The Past, Present, and Future of Spoon University

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Before there was Facebook, Instagram, BuzzFeed, and other prominent online publications, food culture only existed in “real life.” Printed cook books and in-person collaborations were the main sources of discussion surrounding food for a large part of our history.

Enter the Internet. And more importantly (years later), enter Spoon University.

“My partner [Sarah Adler] and I started this as just a print mag at Northwestern in fall 2012. It was a passion project. We wanted to bring people together around food. We did these guacamole-making competitions—guac-offs. And we were always throwing potlucks. We thought it was strange that there was no publication around that. Senior year we launched the print magazine. Then we launched a dinky website in fall 2013, with five [college] sites. I was a communications studies major; Sarah was a journalism and religious studies major—and now she’s our coder!” – Mackenzie Barth (CEO and Co-founder)

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As explained above as well as in a Yahoo Food article, Spoon University began as a print publication in the fall of 2012 at Northwestern University. Co-founders Mackenzie Barth and Sarah Adler were seniors at the time and started Spoon as a food resource for college students, aimed at making food make sense to a group who may be cooking or making food-related decisions for the first time in their lives. The website launched in fall 2013 with five college chapters, as students at other schools had contacted Barth and Adler about starting Spoon at their schools.

Here are some of the issues of Northwestern’s print version of Spoon University:


Fast forward to 2015 and Spoon University now has over 100 chapters.

That’s a huge change from its previous status as a single print publication.

Facts (3)

Geared with a mission to “bring people together around food,” the startup company claims  to be “building a network for millennials, by millennials.” It explains on its About page that when browsing the site a reader will find simple recipes, the “most obvious hacks you can’t believe you didn’t know,” and reviews of restaurants around campus. Articles also cover topics such as food industry news, health tips, lifestyle pieces, and BuzzFeed-style quizzes.

The publication has content partnerships with the Huffington Post, Elite Daily, Yahoo Food, BuzzFeed, and USA Today College. Articles that students write are not only seen by Spoon’s audience, but also have the potential to be featured on these big-name sites.

So what makes Spoon University’s content so great?

There are two general categories of content on Spoon: national content that is relevant to anyone, and local content aimed at students at a particular university and/or people in the surrounding area. Articles often include catchy headlines, a light-hearted tone with clever comedic elements, and always include high-quality photos. Videos have recently entered Spoon’s field of expertise, used as a way to demonstrate recipes and “how-to’s” in a quick and visually-stimulating way.

Spoon University’s website as a whole is streamlined and very enjoyable to view. A reader can scroll through trending articles, choose from one of the categories at the top of the page (“Make,” “Read,” “Watch,” or “Eat Out”), search a particular topic or word, and see the newest articles in the “Hot off the Press” sidebar. If that sounds like too much work, you can also sign up for their weekly newsletter and receive an email with a curated list of articles chosen by the staff at headquarters.


In terms of articles, key themes and trends can be seen across the site:

  • Casual language similar to that of college students
  • Local articles that highlight establishments around campus
  • National articles that college-aged people in particular would be interested in
  • Articles that tie in aspects of popular culture

Take a look at some examples of recent Spoon articles:


An important characteristic of the content Spoon University produces is crowdsourcing – or the process of getting work or funding (typically online) from a crowd of people. Without the 3000+ people that contribute to Spoon, the publication would not possess the quantity nor depth that it does today.

Spoon’s “crowd” is made up of college students, employees at HQ in NYC, and even national contributors that contribute remotely. This fact is especially important for Spoon’s voice. The publication prides itself on being geared towards college students and it has the first-hand perspective to back that up. A college-aged reader can find comfort from the material on Spoon, especially knowing it was written by someone their age who most likely is experiencing the same types of things that they are.

The Spoon chapter at Indiana University

Even with its widespread and arguably fragmented crowdsourcing technique, Spoon places a strong emphasis on community. Besides the actual publication itself, Spoon University is a community for food-lovers. Each chapter holds monthly events—all focused around a theme such as “Health” or “Senses.” The HQ staff in New York allocates a lot of time and energy into providing a supportive community to help the college students achieve and surpass their goals as a chapter.

