NOMsense: The Dorm Room-Founded Bakery

The Classic NOMwich. Courtesy photo

The Classic NOMwich. Courtesy photo

THE COMING OF AGE FOR THE COOKIE SANDWICH

The two were just sophomores at the time. Wong was majoring in international relations, while Shankar was majoring in marketing at The Wharton School. But they already had the foodie street-cred and a burgeoning number of pallets desiring their baked goods. Those who knew them on campus knew of their foodie obsession. “They saw us always going downtown to try restaurants, or posting on Instagram or Facebook the food we were eating or making and that kind of became our brand image on campus–people who loved food and were foodies at heart,” explains Shankar.

And so in the middle of their sophomore year, they decided it would be a “fun side project” to start a bakery. “We decided to strategize that same night and came together at Starbucks to talk about what kind of product we wanted to stand for, how we’d market the product, what type of competitive advantage we’d have, how to get the word out and how specifically we wanted to launch the business,” remembers Shankar.

But first, they had to narrow down exactly what they’d bake and sell. They saw two products trending in the world of gourmet deserts–macaroons and ice cream sandwiches. “We saw a lot of macaroons, a lot of ice cream sandwiches, but we wanted to come in with a unique product,” says Shankar.  “So we experimented with a bunch of different tastes and textures that had a lot going on and created this singular experience with all the different things coming together.”

Initially, NOMsense had “15 or 16 different flavors” but wanted to narrow it down to four or five menu items. “We wanted a menu that was seasonally appropriate but one that would also satisfy a bunch of different taste profiles,” continues Shankar. A current seasonal item is the Cutie Pie, composed of two brown sugar cookies filled with white chocolate and strawberry swirl ganache and topped with crushed graham crackers.

FROM A FACEBOOK PAGE TO A FOOD INCUBATOR

With a menu in place, the team started where they already had an audience and following–a Facebook page, which now has 1,300 followers. They followed up with a “small party focus group” with 200 of their closest friends. Fellow students trickled through, tried the products and talked about the deserts and the brand. “That was the night where we were like, ‘Yeah, this could be a very cool project to do for the rest of our time at Penn,'” says Shankar.

A very cool project, indeed. And a successful one, too. NOMsense was soon catering events for student groups and fulfilling small orders of a half dozen or a dozen cookies to dorm rooms on campus. Then they decided to take the business a step further–by turning it into an actual legal corporation.

Then came a slew of food certifications. First, they got the ServSafe certification–the nationally recognized food safety certification from the National Restaurant Association. They the applied for and received the City of Philadelphia’s food safety certificate as well as general liability insurance. All of the certifications cost money and Wong and Shankar used their personal finances to gain the certifications.

And once they did receive the certification, things got real. All of the certifications granted them access to the Center for Culinary Enterprises, a food incubator located a few blocks from Pennsylvania’s campus. In addition to a larger commercial kitchen space, support from the directors of the center, they also received contacts for potential food buyers and coaching for scaling.

CONTRACTS AND CLIENTELE BUILDING

And the move has certainly been a good one. Despite Wong and Shankar having to make multiple “commitment sacrifices,” the additional space, coaching and scaling turned NOMsense into a full-fledged wholesale and catering company. Currently, NOMsense has secured contracts with three local coffee shops–HubBub Coffee, Elixr Coffee Roasters and Petrus Ky Cafe–as well as Gourmet Grocer on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

They’ve also been added to the Penn Purchase Order Supplier list. “It essentially means anyone from Penn can order from us and pay with Penn money,” Wong explains of Penn Purchase Order Supplier. The addition to the list has expanded their catering clientele from student groups and events to faculty, staff and administration offices and events.

The added wholesale contracts and large scale catering orders have led the Wong and Shankar to drop to a part-time status–take two courses each–for their final semesters. Despite the difficulty of entering an incredibly crowded industry, the success has also caused them to reconsider a couple “very attractive” full-time job offers they already have in their back pockets. “We are definitely thinking about our growth over the past year and if there is space for us to pursue NOMsense full-time after graduation,” concedes Shankar. “It’s led us to think about larger questions like ramping up or thinking about accelerator programs and applying for funding to see if we can make this a huge thing.”

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