by Sue Tomchin
Mackenzie Barth is a self-described “bad eater” who didn’t touch a vegetable until she was 21.
But that didn’t stop her from recognizing that college students needed a food resource geared to their lives and interests. That idea became the inspiration for Spoon, a venture she co-founded at Northwestern University in 2012. Spoon has grown into a global media company with 300 campus-based chapters and over 11,500 contributors in the United States and elsewhere. Its stock in trade is empowering young people to create articles, photos, videos and events highlighting their food interests and educating their peers. Along the way, students receive training to develop skills to take with them into the job world.
Spoon was acquired by Scripps Networks Interactive, now Discovery, Inc., and the Food Network in 2017 for an eight-figure sum. And, at age 26, Barth and her co-founder, Sarah Adler, were named to the 2018 30 under 30, Forbes’ annual list of youthful visionaries.
Barth grew up in Deerfield, Ill., the oldest of three girls. “What really helped me,” she says, “is that my parents instilled confidence in me that I can do what I put my mind to and if I work hard enough I can make things happen.”
It didn’t hurt that business is part of her family’s DNA. Her grandfather and great-uncles started a demolition company where her father still works. “I watched my grandpa working until he was 80, and having passion for what he did,” she says.
A communications major at Northwestern, Barth also studied psychology, especially how it relates to marketing and business.
At the start of their junior year, Barth and Adler were both living in off-campus apartments and had to cook for themselves for the first time. “We figured that there had to be a lot of other students in that same situation” Barth says. She asked Adler, who majored in journalism, how hard it would be “to start a food magazine to help others figure out how to eat. Sarah said that it would be hard, but we could do it.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. The fervor for food was growing. They posted fliers around campus and 50 students showed up for their first meeting. “People had so many ideas. They wanted to talk about food and what it meant to them growing up,” Barth says. “There was so much untapped potential.”
Barth and Adler formed a leadership team and organized students into groups to handle the responsibilities for putting out what became a quarterly print magazine. A flood of articles were submitted, so they expanded onto the Web.
“What really helped me is that my parents instilled confidence in me that I can do what I put my mind to and if I work hard enough I can make things happen.”
By senior year, students at other schools had heard about Spoon and clamored for information. The leadership team compiled their techniques into a Power Point presentation and shared it.
“We watched these two or three other chapters work with our playbook and flourish, each with its own local flair,” Barth recalls. “This proved that our framework worked and there was interest beyond Northwestern. Young people wanted to talk and read about food and become entrepreneurial and start and run something.”
Encouraged, Barth and Adler moved to New York City after graduation, incorporated Spoon and began to figure out how to grow the company. “We were working around the clock, trying to do a million things at once,” Barth recalls. They applied to Tech Stars, an accelerator program, and were accepted, receiving vital guidance that prepared them to make presentations to investors. With the influx of capital they obtained, they rented an office, hired staff and continued to build Spoon’s audience.
Early in 2017, when they learned that Scripps Networks Interactive, owner of the Food Network, was interested in acquiring them, they considered it seriously. “That was a big dream for us,” says Barth. “To get that opportunity felt like something we could not pass up.” Both Barth and Adler continue to work at Spoon, and the headquarters staff of 30 provides guidance to campus chapters, in addition to curating articles, videos and photographs that appear on Spoon’s global website. “We support chapters to create content,” Barth explains. “Our team helps them tell their best stories so their voices are heard across the Internet.” While the focus is on food, Spoon has built “a robust online training called Secret Sauce that teaches people everything from leadership skills to event planning to social media strategy. It’s real-time information about how to be successful in the digital media space.”
Some 15,000 young people have been through Spoon training.
“The main thing is to help people build confidence in their own abilities,” says Barth. “That’s a big barrier for people, and prevents them from taking the plunge and doing what they want to do.”
As for herself, Barth admits that she eventually would like to start something else. “It’s extremely stressful and you work insane hours but it’s really fun,” she says. “Now that I’ve done it once, I feel like I could probably do it better the second time.”