A glimpse at some of the people who work at Spoon HQ
A glimpse at some of the people who work at Spoon HQ

In addition to its community formed among campus chapters and HQ staff, Spoon University has an extremely widespread online community, specifically seen in their social media accounts.SPOON UNIVERSITY (1)

Spoon University has a presence on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Snapchat. Each chapter has its own Twitter and Instagram account, and there is a single national Facebook, Pinterest and Snapchat account run by the staff in New York. Chapters are often given the chance to takeover the Snapchat account, and show the rest of the community what they are doing at their particular school.

In terms of significance, I believe that Facebook and Instagram are Spoon’s most valuable social media platforms. I think Snapchat is very important as well (especially in fostering their community), but it is much harder to quantify the success that results from Snapchat.


Facebook is an essential way of promoting Spoon University’s content. Spoon constantly posts articles and videos to their page in order to increase pageviews as well as interest in the company as a whole. Facebook is also an important vehicle through which members of its community can share articles and the essence of Spoon with the rest of their network. It has become a common trend for people to share articles, videos, and websites to their Facebook friend’s Timeline, and Spoon is quickly becoming a prominent part of this digital space.

Facebook - article

Facebook - video


In addition to spreading awareness about their content, Spoon uses its Instagram account to create and sustain an online community surrounding food. More often than not the account’s posts do not even mention the publication, but are instead re-posting a user’s photo and giving them a shoutout. Instagram users can use #spoonfeed in the captions of their photos in the hopes of Spoon “re-gramming” them. Spoon always gives credit to the original photographer, which is a key way of expanding its community.

Since videos have increasingly become a focus on its site, their posts on Instagram often promote a new video and direct followers to a link in their bio. Spoon is also forming partnerships with companies that are not publication-based, for example they recently partnered with UberEATS to deliver cookie dough around NYC with a special discount. Instagram is a successful way for Spoon to advertise these promotions in the hopes of gaining the attention and participation from their 87,000+ followers.

PB&J still gets us going. #spoonfeed 📷: @sierrasmenu

A photo posted by Spoon University (@spoonuniversity) on

In an ideal world (or maybe just my ideal world) Spoon University would have no monetary intentions and would solely produce content for the sake of its community and readers. The publication is not far off from this strategy in terms of producing with its community in mind, but it has worked on many experimental campaigns with brands—including sponsored content, social advertising, and experiential marketing.

This past spring Spoon raised $2 million in fundraising from venture capitalists. It’s reassuring to hear the ideas the cofounders have for what to do with this huge monetary gain, and in a Food Republic article from August Sarah Adler notes that this money can be used to increase Spoon’s sponsorships. She explains how Spoon can help other companies who are struggling to reach a millennial audience and, “could help those conversations happen in a more authentic and more effective way that would not only better meet brand goals because they could actually get their messages across, but better meet the user’s goals, too, because they don’t want to be annoyed by advertising.”

So how does Spoon do it?

I was able to identify some (but definitely not all) of Spoon University’s core strategies, specifically based on the information detailed above.

  1. Produce content that feels raw and authentic, specifically for college-aged people
  2. Crowdsource content in order to grow the publication and successfully connect with its intended audience
  3. Utilize social media to create and foster a food-based community
  4. Connect with prominent people and companies in the food world in order to increase their presence within our culture
  5. Help fortify future leaders in digital journalism, marketing, and other related fields by working directly with college students

I am especially interested in this 5th strategy, so I’ll leave you with some statements from Spoon’s About page that explain the motives behind this practice.

We are also helping teach the next generation of journalists, marketers, and event planners the best practices in digital media.

Our program called “Secret Sauce” offers skills and training on how to be a leader, create incredible events and have your photos, videos and articles seen by millions. 

To get some more first-hand insights, I had the opportunity to ask Mackenzie Barth some questions about Spoon University.

