Ever been hungry, tired, and rushing to class? Of course you have, and Johnny Fayad and Ali Kothari know it. As freshmen at the Northeastern University D’Amore-McKim School of Business, making it to their 8 a.m. Financial Accounting class meant sacrificing breakfast — including coffee.
It might not have been very fun at the time, but it was the beginning of something that would consume the rest of their college years. Fayad and Kothari would go on to launch Eat Your Coffee — formerly New Grounds Food — a startup producing caffeine-focused natural foods. Their first product, the Eat Your Coffee Bar, is now available in three flavors and is sold online and by retailers around the United States.
The two co-founders? They’re still finishing their last year of school.
“It started with a bit of a joke — why can’t we just eat our coffee?” Kothari says. “But we ended up going to the grocery store, and then back to our dorm kitchen, and started trying to make a batch of edible coffee. Then we started giving it to our friends. They definitely tasted … interesting, in the beginning.”
TRIAL AND ERROR AND COLLEGE DORM COOKING
Trial and error was essential. Neither Fayad nor Kothari had any experience with cooking, other than helping their parents around the kitchen back home.
“There was a dingy kitchen downstairs (in the dorms), and we’d go there late at night, maybe around 10:30 or 11, after everyone else had used it. We’d clean it up, and then make a batch,” Fayad says. “Then we’d give it to our friends, and maybe give them a caffeine boost to keep them working through 2 a.m.”
In the beginning, the cooking was more of a math equation, Kothari says. They had a spreadsheet where they kept track of the ingredients that went into each batch. They wanted the product to be healthy, but also taste good. Ultimately they decided on an energy bar with wholesome ingredients, like dates, oats, cashews — and of course caffeine from real coffee.
“We had a lot of problems, especially at the onset. We had to learn not to put water in the bars, because it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria,” Fayad says. “And there were a lot of things that seem like second nature now. One time we used six to 10 times the amount of coffee that we should have.” It took around 14 tries, he says, before they found a winning combination.
Once they were satisfied with the product, they started selling the bars around campus.
“It was a way to make a small profit, to pay for all those trips to the grocery store,” Kothari says. “And it was really cool, too. Our friends liked them, but when we started giving them to strangers, and they liked them too, it was a big validation step for us.”
USING NORTHEASTERN’S RESOURCES
While they were experimenting with recipes, Fayad and Kothari joined the Husky Startup Challenge, a four- to five-week business development competition run by the Northeastern Entrepreneurs Club. “It’s about taking your business concept and bringing it to life, and we ended up winning Audience Favorite, probably because we handed out samples,” Fayad says.
From there, they got into IDEA, the university’s student-run venture accelerator, and were awarded $10,000 in gap funding.
“Finding a manufacturer was the next hurdle,” Fayad says. “It took us eight months to find one who would work with us. We were 18 and 19 years old then, so we had to talk to 100 manufacturers just to get one to do a test run with us.”
Fayad and Kothari officially founded the company at the beginning of their sophomore year. Right now, Fayad, the CEO, handles sales and fundraising; Kothari, the CFO, is in charge of operations and finance.
GETTING THE WORD OUT
The immediate challenge was how to get the word out. For a while, they had marketed the Eat Your Coffee Bar just by walking around campus and talking to people. But they wanted to launch a retail campaign and get on grocery store shelves.
They decided on Kickstarter to debut the company beyond the Northeastern community. They set a goal of $10,000 — and they raised it in just a few hours. “After the Kickstarter, we got a lot of press, and were able to get influencers on board to tell our story for us,” Fayad says.
“Having a successful Kickstarter campaign showed people that consumers want to eat their coffee.”