Hotelie’s Brown Butter Startup Wins Hospitality Business Plan Competition

Jonah Gershon’s brown butter in a stick may soon be coming to a grocery store near you.

By: Sherrie Negrea
A young man standing on a stage, gesturing with both hands, and addressing the audience.

Spekld founder Jonah Gershon ’24 delivering his winning presentation at the Hospitality Business Plan Competition, April 20 (photo by Patrick Shanahan)

Jonah Gershon ’24, who launched a startup to produce brown butter, received the $50,000 first-place prize for his business—spekld—in the 14th Annual Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition on April 20 in Statler Auditorium.

Gershon, senior in the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, said he was still trying to process the news that he had been awarded the top prize after the winners were announced. “I sometimes tell myself that I’m just a butter company and there are students out there making software and working on climate change,” he said. “But after presenting, I knew that I did the best I could.”

The hospitality competition was the second Gershon has won at Cornell in the past five months. Last November, he received first place in Cornell’s Hospitality Pitch Deck Competition, garnering $3,000 for his startup. Both competitions, open to all Cornell students, are hosted by the Nolan’s School’s Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship.

While the fall competition focuses on a student team’s skills in pitching a startup, this semester’s contest required teams to develop business plans for their hospitality concept. More than 30 teams representing students across campus submitted proposals last October , and the field was narrowed down to five finalists for the last round of the competition.

A panel of three judges selected spekld as the winner because they said it showed the most promise of becoming a marketable product. The refrigerated brown butter, which will save bakers the 20 minutes it takes to melt butter on the stove to create the desired color and taste, will sell for $8 for half a pound, Gershon said.

A young man holding a tray leans down to present it to several people sitting in the front row of an auditorium.
Jonah Gershon presents samples of his brown butter, spekld, to judges at the Hospitality Business Plan Competition (photo by Patrick Shanahan)

“Everyone, no matter their cooking skills, shares this problem,” said Tyler Carrico, a judge and a partner with Thayer Ventures. “That is the start of the sound business concept. The tough part is producing it, but we hope this is a small step in the right direction to help him figure that out.”

Brown butter, a delicacy now available only in shelf-stable jars, also taps into growing consumer interest in cooking and buying specialty food products, said Diana Dobin, a judge who is CEO and chief sustainability officer with Valley Forge Fabrics. “We all know and recognize from our own lives that there’s a huge market in cooking, getting excited about baking, and using wonderful ingredients,” she said.

Gershon, who is from West Hartford, CT, came up with the idea of producing the first-ever brown butter in a stick while competing in the Food Network’s “Christmas Cookie Challenge” in April 2022. He had been recruited by the network to participate based on the photos of his baked goods on his Instagram account. Gershon made a batch of Mexican hot-chocolate-flavored sugar cookies using brown butter, which he had to produce from scratch, in the cookie challenge. “I don’t think that was the reason I lost the competition, but I think it was part of it,” he said. “It took 20 minutes out of your hour and a half to do the competition.”

He began developing his startup while taking a Nolan School course, Communications for Entrepreneurs, in the fall of 2022. After winning the Pitch Deck Competition last November, he started pilot production runs of spekld at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, operated by Cornell in Geneva.

With the prize money from the business plan competition, Gershon hopes to find a manufacturing facility to produce spekld so he can sell it in grocery stores. He plans to offer spekld at the Ithaca Farmers Market this year, at Wegmans and GreenStar in Ithaca in the fall, and at Whole Foods, Zabar’s, and Eataly in New York City in 2025.

“I would like to work on this full-time,” he said. “I’d love to see how our next production run goes and then look at what are the next steps in scaling it.”

Two women and one man stand on a stage as the woman standing in the middle gestures and addresses the audience.
(left to right) Emma Warden ’25, Hadley Jetmore ’25, and Calvin Lee ’24, founders of AREA, second place winner of the Hospitality Business Plan Competition (photo by Patrick Shanahan)

The Hospitality Business Plan Competition’s second-place prize of $15,000 went to AREA Event Services, a startup that builds event technology software to provide business insights to event owners and managers. Team members included Hadley Jetmore ’25 (Nolan School), Calvin Lee ’24 (College of Engineering), and Emma Warden ’25 (College of Arts and Sciences).

Two women stand on a stage as the woman on the right gestures and addresses the audience.
Hailee Greene, MBA ’24 (left), and Danielle Falcon, MBA ’24, founders of GreenAcres Processing, third-place winner of the Hospitality Business Plan Competition (photo by Patrick Shanahan)

The third-place prize of $10,000 was awarded to GreenAcres Processing, a company building an industrial hemp supply chain of fiber and hurd for use in manufactured goods. Team members included cofounders Hailee Greene and Danielle Falcon, both MBA ’24, students in the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and Alex Wright ’27(Nolan School).

Honorable mentions were given to Beacon, which offers an accessible luxury glamping experience to guests with disabilities, and to CareerVice, which develops content on recruitment opportunities for young professionals.

Judges for the Hospitality Business Plan Competition finalists were Meli James ’00, cofounder, Mana Up, and president, Hawaii Venture Capital Association; Diana Dobin, CEO and chief sustainability officer, Valley Forge Fabrics; and Tyler Carrico, Partner, Thayer Ventures.

Linda Canina, academic director of the Pillsbury Institute and Georges C. and Marian St. Laurent Professor in Applied Business Management, said that the caliber of the presentations in this year’s business plan competition was impressive. “It’s evidence that our student teams have raised the bar once again, showcasing a remarkable improvement in their ability to articulate their ideas with clarity and conviction,” she said.

4 women and 3 men standing on a stage, smiling, and holding a novelty check for $50,000 made out to spekld.
(left to right) Nolan School Dean Kate Walsh, judges Meli James, Diana Dobin, and Tyler Carrico; Jonah Gershon, and Linda Canina (photo by Patrick Shanahan)

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