This article is part of a series on Entrepreneurs To Watch in the Food and Beverage Industry. You can read the full series, starting here
It seems like every college kid’s dream: make money and get class credit by selling Jell-O shots. Oh, and get your professors to help.
Kelli Lipson, a business grad student at Columbia University, is living that dream with Spoonable Spirits, a line of unique desserts that combine two forms of indulgence: sweetness and alcohol. The Jell-O- and pudding-based desserts are all shipped refrigerated from Lipson’s commercial kitchen in New York City. Almost all of them have 5% alcohol by volume (there are some alcohol-free options), with names like “Whiskey Rolos,” “Vanilla Vodka” and “Naughty Nutel-Latte,” made with Nutella.
In college, Lipson enjoyed making Jell-O shots for her friends. Then she went to work at the Food Network, and something clicked.
“I worked at the Food Network for six-plus years, and I saw that there was a void in the market for adult desserts,” she says. “You could find any type of cupcake you wanted, any type of kid dessert, but there was nothing exclusively for the adult.”
Lipson developed her first recipes and launched beta testing from 2016 to 2018. She had to navigate some tricky regulatory hurdles so that her alcohol-laden product could be sold nationally. Spoonable Spirits started in an incubator kitchen and scaled up to a commercial one on the Upper East Side.
“We did have to play around with the recipes so that they would work when we scaled up,” Lipson says. “You don’t just double all the ingredients.” They got what Lipson calls “a food scientist-slash-chef” to help with the formulation, and the product was fully launched in July 2018.
It’s still very much a kitchen-oriented, small-batch enterprise. “While you might make a serving for maybe 10 people at home, in our kitchen we might need a serving for 200 people.” Their production currently stands at 1,000 to 2,000 jars a day.
Lipson faced the same basic challenge as anyone with a new product: making people realize it’s there. That’s even tougher when you don’t plan to do conventional retail.
“I opened the website and I was ready to sell, and nobody had heard about the product,” she says. “Just getting people familiar with the product was one of the biggest challenges. Everyone who tries it absolutely loves it, but not everybody has heard of it.”
She made an initial push through pop-up markets like the Bronx Night Market, and various festivals and events throughout New York. Then came notice from media outlets like Popsugar and an appearance on “Good Morning America.”
Her business has made an interesting adjustment to the coronavirus pandemic. Home delivery is suddenly the best business model, but there was no more using Spoonable Spirits for in-house office celebrations of holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.
“We were doing a lot of catering, but obviously that stopped.” On the other hand, it gave Lipson a chance to bring out two pandemic-related flavors: Social Isolation Sundae (now the top seller) and Orange Creamy Quarantini.
Lipson is still in grad school, with one more credit to go for her MBA. When Spoonable Spirits started taking off, she arranged with the school for a slower schedule, with course credit for her new business. She even got advice from her professors. She also won the SoFi Pitch Competition and a Columbia Summer Startup Track competition, which helped with her funding.
As for future plans: “We’re going to try to start scaling up more. We’re working to get our products into sports arenas – once sports come back – and concert stadiums,” Lipson says. “Within a month we could double in size.”