June '14 Venture Spotlight: The Sonder Market
The Sonder Market is student-run food cooperative started by UNC senior Nikki Barczak and junior Marisa Scavo. The Sonder Market joined 1789 in May 2014. We talked to Nikki about her experience as an entrepreneur.
What is your major? Exercise Sport Science and Psychology with an Anthropology minor.
Where are you from? Detroit, MI
Describe TSM in 60 words or less.
TSM is a student-run food cooperative that brings local, affordable, and healthy food directly to UNC’s campus. We are a hub to foster relationships between consumers and farmers so our patrons can gain a greater appreciation of where there food is coming from. We also provide vocational opportunities, such as canning and bee-keeping, for future agricultural entrepreneurs looking for change.
What inspired you to start TSM?
Marisa, my copartner, brought this idea up during a FLO Foods meeting this past fall. I wanted to become more actively engaged in the food issues I was seeing around campus and bringing a market centered around local food seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so. I see so many poor health choices (both physical and environmental) being made every day on Carolina's campus. Blame cannot be placed solely on one entity though. There is the issue of what is most affordable, what is most convenient, and what is most delicious. I adamantly believe that Tar Heels will make better choices if given the opportunity. And that's exactly what TSM is, the opportunity to better ourselves and our community.
How long have you been working on TSM?
We began around November of 2013. Marisa had been in contact with people before that. I was still deciding if I had the time to invest fully in this project.
How has the experience of building a venture from scratch been so far?
Starting the Sonder Market has been one of the most gratifying and enriching experiences I have had at Carolina. Starting a business from nothing, with no business or entrepreneurship background, has been onerous to say the least. Not all moments have gone smoothly or according to plan but learning new ways to overcome the challenges we've faced has only solidified our values as a business.
What’s it like being a full-time student and an entrepreneur?
I also work in a psychology research lab so I don't have very much free time but, since my time is invested in things I care a lot about, I have no problem with it. It has not been easy, nor did I expect it to be. Getting the help and support we've received, from campus affiliates, COFED, and 1789, has made handling the process of launching a business possible. I am so grateful for all the help because it would be much more difficult on our own.
You obviously have a passion for healthy eating and good food. Have you always had this passion and where does it come from?
I grew up in a house where eating good food was valued. My family sacrificed having other commodities in order to buy high quality groceries. Growing up, I learned all the benefits that came along with healthy eating and I have always wanted to share that with other people. I wanted to be a nutrition major for a while but, after coming to college, I found my career passion in psychology instead. Nevertheless, I have observed the need to reintegrate supporting local farms and eating real, whole foods back into the community since it is slowly being lost.
What kind of impact do you think TSM can have on the UNC campus and Chapel Hill?
The Sonder Market is going to have a huge impact on campus and the surrounding community. TSM will encourage people to eat better and increase their overall health, give a more affordable option to those who currently don't have access to well-produced foods, reduce stress through its convenience, and provide an entirely new educational opportunity for people to learn about agriculture. The Sonder Market, in so many ways, is going to benefit Carolina as a whole.
Do you plan on extending TSM’s reach beyond UNC?
We would absolutely love to see The Sonder Market used as a template for other universities to start cooperatives. I could see, years in the future, being at conferences with like-minded college students and helping put their dream into reality. We have strong core values and we would be more than happy to aid other projects that want the same outcomes we do. Also, if we gain the popularity we expect to, we would consider opening markets outside of campus to make community engagement more accessible.
Have you always seen yourself as an entrepreneur, or did the need for healthy and local food push you to take on that challenge?
I have always been more on the leading end than the following but I never expected myself to be an entrepreneur. It was really a mixture of the timing, the challenge, and my interest in project that caused me to take this on.
Tell us about the support you’ve received for TSM from 1789, the Chapel Hill entrepreneurial community and the University.
1789 has provided us a gorgeous space to work, workshop-like peer discussions about our projects, and two amazing business mentors. One of our main challenges has been completing a (well written) professional business plan and our mentors are helping walk us through it step by step with nothing short of the utmost enthusiasm. We are applying to be a student organization through UNC and we use an on campus banking system. In terms of support we have a great faculty adviser, Richard Harrill, who is one of our biggest advocates and offers helpful guidance. We have received positive feedback from multiple Carolina affiliates and we hope to create strong relationships with each of them. We have been getting advice from representatives of Weaver Street Market and we may negotiate deals with them for value-added goods once we begin selling. Farmers of the surrounding community, not necessarily Chapel Hill, are encouraged by our project because it is a new market for them to sell their goods.
Where do you see TSM 5 years from now?
In five years, The Sonder Market is kind of going to be a big deal. We will be one of the favorite places for students to eat, get groceries, study, socialize, buy local music or art, and work as a work-trade. Faculty and campus workers will have made the Sonder Market their staple lunch or snack eatery. Before heading home for the day, all Tar Heels will know they can run by the Sonder Market to pick up some fresh ingredients for dinner. The market will house products from around 30 vendors and we will have expanded our products from foods to kitchen and cooking materials, t-shirts, and stickers (all with the Sonder logo of course). Our educational and vocational workshops will happen continuously every other week. All in all, the Sonder Market will be a staple of UNC's campus and will have enriched the lives of the community members through education, health, and community involvement.
Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
In five years, I see myself finishing up my PhD in clinical psychology and working on the advisory board for TSM as it continues to grow and prosper. (so many fingers crossed)
Learn more about the Sonder Market here.
An abbreviated version of this interview originally appeared in the 1789 June 2014 newsletter. To read more stories like Nikki's, sign up for our newsletter here.