State College Startup Aims to get Home-Cooked Meals to Hungry Students

When Ben Sparango's first idea for his business- a grocery and alcohol delivery service- went kaput, like many 22-year-old college students he first consulted his stomach and then his friends for advice.

A brainstorming session produced reams of orange, yellow and pink sticky notes scribbled with ideas in permanent marker. Among them, one stuck out.

"My one friend wrote: 'I need a second Mom,' " Sparango said. "At first it's a joke, and then you kind of think about it, and before college your Mom is really the person who takes care of all this for you. She's always making you food.''

Nothing, it turns out, can beat Mom's cooking. At least that's the upshot of Stockd, Sparango's startup and dietary delivery system that brings healthy, home-cooked meals to hungry college students. Sparango, a senior at Penn State, co-founded the company with family friend Matt Mason about two years ago.

The pair thought college students, with their ceaseless hunger, mercurial schedules and generally questionable cooking abilities, would be the perfect market. While binging on takeout and getting a caffeine I.V. may be a step toward millennial adulthood, Sparango doesn't think it has to be that way.

"We thought, 'why can't we bring that feeling of 'Mom' to college and try and do what a Mom does and give that to the customer?' " he said.

College students, research says, are not the healthiest eaters. According to a study by Northwestern University Medicine and Northeastern Illinois University, 95 percent of college students fail to get their recommended daily dose of fruits and vegetables. Planning, shopping for and making a well-balanced meal is a course a lot of students aren't prepared for, Sparango said, let alone have the time.

For instance, during focus group research as part of Stockd's participation in the Happy Valley Launchbox, a State College accelerator, this fall, Sparango made lasagna and then delivered it to the test group. In pivoting the company, Sparango credited Lee Erickson, the LaunchBox's director and the 10-week program for helping him shift strategies.

"One of the main assumptions I wanted to test was would they eat the same meal multiple times a week,'' he said. "Their answer was 'yes, because when I get home I want to eat, I want it now, I don't really have a preference. I'll eat a hot dog on a piece of white bread out of the microwave if that's the only thing that's available.' "

In making the lasagna, a hit with the focus group, Sparango got an assist from who else but Mom.

"It was just good to have that connection with my Mom,'' he said. "She's helping me out with my business, but she also just gets to spend time with her son who's not home a lot anymore.''

Sparango thinks other Moms might join in the effort. As of now, he said, the company is still working out supply chain structure and its delivery method. Other mothers, he said, could be hired as independent contractors to cook the meals or the company could turn to an industrial kitchen.

Other aspects remain under construction such as a website and a prospective mobile app. Through each, he said, parents can purchase meals and see what their child is having for dinner, nutritional info included.

But should it gain traction, Sparango, who still has the sticky notes affixed to his bedroom wall, says both parents and college students will benefit from the service.

"I know some people's parents give them money and hope that it goes toward groceries,'' he said. "This way they'll know that it's going to a healthy, balanced meal for their student.''

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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