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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Pandemic startups: UF students turn self-isolation into success

Alone at home with lots of free time, these students started their own businesses

startup businesses
startup businesses

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes online and sent students home, many were left with an unprecedented amount of free time. For some, that time was used to take summer classes or learn new skills. But for others, it was used to bring to life goals they’d been dreaming of for years or spontaneous passion projects. 

Wacky Sauces LLC

On a hot day in June, Logan Ritten posed the fateful question to his sister, which would eventually launch his business.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if I sold f------ hot sauce?”

He then created an Instagram account, called F------ Hot Sauce until Ritten decided to change it to the less-profane name of his LLC, Wacky Sauces, and has been posting hot sauce memes on it since.

Prior to that day, the 22-year-old UF aerospace engineering senior had been experimenting with making hot sauce for about a year. 

His obsession with spicy foods took off when he started a garden. Today, he grows more than 30 varieties of peppers, including some of the hottest in the world.

He describes “F@*king Hot Sauce,” as a nice kick for spicy-food lovers and really hot for the less tolerant. The sauce is primarily fresno chilis and smokey habaneros with molasses for sweetness, ghost chili powder, vinegar and lime.

The small hot sauce community is very supportive, he said. When he started out he asked many small businesses for advice. To this day, he Zooms with friends he’s made in the “pepper community” on Saturday nights to talk and try hot peppers.

It’s what led him to try the hottest pepper he’s ever had — the 7-Pot chili pepper.

“It was so hot that it made my tongue feel like it was like white hot and on fire,” he said. “I went blind for like 30 seconds.”

Ritten, who has become a certified Florida Foodhandler, makes his sauce in a commercial kitchen in New Smyrna. He then bottles and ships the sauce himself. 

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So far, Ritten has sold about 150 bottles for $12 each.

He is about halfway to making the money back he spent to start Wacky Sauces, he said. In the beginning, he almost maxed out his credit card.

He said Wacky Sauces is a direct result of all the free time he had during quarantine. He never would have started his business otherwise.

Ritten’s hot sauce meme account has 2,495 followers as of Sunday evening. It’s filled with inside jokes about the “Brötherhood of Zauce” and the “horrifying Big Hot Sauce” industry. He said the memes are a marketing technique he learned from the Slim Jim Instagram account which was run by one of his inspirations, Andy Hines.

“The memes have sort of taken on a life of their own. There's like a story behind them at this point,” he said. “You look at my page, and you're like, ‘what does this even mean?’”

Ritten’s girlfriend, Noelle Chin-Vance, a 22-year-old UF environmental engineering senior witnessed the whole process. She recalls a moment early on when the pair touched their eyes after handling peppers. She said the pain was horrible and their attempt at rinsing their eyes out with water only made it worse.

“We had to get a bowl of milk and put our eyes in it,” Chin-Vance said. “And then we're just standing in the kitchen with one eye in the milk just thinking ‘How did I get here? I’m 22-years-old and I’m sticking my eye in milk.’”

But beyond that incident, she has been cheering him on the entire time.

“I'm just very proud of him. I'm very amazed at how far it has come especially with COVID,” she said. 

QT Stylez

By the time she was in second grade, Ta’Neil Malcolm was already running a fashion show. 

It was a small one at her prep school in Jamaica where she helped girls pick out outfits to wear, but it sparked her interest in the fashion industry. She learned how to sew from her grandmother at age six and always accessorized her school uniform.

She said she remembers getting in trouble as a child for cutting up her clothing so she could sew outfits for her dolls.

Today, the 19-year-old UF biomedical engineering sophomore runs her own online boutique, QT Stylez.

“It really has always been my goal at some point in my life to create a platform to discuss my ideas about fashion,” she said. “In my head I was like, ‘I know I'm young, but if it's possible, I want to get started on this.’”

The brand started off selling bonnets, which are silk head coverings that keep curls intact while one sleeps, Malcolm said. From there, she progressed to sunglasses, handbags, visors, headbands and belts. She sources and buys all the products from manufacturers in the U.S. and Asia before reselling them.

She hopes that someday soon she will find a manufacturer who will help produce her own, original clothing and accessory designs.

At first, Malcom didn’t think anyone would buy from her. But after her friends reposted her products on social media, the response was incredibly positive. 

“I’m so thankful and grateful of those people up to this day,” she said. “Because if it wasn't for them, I probably wouldn't have continued.”

As a Black woman, Malcolm said she knows the inherent struggles her community faces when trying to start their own businesses. According to the U.S. Census’ most recent Annual Business Survey, Black Americans own 2.2% of the nation’s businesses. Of those, 36.1% are owned by women.

Anything people can do to support these Black women is important, she said.

“Just do anything that says, ‘I see you. I know it's hard, but you're still trying, and you're still showing the world that you're going to show up to this business, even though it’s hard.’”