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Photo from

SE: When you first started Spoon did you think it would grow to be as large as it is today?

MB: No! Spoon started as a print magazine at Northwestern because Sarah and I wanted a place for students on our campus to come together to talk about food. It wasn’t until senior year when we starting getting emails from people at other schools that we considered helping students in other places build similar food communities. We tested it out at 4 other schools to see if the structure we created at Northwestern would work at other schools, and turns out it could! People were excited to have this opportunity at their own schools but also be connected to something larger, like the national Spoon University network.

SE: How have Spoon’s strategies changed since its beginnings?

MB: They’ve changed a ton. There didn’t used to be strategies, and now there are! So that’s a huge change in and of itself.

Since there are so many people who want Spoon at their schools now, and only a handful of people at HQ to help everyone make it happen, we’ve had to streamline the process of launching a chapter pretty significantly. Now, chapters are grouped so they can share ideas and strategies with each other and launch at the same time. It allows us to have a bigger impact at many schools with just a small team.

Developing Secret Sauce to be a skills and analytics tool, chapter management system and roster has been a another important way for us to be able to keep track of the thousands of Spoon members and give them the resources they need to be successful.

SE: Which social media platform do you believe is most important for Spoon?

MB: It’s hard to say which is the most important, since they all play such different roles. Facebook is best for promoting writers’ articles and building our readership. Lately it’s been a great way for us to share videos too. We’ve built a very engaged community of visual food lovers on Instagram, where we can highlight the most aesthetically appealing food, rally people around a #spoonfeed hashtag and have fun creating content that’s native to Instagram.

SE: How do you think digital media has influenced food culture as a whole?

MB: Digital media (and technology in general) has made food a lot more real for people and forced more than just “foodies” to start thinking about what they put into their mouths. It’s opened people’s eyes to where your food comes from, so you can demand higher quality food and ingredients you can actually pronounce. It’s allowed people to become active participants in the food culture and shape their identities around it. Now anyone that has an interest or curiosity around food can publish an article, make a video or post a photo of what they’re eating. Food is not just sustenance anymore, it’s a way of life.



Before getting into my opinions about the future of Spoon University, here is Barth’s response when I asked her what her hopes are for the future of Spoon.

I hope that we can continue to bring Spoon to more people. To help bring young food lovers together to build tight knit communities and give them the tools to create amazing work, whether that’s through articles, videos, photos or real life experiences, so they can have an impact on an even larger audience. I also hope we can continue to improve Secret Sauce to be a true education tool, so people can join Spoon and feel fully prepared to enter the real world after graduation with a leg up on the competition.” – Mackenzie Barth 

Do I agree? Of course. (Because who would argue with the CEO?) But I do have some additional predictions as well as hopes for the future of Spoon.

More video content

Videos are a fast-growing asset to any business, but especially online publications. Video content offers the quick source of information that people with busy lives are looking for. As a college student you probably feel like you sometimes don’t even have time to brush your teeth, let alone sit down and read an article. Videos solve this problem as they convey messages not only in a short amount of time, but in a visually-appealing and entertaining way that will grab the attention of their audience. I believe Spoon will continue to create videos and will eventually prioritize videos at the same level as written content.

Stronger worldwide presence

It’s clear that Spoon University is all about spreading awareness for itself. Whether through pageviews on articles, likes on Instagram posts, or word of mouth chatter among a community, Spoon aims to grow its vast food community. I think this is important for Spoon’s future, and that most of its decisions are made with this goal in mind. In the future, digital media will (somehow) be even more vital to our lives than it is now, hence online publications will be the norm when it comes to journalistic and even entertainment purposes. To me, the future of Spoon means not only the addition of more and more college chapters, but a vast worldwide network of food-lovers.

