It’s no secret that starting a business is hard, but try being 23 years old, having just graduated and hoping to succeed in the entrepreneur world. Griffin Spolansky — class of 2019 alumnus, former player on the 2019 NCAA Championship men’s lacrosse team and current entrepreneur — did just that.
In late February, Spolansky launched Mezcla, a vegan and gluten-free protein bar that is redefining high quality, culture-filled products. Mezcla is Spanish for mixture — representing the mixture of life diversifying our world.
The idea came about during a social entrepreneurship class at the University, in which Spolansky heard from a variety of different speakers, one of whom was Copitzy “Coco” Sotelo — an entrepreneur who had started her granola company, Gaona Granola, in Charlottesville. As Sotelo told her story about the difficulties she experienced during her time in Mexico, Spolansky was inspired and began thinking about the ways he could create a product that reflects and honors cultures from around the world.
After reaching out, connecting and working in the kitchen together, the friendship inspired Spolansky to create his protein bar with Sotelo as a partner. The bars are nutritious and incorporate ingredients with complex flavor profiles that highlight different regions of the world, celebrating those cultures in the process.
Some of the bars’ flavors include Mexican Chipotle Hot Chocolate, Peruvian Cocoa Peanut Butter and Japanese Matcha Vanilla Crunch. Each flavor profile includes unique, high-powered ingredients from different cultures sourced directly from their respective countries — chipotle from Mexico, cocoa from Peru and matcha from Japan. One of the other key ingredients in every flavor of the bar is amaranth, a healthy seed filled with fiber, protein and micronutrients that has a rich history in Aztec culture.
With a goal of being as transparent as possible, each bar features a QR code that can be scanned in order to learn more about the ingredients and the connections they have to different cultures.
“[It shows] all these different works of art from different people and cultures to the world, and that’s the emphasis behind what we are doing,” Spolansky said.
The QR code on the wrapper also links to an online platform where people will be able to submit art on a daily basis after its expected launch this summer on Mezcla’s website. The wrappers will also feature artwork from local artists in each respective highlighted country, including work by Japanese artist Saki Murakami and Mexican artist Karina Arceo.
Doug Bouton — University Law School alumnus and CEO of Halo Top Ice Cream, a popular low-calorie ice cream brand — was also an influential figure in helping Spolansky navigate launching Mezcla. After Spolansky reached out, the two connected and Bouton shared some of his firsthand experiences with Halo Top as well as some lessons — from entrepreneur to entrepreneur.
“The bar category is too crowded — you have to have something to stand out,” Bouton said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “I think Griffin is smart to try to establish that differentiator from the start … The QR code makes sense to broaden the art beyond just the packaging. I wouldn't be surprised to see that evolve as the augmented and virtual reality technologies develop.”
Wilson Craig — who founded Waterbird Spirits, a Charlottesville-based company that produces premium canned cocktails with real distilled spirits — was also a guiding force in the process. The two connected as recent University graduates, discussing go-to market strategies and bonding over their similar stories — perseverance through the business industry and maintaining their passion for their products.
“Charlottesville is an incredible area to grow food and beverage brands,” Craig said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “There is an incredible community of hard working, talented individuals who enjoy helping up-and-coming brands grow.”
The Charlottesville community has been central in the development of Mezcla. During the research and development process, Mezcla worked with Walker Upper Elementary to get art designed by students. Spolansky spent time in the classroom to help establish the community focus of the bar.
Spolansky also credits his experience playing lacrosse at the University in helping him navigate the process. After walking on to a team that went on to win the 2019 NCAA Lacrosse National Championship, Spolansky learned a lot of lessons through that journey, many that translate to the business world.
“There are times when you need to have discipline … and fight through to the point of success ... because there is no playbook for [starting a business],” Spolansky said.
If there is anything Spolansky wants the community to know, it’s to fearlessly take risks because you never know what it may lead to and what it may be worth.
The bars are expected to hit shelves between June and August this year, depending on COVID-19-related developments. Spolansky and his team were also looking forward to launching at Expo West — the world’s largest trade show for natural products — before it was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Mezcla has been donating bars to doctors and nurses at Cornell Weill Hospital in New York City and is making steps to talk to the PB&J fund — a non-profit organization dedicated to serving kids and families through food and education — in Charlottesville as well. In addition, Mezcla is sending an open invite to donate bars from its already-limited quantity to those in need of food during this difficult time.