Malcolm’s mother, 42-year-old Tawea Miller, helps promote the boutique on social media.

Miller recalls Malcolm loving fashion from a young age.

“I used to always dress her up when she was little, she automatically loved it,” Miller said.

Miller is glad her daughter is pursuing something she is passionate about, and that she has the opportunity to support Malcolm.

Although she still wants to pursue a career in biomedical engineering, Malcolm said she will continue to develop and expand QT Stylez.

Her mission is simple.

“In my soul, my goal is to allow all women to be their best selves.”

StudyDate

College students used to swiping right and left on dating app profiles can now put their skills to good use with the Tinder of educational apps: StudyDate.

With classes online and social gatherings restricted, app co-creator Zach Shenkman said the time has never been better to introduce an app like StudyDate.

The app, which launched Sept. 3, connects UF students based on their classes, interests and study habits, said Shenkman, a 19-year-old UF computer science sophomore.

Students create a profile on the app and an algorithm presents them with users who could be good study partners. Users then choose to “like” a profile by swiping to the right, or “dislike” by swiping to the left. After a user “likes” a profile, they can send a message even before they get “liked” back.

The app only works for students with verified UF email addresses, but the creators plan to expand the app in the future, Shenkman said.

“There are some other social networks that people use to meet each other, but none of them really incorporate the same swath of features that we do,” he said.

Users can choose to chat in the app, which also has a feature where users can schedule Zoom meetings with each other.

About 700 students use the free app, Shenkman said.

Producing the app remotely wasn’t difficult, Shenkman said, because the creators code online. But he does think the COVID-19 pandemic aided the app’s success. Within two days, about 200 users downloaded the app. Nine days later, there were about 500 users.

“People are looking for other outlets to connect with people without having to do it in person,” he said. “So there really isn't a better time for a product like ours.”

Nihar Soman, a 19-year-old UF finance sophomore has used the app since it launched.

“It promotes an environment where students can collaborate and work together to motivate each other in an environment where COVID has stripped away that kind of sense of communication,” Soman said.

Shenkman began work on the app in April with Wuseok Jung, a 19-year-old UF computer science sophomore and Joshua Ryals, a 21-year-old UF computer engineering senior.

They worked remotely for the entirety of the process. While Shenkman and Ryals stayed in Florida, Jung said he visited family South Korea.

Because of the time difference, Jung said he was often up after midnight on Zoom and Slack, a messaging app.

One of his fondest memories of the experience was when, after months of work, the app was finally approved to be sold by the Apple App Store in the middle of the night.

“It happened at 2 a.m. and I woke up, went to the App Store and I checked and saw it there,” he said. “We were all just super elated and super excited. I wish we had gotten to see it together.”

Sweets by Mich

Stuck in her hometown over the summer with little to do during self-isolation, Michelle Valoz started a bakery.

The Miami-based vegan bakery, Sweets By Mich, operates out of Valoz’s parents’ home kitchen. She makes all the goods herself with the occasional help from her mom, Michelina Valoz.

The creation of Sweets by Mich wasn’t intentional, though, said Michelle, a 21-year-old UF telecommunications senior. The business started after a friend asked to purchase a Key lime pie Michelle posted on her Instagram.

“I thought she was joking at first, but she was genuine,” she said. “I really didn't expect it to take off in the way it did.”

Michelle said most of her recipes are adapted to be vegan from recipes she finds online.

“I want people to see that they can still enjoy the foods that they love without having to sacrifice anything,” she said.

Customers placed orders for local pick-up or delivery through the bakery’s website. All deliveries were done by Michelle or her dad with masks on for safety, she said.

As a small child, Michelle spent all her time in her play kitchen, which she named  “La Corona,” which means “The Crown” in Spanish. When she was 11, she said she made her family gather around the toy and order off hand-written menus she crafted before serving them plastic food.

Michelle learned to bake through a lot of trial and error, she said.

Once, she threw away a red velvet cake she made for a customer because it turned out chalky and didn’t rise in the oven. She made another which turned out better — until she started decorating. The icing fell off the cake and made a gooey mess as it dripped down the sides.

“It was quite literally falling apart,” she said. “It looked like one of those Pinterest-fail cakes.”

Michelle said she doesn’t think she would have started the bakery without the time she spent in self-isolation because of the pandemic. Now, she wants to pursue baking after graduation.

“It's always been on the back of my mind, to bake, I’ve always loved it so much,” she said. “But I've been scared to dedicate myself to something so risky.”

Michelle only sells her products in Miami. While she’s in Gainesville for school, her mother, Michelina, took over baking, selling doughnuts through Organic Food Kings, a Miami food truck. Michelle will be back to taking orders when she goes home for Winter Break.

Like her daughter, Michelina, 51, never imagined Michelle would pursue baking as a job.

“She always planned something big for herself so I’m not surprised it evolved into this.”

Contact Nora O'Neill at noneill@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @noroneill.

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