Will not succumb to advertising 

This is definitely more of a hope of mine than a precise prediction, but Spoon’s strategies as well as the values it stands for make me relatively optimistic. Spoon University emphasizes how important its community is, and offers many ways for people to feel like they are a part of this community. Even with brand partnerships, I do not think Spoon will adopt the infamous BuzzFeed-esque paid posts or inorganic content in order to please advertisers. If this were the case, Spoon’s readers would no longer be its priority and I think they value their ever-growing community too much to ever sacrifice it in this way.

Why I’m Pro-Online Comment Sections


“Online Comment Sections Do More Harm Than Good”

I firmly stand against this motion for a variety of reasons.

But I want to start out by saying that I do understand that comment forums have the potential to facilitate negative behaviors. The concept of a “troll” is a very real issue, and it is no secret that many people comment on articles or webpages solely to disrupt the conversation and cause problems. Given these (and many more, I’m sure) issues that come with online comments sections, I believe the pro’s significantly outweigh the cons.

Free and Open Discussion

Above all, comment sections allow for one of the most basic rights: Freedom Of Speech. Those tiny comment boxes at the end of articles and sometimes endless stream of user-generated comments are an extremely important way of facilitating democratic discussions among readers. Communities can even form through these comments, as people share their thoughts and find others who agree with them and/or feel the same way about a particular topic. We always hear about how destructive online comment forums are, but there are many websites whose comment sections are known to promote positive and unique online interactions.

Source of Feedback

In addition to enabling users to casually discuss topics that interest them, comments can be a form of feedback to the writer or company behind the website. Commenters have the ability to tell the writer what they thought about their work as well as any ideas for improving future content. I think news outlets–especially new forms of online providers such as BuzzFeed–can benefit greatly by listening to their readers and then producing content they know people will want to read.

Means of Promotion

Following the longstanding notion that “all publicity is good publicity,” comment sections can help further promote an online article or company as a whole. The more “likes” a post on social media gets, the more highly it is viewed, and I think comments can serve the same purpose. In addition comment sections are a great way for users to share online works with others, for example if they are able to tag a friend who they want to see the article, video, etc. that they are viewing.

The Catch

Even with the benefits that online comment sections can provide, I also strongly believe that companies have a responsibility to monitor the commenting that takes place on their site. If a company wants to promote free and open discussion, it needs to allocate its resources so that their comment section is under constant watch in order to prevent and destroy negative online behaviors. I think it’s a little ridiculous that companies (The Verge and The Daily Dot) closed their comment sections because they were “too hard to manage.” If a company wants to reap the benefits that comment sections can provide, it should make it a priority to monitor the activity that takes place.

David Sax: Journalist, Food Expert

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David Sax is a freelance journalist focusing in business and food, and his writing has appeared in publications such as New York Magazine, Vanity Fair, Bloomberg Business Week, The New York Times, GQ, and more. He is also the author of two books: Save the Deli and The Tastemakers.

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Sax clearly knows a thing or two about food. Specifically, in The Tastemakers he explores the world of food trends—as in, “why we’re crazy for cupcakes but fed up with fondue.” The author covers all sides of this phenomenon, including everything from how food trends get started to how they spread and eventually get bumped out of popular culture. He speaks with chefs, farmers, business owners and data professionals in order to find out why the masses of society eat the things we do.

I read The Tastemakers soon after it was published in May 2014, but I only recently discovered the book’s website, Facebook page, and Instagram.  I was most impressed with the general website, where you can find information about the book and David Sax himself, as well as an excerpt narrated by Sax and even a Quiz titled “Are You a Tastemaker?” (As an aside, apparently I’m an “Occasional Tastemaker”). I thought it was interesting to see this new media format used to promote the complete opposite of that: a printed book.

Going back to the actual content of the book, David Sax hones in on the fact that food trends have implications far beyond just discovering and generalizing what people are eating. In a collection of videos from a variety of outlets he speaks about his book, and in one clip he highlights the four ways foods become trendy. This includes cultural trends, agricultural trends, chef trends, and health trends.

Sax explains that food trends are not only the innovative driver of the food industry, but often signify aspects of society and affect businesses and the economy. In today’s digitally-dominant world, the cycle of food trends has been “sped up” in that trends don’t grow slowly but instead explode in popularity. Much of this process can be attributed to the Internet: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, blogs, and online food publications all contribute to the spread and growth of food trends.

