “But many healthy snacks are nut-based, and I have a nut allergy. It dawned on me that I’m not the only one in this situation. I figured there is a market need for allergen-free, high-protein snacks.”

After some market research confirmed his suspicions, he and teammates Jeffy Joshy, ’24, Grace Mittl, ’22, and Tyler Quinlivan, ’22, embraced the idea of producing a bean-based snack. They got cooking, literally.

“We spent six weeks in the Queally Center's industrial kitchen, trying one thing after another,” Wolfeiler said. “We finally settled on a mix of beans and seed-based granola, sweetened with a touch of maple syrup.

“Just before Thanksgiving break, the four teams presented their products to about a hundred people, including faculty, students, and local executives and investors. A panel of judges composed of entrepreneurs and food industry executives sampled the products and listened to our pitches. They chose our bean-based snack.”

The pace accelerated. Joshy, Mittl, Quinlivan, and Wolfeiler spent winter break brainstorming names for their new snack, eventually landing on Absurd Snacks. All 16 class members then sorted themselves into five functional divisions—finance, marketing, operations, sales, and technology. During spring semester, division members worked doggedly to secure production, packaging, and graphic design vendors as well as retailers to distribute the product.

“In mid-March we picked up our first order of a thousand packages,” said sales manager Wolfeiler. “In the next few days, we delivered packages to more than 10 Richmond-area retailers, two farmers markets, and the University’s ETC convenience store.”

The official launch date of March 21 loomed large. Absurd Snacks did not disappoint.

“We went live today, sold out of our first retail account, and shared our brand with many new customers!” exclaimed business administration major and Absurd Snacks CEO Mittl on March 21. “Absurd Snacks is a hit!”

Just as exciting as the product launch has been the learning experience.

“We have seen significant interest from students across the University in our entrepreneurship major and minor over the past few years,” Mier said. “Given the unique value of experiential learning for some students, we thought it was important to pilot a course of this nature and make it available to every undergraduate. Regardless of their fields of study, students will enter a workforce where skills and abilities related to creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship will serve them well.”

“Tying in other disciplines has brought in a wealth of knowledge,” Wolfeiler said. “Two journalism majors are doing great work on our marketing and PR. Like me, Aerin Kalmans, our head of sales, is studying leadership studies and business administration. Both disciplines have helped us work successfully in teams and identify leadership styles. I would definitely recommend this course to other students in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies and the School of Arts and Sciences.”

The President’s Office, Provost’s Office, school deans, faculty, and staff have taken a “get to yes” attitude toward the pilot Bench Top Innovations class, Mier said. The University’s Creativity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (CIE) initiative provided the majority of funding for the class, with additional funding coming from the Robins School.

When the University funding expires at the end of the semester, the original ideation team members—Joshy, Mittl, Quinlivan, and Wolfeiler—will own the rights to the Absurd Snacks recipe and trademark. Then they—like Jack of beanstalk fame—will decide whether to grow their bean business.

“Maybe we’ll do this thing for real,” mused Wolfeiler, with a twinkle in his eye. 

Photo: From left to right, Absurd Snacks Head of Operations Eli Bank, ’22; Head of Sales Aerin Kalmans ’22; Sales Manager Daniel Wolfeiler, ’22; CEO Grace Mittl, ’22; and finance team member Jeffy Josh, ’24