COVER STORY

The Bite Stuff

Five alumni startups that are disrupting the food industry.

by Rebecca Shapiro Published Fall 2016
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The team then met with farmers in upstate New York to begin the production process. Using milk from grass-fed cows and steering clear of artificial sweeteners, colors, and preservatives, they developed quark in plain, strawberry-rhubarb, Key-lime, blueberry, and vanilla bean-coconut flavors and packaged it in snack-sized containers, which makes it more competitive in the American yogurt market (in Kazakhstan, quark only comes plain and is sold in family-sized tubs). 

“We love introducing quark to new customers,” Abilova says. “But we also get a special pride when Europeans tell us that it tastes exactly like the stuff they’d get at home.”

Misha Dairy’s products are now in nearly 150 stores in the New York region, as well as Wegmans supermarkets across the East Coast. A deal with Whole Foods is pending. Abilova is particularly happy that quark has found its way onto the shelves of an old favorite: Morningside Heights’ own Westside Market.

 “I hope other Columbia students find it and love it as much as I do,” she says.

MR BING

How do you say Renaissance man in Mandarin? 

Ask Brian Goldberg ’02GSAS, a man of seemingly limitless energy, who just might have the most improbable LinkedIn profile in New York. A Chinese-film scholar turned Olympic-level luger turned TV producer turned investment banker, Goldberg is now the founder of Mr Bing, a food cart and catering company that sells Beijing-style savory crepes. Naturally. 

But before any of that, Goldberg planned to be a doctor. As a sophomore at Brandeis, he was accepted into an early-decision medical program, where participants are guaranteed acceptance at Tufts University’s medical school upon graduation, and encouraged to pursue non-medical interests during their undergraduate years. Goldberg took advantage by spending his junior year in a language-immersion program in China.

“It was basically language jail. If they catch you speaking English three times, they send you home,” he says.

Goldberg thrived in China. He loved its cinema, art, and especially its food. Every morning before class, Goldberg would visit the bicycle-drawn carts selling jianbing: savory crepes stuffed with scrambled egg, sesame seeds, scallions, hoisin sauce, chili paste, cilantro, and crunchy wontons. 

“It’s like the bacon, egg, and cheese of China. But a thousand times better.” 

When Goldberg came home, his heart wasn’t in medicine anymore. He finished his BA, then enrolled in a master’s program in East Asian languages and cultures at Columbia. Though he mostly focused on film, he took one class at the business school, where he wrote a very early draft of a business plan to bring jianbing to New York.

“I was ready to start Mr Bing fifteen years ago,” Goldberg says. “But a few other things got in the way.”

Those other things involved the luge, the 2002 Winter Olympics, and Israel. 

Goldberg had gotten a late start at the luge. By the time the sport caught his interest, when he was seventeen, he was too old to join the American training program. But as a Jew he was eligible for dual citizenship with Israel, where competition wasn’t exactly stiff (think Cool Runnings in the Negev). Goldberg spent his undergraduate and graduate years training with the Israeli team and ultimately qualified for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. But Israel ended up sending a smaller delegation post-9/11, so Goldberg wasn’t able to compete. Still, working with NBC on a documentary about his Olympic dreams inspired his next step: TV production.

Goldberg worked for a year as an NBC page in New York; his fluency in Mandarin then helped him land a gig as a television producer and financial-news reporter in Singapore. Seven years later, he jumped from reporting on the markets to trading in them, becoming an investment banker. 

But Goldberg never stopped thinking about those savory crepes, which were ubiquitous in northern China but hadn’t yet migrated south to Singapore and Hong Kong, where his banking career had taken him. He partnered with a local restaurateur and started courting investors and developing a recipe. 

“Every time I went back to Beijing, I would talk to my favorite vendors. I convinced one of them to teach me her recipes, and even to come to Hong Kong with me to train my staff.” he says.

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