I had the opportunity to ask David a few questions via email, and here’s what he had to say about his work and the effect digital media has had on food culture:

SE: How has digital media influenced your work as a journalist and a writer?

DS: Good question.  I began as a journalist professionally in 2002, so really it’s been there with me the entire time.  I’ve benefitted from it by having access to more sources of information (more blogs, wikipedia, google, twitter, and more sources online that I can get info from), and sometimes from work (I have written articles published online, either as part of print media, or by digital first publications).  In others ways it’s been a negative:  online media typically pays far less, if anything at all, than print media, and the quality of the content in digital formats is often far less than in print.  Not always, but certainly more often (ex: 10 cats who look like cupcakes).

SE: How would you say food culture has been affected by the rise of digital media?

DS: Tremendously.  Once, the world of food media was a relatively small, elite thing:  dining sections of newspapers, cookbooks, a few high end food magazines, and a small number of TV shows (Julia Child, Martin Yan, etc…). Digital blew the roof off.  Food media was suddenly everywhere, high and low, urban and rurual, global and local.  Everyone can now have access to every piece of information about the world of food, and that has democratized the culture of food tremendously.  You can sit in Ann Arbor and read about the greatest restaurant in China, its menu, see photos from it, and videos of its chef, and everything you need to know about the place without eating there…and you can take those ideas into your own kitchen, or restaurant, or just conversations about food.  That’s huge.

SE: Where do you think the future of food culture is heading?

DS: In some ways I have no idea.  Ie: what will we be eating in 30 years (Probably a lot of the same, in different variations), but in another way it’ll be the same.  We will eat, we will discover and talk about what we eat, and we will share our thoughts on that.  More of those thoughts will impact the business of food, but at the end of the day we still eat for pleasure, for culture, for taste, and for our health.  So that never really changes.

A Meal: Disrupted

In today’s world, it’s hard to imagine being without our smartphones for an extended period of time. But what happens when a simple dinner with a friend means constant interruption and distraction by our phones? Whether we are Snapchatting our followers to show them where we are, taking a photo of our food to publish later, or texting someone who couldn’t join, our attention is–more often than not–focused on a screen rather than the people we are with.










We Are What We Eat

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When you think of food, you probably don’t think of technology. Maybe you think of all of your friends constantly taking their phones out to photograph their meals, or the annoyance you feel when someone you’re dining with can barely look up from their smartphone long enough to talk to you. This intersection of food and digital media goes even further, as there are now wearable–yes, wearable–technologies that can be used while eating.



The first unique technology I discovered is BiteCounter: a watch that tracks your wrist motion to count the number of bites you take and estimate your caloric intake. The device provides real-time feedback and also stores a log of your history so that you can look back on your eating habits. The goal of BiteCounter is to help with portion control and act as a way to self-monitor eating habits with the potential to help with weight loss. Even though the watch cannot detect the types of food you’re eating, the company claims that “the caloric content of a bite averages out over the long term” and our pattern of eating habits week to week helps stabilize the calorie/bite relationship.

Take a look at a BiteCounter in action:



Next, there’s HAPIfork: an electronic fork that helps monitor your eating habits by alerting you when you are eating too fast. Why is this important? Many studies have shown that eating too quickly can lead to weight gain due to overeating, digestive problems, and gastric reflux. The device measures how long it took you to eat your meal, the number of “fork servings” (bringing food from your plate to your mouth using the fork) you take per minute, as well as the amount of time between fork servings.  All of your data is uploaded to an online dashboard for you to access and track your progress.

Here’s some more information about HAPIfork:

Although I don’t completely see the necessity of these devices (I still believe that self-control can happen without technology) it’s fascinating that they even exist. I would have never guessed that food culture could be disrupted by digital technology in such a direct way, but I’m interested to see where this industry goes and which innovative devices arise next.