October 14, 2015
Of all the focus groups held in the halls of the University of Pennsylvania, the hottest one on campus might be centered on taste-testing cookies — and it's no nonsense, either.
Seniors, Roopa Shankar and Alina Wong, turned their passion for baking into a full-fledged business — NOMsense Bakery — by concocting the ultimate novelty morsel: a cookie sandwich complete with fillings, drizzles and toppings.
Since they launched in February 2014, the duo has refined and spread their core product with the savvy of seasoned pros.
"We wanted to take a concept that was tried and true, that everyone loved, and make it our own through an interesting twist," said Shankar, who studies Marketing and Management at Wharton. "After our first big launch event, we did a lot of small focus groups to see what people were looking for with dessert, pricing, and the kinds of flavors that really resonate with people."
NOMsense regularly offers five distinct NOMwiches, each with its own theme and ingredients to satisfy a range of hankerings. But they're also open to experimentation, accepting idea submissions from their customers, who are affectionately known as "NOMers" and "cookie NOMsters." Their craziest combination? Bailey's and Kahlua.
"When a friend of mine turned 21 last year, she asked us to make some sort of reference to the milestone," Shankar recalled. "It was this really rich, dense chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting, and then a Bailey's sugar drizzle on top with crushed chocolate wafers. That was a lot of fun."
They've also teamed up with other student groups like the Penn Coffee Club to make a double chocolate chip espresso cookie with coffee cake, cream cheese filling and coffee grounds sprinkled on top.
As full-time students, scaling the business to serve the Penn community has taken a tremendous amount of research and commitment. Through flash-sales, online orders, dessert tasting events and catering for student groups and organizations, NOMsense built the recognition it needed to fund its expansion with a Kickstarter campaign.
After obtaining the required certifications, they moved their operation to the Center for Culinary Enterprises, a food incubator and professional kitchen space at 48th and Spruce streets. The move has enabled them to bake bigger batches and keep pace with their growth, all the while maintaining a tight-knit mentality driven by themed events like their upcoming second annual "NOMoween" celebration.
Wong, who studies International Relations and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, explained that these pop-up events and catering opportunities showcase the strong undercurrent of entrepreneurialism that distinguishes life at UPenn.
"It's great exposure not only for students but for faculty and other Philadelphians who are drawn to the entrepreneur space."
A huge part of NOMsense Bakery's success has been the brand's social media presence. They frequently take pictures of NOMers gnashing away (it's a two- to four-bite experience, Shankar says) and post them to their Facebook and Instagram accounts. Together with testimonials, flavor contests and semester specials, NOMsense builds its reputation through a steady stream of customer interaction.
"For us, what's really important about our business is that every time people buy our products, we see them eating in front of us," Shankar said. "So we get that feeling of why we love food and desserts in the first place. It's all about bringing people together over these special, indulgent moments."
As Shankar and Wong move closer to graduation, they're carefully prepping a transition plan that will keep NOMsense going as they look further down the road to a storefront with cafe space. In the spring, they held a seminar —“Nom with NOMsense Bakery: A Workshop on Food Entrepreneurship"— to share their start-up story with the campus community.
"The sustainability question is always on our mind," Shankar said. "We're in the process of launching an ambassador program on campus to train underclassmen to take the reigns on the baking and execution. We will remain as advisors, though, so that we can ingrain NOMsense as a Penn student bakery business that can live on for years and years to come."