Sweet, creamy and delicious: dates are nature’s candy. Gallatin senior Melissa Bartow had her first date — the fruit — when she moved to New York City for college, and it was love at first bite. Using her concentration in the “Art of Entrepreneurship,” she decided to share her love of dates with the world by marketing her own spread, called Wanna Date?
As an artist and photographer, Bartow has always had a creative eye. However, becoming the CEO of her own company came as a surprise.
“When I got to Gallatin, I thought I wanted to do something in photography or creative direction and branding for an agency or company,” Bartow said. “After a few internships, one at a PR agency, one at Seventeen Magazine, I liked all the creative stuff I was doing but not the big company stuff. So I went to a food startup the summer leading into my junior year and caught the entrepreneur bug and also the food industry bug.”
Her relevation for Wanna Date? came at her part-time job at a smoothie and acai bowl shop her junior year.
“All the acai was pre-sweetened with a ton of sugar,” Bartow said. “Fifteen grams is just as much as a serving of ice cream. The granola was sweetened, then we’re putting nutella on the bowls. And meanwhile, I was eating dates and I’m like, ‘why don’t we just blend in dates if we want to sweeten it?’”
Inspired by her experiences working for other food entrepreneurs and her dedication to healthy living, she decided to transform her dorm into a laboratory in search of a healthy but delicious alternative to artificially sweetened spreads.
Many dates later, Bartow concocted the perfect mix of five simple ingredients: dates, water, two grams of organic cane sugar, citric acid and natural flavoring of either cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla or pumpkin spice.
With its simple elements, Wanna Date? satisfies a long list of dietary restrictions; the spread is gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, fat-free, soy-free and vegan. It also contains no GMOs, sodium or cholesterol.
With a delicious product down, the next step was to gather interest. Luckily, Bartow also happened to be taking a Tisch School of the Arts elective called Crowdfunding Video Production. There, she created and launched her campaign for Wanna Date?, raising over $2,000 on Indiegogo.
“You had to draft a Kickstarter campaign,” Bartow said, describing the course. “So I was like, all right, I’ll launch this date butter company, and then I had to come up with a name and film it, so I needed labels and stuff. And after that class I decided to keep going.”
Though her classes helped get her project off the ground, it was still only a start. Before she could start selling jars of Wanna Date?, she had to do her research on marketing, food science and FDA regulations. Fortunately, she had a secret tool to help her go from knowing nothing about a company to running one.
“Googling,” Bartow said. “If there was something I didn’t know how to do, I would google it. How to start a food company was the first thing I probably googled.”
She googled co-packers — companies that package food for their clients — and now she runs one.
She officially launched her company in August and now has a storage space in Industry City, her own food manufacturer and a booth at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.
For her fellow aspiring entrepreneurs, these are Bartow’s words of advice:
“Work. Work. Work. Get experience,” Bartow said. “You don’t know what you want to be when you grow up by sitting in a classroom. You find it out in the field, so internships and jobs that tell you what you like and don’t like are so important.”
Bartow’s experiences, both in and out of the classroom, helped develop her passion for innovation, health and entrepreneurship to create her own company. And with wholesale partnerships with 22 stores across New York City, it was a sweet success.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 25, 2019, print edition. Email Arin Garland at [email protected]