By Sanjana Sethi
Adorning the shelves of cafés on the Cornell campus is a new entrant, and what they’re selling is not just a scrumptious mix of healthy goodness: Cayuga Crunch is selling a story. Their story. A story of unassuming freshmen who found something they loved doing and decided to share a bite of their passion with fellow students. And so the story goes.
Alex Strauch, founder and “Chief Crunch Officer” of Cayuga Crunch, recalls baking granola in the kitchen of his freshman dorm, Donlon. What began as an antidote to cure homesickness slowly started gathering momentum as business venture, with humble beginnings of a less than $1,000 investment and a mere five friends as inaugural customers. At the time, Alex likely did not predict that his innocent dorm activity would metamorphose into one of the most enviable start-ups at Cornell. Was this just a happy coincidence?
Enthused by the growing demand for his new venture, Alex began thinking about selling his granola on a larger scale. As the idea began to develop, Alex discovered that the first granola ever made was in Dansville, New York, a little over 81 miles from Ithaca, not too far above Cayuga’s waters. Perhaps another fortunate coincidence?
Alex contemplated: why not make something as good, if not better, than what was originally produced here, by giving it a unique spin and serving it as an alternative to the sugary granola available in the market? Commencing from the dormitory kitchen, the Cayuga Crunch team began supplying Bear Necessities in RPCC. This attracted scores of freshmen midnight-snackers, resulting in a wave of success for the new venture. Next, the Crunch team, comprised of six friends, began baking granola every Sunday in a kitchen in the Cornell Law School. However, soon thereafter, authorities discontinued their use of Cornell premises for a private business. This meant an “emotionally exhausting” two-month long halt in manufacturing because of a lack of available kitchen space. Undeterred, Alex and his team viewed this unexpected hurdle as an imminent opportunity for growth.
Following deliberations, Cayuga Crunch partnered with Ithaca Bakery. Not only did this provide them with a professional kitchen, but also a unique partnership resulting in the supply of Cayuga Crunch to Collegetown Bagels (CTB) and Ithaca Bakery itself. As of now, Cayuga Crunch is available in five locations across campus: Mac’s, Terrace, Temple of Zeus, Manndible, and Fork and Gavel, apart from Ithaca Bakery’s locations and The Shop in downtown Ithaca.
What makes Cayuga Crunch succeed in the highly saturated market of snack bars, breakfast bars and granola? Unlike most competitors, Cayuga Crunch is handmade from locally-sourced ingredients including maple syrup, honey, dark chocolate chips and bananas. It promises to be less sugary and more wholesome than its processed counterparts, and markets itself as a healthy snack, one that will keep you going for the day. While the group promises that a full bag of Cayuga Crunch can keep you satiated for two hours, the product is designed to remind consumers that they are not meant to consume it in one go. This lends to Cayuga Crunch’s versatility, both in terms of consumption and shelving. Ziploc packaging enables consumers to keep the granola as a constant snack on hand, ready to be consumed with yogurt, ice cream, milk or on its own. Rounding out their product design, the quirky packaging and eclectic names–Monkey Business, Aztec Energy and Crumble Rumble–are a direct and tantalizing invitation to explore this new brand.
“The best way to market something is with great people. If they are passionate about the product, they’ll make other people passionate about it,” claims Alex. The Crunch team realizes that a good brand need not spend exorbitantly on marketing its product. The honesty of the brand and the passion of those who produce it are meant to be contagious, supplanting traditional marketing strategies. The first look at their website sends an immediate sign of the quirky nature of this brand. The Founder is named the “Chief Crunch Officer”, and then there are Financial “Gurus” and Advertising and Marketing “Guys”. The website is replete with outlandish biographies of each of the team members. Visitors to the website are immersed in this close-knit team having a great time producing what is not a business product, but a passion project. Apart from its website, Cayuga Crunch is present on Instagram and Facebook. The young entrepreneurs identify and capitalize on the importance of using social media particularly for attracting Cornell students, who can spread awareness of the brand through word-of-mouth.
Cayuga Crunch has achieved unprecedented growth in a short period of time, and from the sound of it, Alex, the Chief Crunch Officer, shows no signs of slowing down. The team is reaching for every opportunity to expand and grow the brand, first by hoping to partner with local farmers to make this growth process a collaborative one, as well as to pursue its endeavor of being a locally-sourced snack. Second, the group wishes to venture into Cornell Dining with the aim of becoming a staple of every Cornell student’s diet. Third, they wish to expand their sales space to coffee chains and cafés beyond the familiar surroundings of Cornell’s campus.
Although growth prospects are abundant and available, the challenges interspersed are many. At present, every member of the Cayuga Crunch team participates in hand-making the granola. Expansion would necessitate a rise in production and in turn more manpower. For students simultaneously balancing grades and their commitment to this venture, challenges are imminent. In the comfortable marketplace of Cornell campus, Cayuga Crunch received a roaring welcome, which augmented the immediate spur in demand. Venturing into the real world market and competing with existing substitute products entails a complete overhaul of business strategy to cater to the new market.
Even so, Alex’s passion for his brainchild shines through every time he speaks of his brand: “Cayuga Crunch is ingrained in who I am. I think about it when I sleep. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up. It’s like you just can’t stop.” It is contagious, enough to make you immediately believe in him, in his brand, and that Cayuga Crunch will surpass or adapt to obstacles in its course as it edges closer towards the mass market. His sentiment is echoed by each of his teammates. Every new idea or concept learned in class spurs the mental conflict in each of them over how it can be applied to Cayuga Crunch.
It is the passion and hard work of the Crunch teammates that turned a string of coincidences into what Cayuga Crunch is today. If their journey up to this point in time is any indication, Cayuga Crunch is here to grow and go places (literally) far above Cayuga’s waters.
A big thanks to Alex Strauch, Hotel Administration ’18, for speaking with CBR and sharing his story! We are truly inspired. The Cayuga Crunch team includes sophomores Ritesh Shinde, Javier Perez, Kristin Zak, Sam Turer, Jacob Bigenwald, Kupono Liu.