July 21, 2022
Appetite for Learning
CMU alumnus Cliff Sharples blends entrepreneurship, technology and food for a one-of-a-kind career
By Amanda S.F. Hartle
When alumnus Cliff Sharples transferred to Carnegie Mellon University, he immediately noticed that something crucial was missing on campus: A student-run pub where the Tartan community could connect over bites and beverages.
The idea for Scotland Yard was born — and with it, a life and career that has melded entrepreneurship, technology and the power of food.
“It was my first opportunity to take on a big entrepreneurial role,” says Cliff, who graduated in 1986 from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences with a degree in information systems.
“I helped build [Scotland Yard] in my junior year and ran it in my senior year. We made all the decisions, put the whole thing together and hired a manager. It really set me on a path.”
His path — with stops at Garden.com, HomeAway, Cheezburger, Dig the Dirt and many more — has led to becoming founder and co-CEO of Fexy, a digital food platform that connects home cooks to grocers, brands and recipe publishers, and executive producer of “Roadfood: Discovering America One Dish at a Time,” available on PBS and Amazon Prime Video.
“I’m at the intersection of creativity and technology,” Cliff says. “I’ve ended up being the person that Dietrich College tries to shape.”
“I’m at the intersection of creativity and technology. I’ve ended up being the person that Dietrich College tries to shape.”
The Spotify of Food
After meeting his wife, Lisa, as they earned MBAs from Northwestern University, and a few years in the tech industry, the couple struck out on their own in 1995. They co-founded Garden.com and grew the ecommerce tech startup selling gardening supplies and plants into a public company, which was bought by Walmart and Burpee.
“We built everything from scratch,” Cliff says. “We had to create a supply chain across 150 growers and suppliers to dropship products all around the country and make it behave like it was coming from one store.”
From there, the serial entrepreneur founded multiple companies across everything from luxury real estate to enterprise software. He even teamed up with his brother, Brian, who is the founder and CEO of HomeAway, in the vacation rental company’s first years.
Along the way, Cliff and Lisa’s family grew to include five children, and as CEO and president of AllRecipes, Lisa expanded the world’s largest digital food property to 23 additional countries.
One blustery day in a ski lodge as their children enjoyed the fresh powder outside, the couple did what they do best: They crafted a business plan, this time for their family.
In it, they mapped out their next adventure — combining their desire to travel the world as a family and get back to working together and for themselves. While on their global travels, the couple researched companies to purchase and secured funding to acquire the six companies that became Fexy in 2014.
Fexy answers the age-old question of “What’s for dinner?” for millennials and younger generations. With the company’s web app Relish, users can browse reliable and expert recipes, plan a menu and build same-day grocery shopping lists at their favorite retailers including Kroger, Instacart, Shipt, Target, Walmart and more.
“It ties that whole process together from inspiration to planning to grocery shopping to putting food on the table,” Cliff says. “We’re leveraging technology to drive that daily cycle in a more efficient way and increase general wellness from a physical, financial and emotional perspectives.”
“We want to do for food what Spotify did for music by personalizing playlists, or in our case, meal plans that cater to personal tastes, preferences and nutritional needs.”
“It ties that whole process together from inspiration to planning to grocery shopping to putting food on the table. We’re leveraging technology to drive that daily cycle in a more efficient way and increase general wellness from a physical, financial and emotional perspectives.”
On the Road Again
In the early 1970s, Jane and Michael Stern, set out in their Volkswagen Beetle to travel the country and explore American cuisine though everyday, local food at community suppers, church barbecues, small-town diners and seaside shacks.
Their guide to regional cuisine, “Roadfood,” was groundbreaking. It went on to publish 10 editions, and their array of historical documents is housed in the Smithsonian Institute’s archives.
“The Sterns are an American treasure,” Cliff says. “When we were discussing what companies to purchase, Lisa and I didn’t know what we were going to do with it, but we knew we wanted to buy ‘Roadfood.’”
As print guidebooks have fallen out of favor for digital resources, they set out to adapt “Roadfood” for a new generation.
“We felt one way to do that would be with a television show that had a dynamic host,” Cliff says.
Enter actor Misha Collins, best known for his years on the TV show “Supernatural.”
“He’s just one of the most curious people,” Cliff says. “He loves to find out what makes people tick, and he's really interested in genuinely learning about people's lives.”
During the first season of “Roadfood: Discovering America One Dish at a Time,” Misha visits 13 American towns and cities and explores each one’s community, history and values through a single entrée.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, it’s shrimp Mozambique and the dish’s Portuguese fisherman roots. In Barberton, Ohio, it’s Serbian fried chicken intertwined with the town’s post-industrial existence. In Phoenix, Arizona, it’s acorn stew and fry bread, and the dish’s Native American origins, and in Houston, Texas, it’s Cajun crawfish fusing seafood boils and Vietnamese immigration.
“We’re opening windows into worlds that otherwise you wouldn’t experience,” Cliff says. “Our goal is to build empathy by bringing people together through food to learn about the lives of those we may not have interacted with and realize we all have more in common than different.”
“We want to encourage everyone to have their own experiences. Get out there, get off the highways, go to these small towns and open yourself up.”
“We’re opening windows into worlds that otherwise you wouldn’t experience. Our goal is to build empathy by bringing people together through food to learn about the lives of those we may not have interacted with and realize we all have more in common than different.”
The Next Course
Cliff, Lisa, Misha and their “Roadfood” team are in the planning stages for the second season — with a potential Pittsburgh episode in the mix — and Fexy is channeling its pandemic successes into Relish+, a premium subscription model.
“We were privileged and pretty fortunate to be in the digital food space the last two years,” Cliff says. “In the last two years, a lot of people learned how to cook, and our space has grown.”
Relish+ will build on that growth with enhanced AI and machine learning to impact more households and families, and he’s thrilled to have his fellow Tartans and sons Wescott and Otto along for the process. Both followed in their father’s footsteps and are studying at Dietrich College, too.
Along the way, Cliff is partnering with CMUniverse to mentor students about interdisciplinary careers, serving on Dietrich College’s Dean’s Advisory Board and sharing his story in Distinguished Service Professor Michael Murphy’s popular Leadership Development Seminar.
"Cliff exemplifies the very best of CMU’s core values including keen intellect, creativity, a clear vision, smart risk-taking to achieve his goals, and genuine empathy and concern for the welfare of others,” says Michael Murphy, Distinguished Service Professor and executive director of CMU’s Center for Leadership Studies.
“He has been a cornerstone of our Leadership Development Seminars, and he is a very popular special guest every semester through whom our students learn that doing the things you love for reasons that matter is no pipe dream, but a guiding principle for professional success and personal fulfillment.”
For Cliff, his CMU education and campus experiences ended up being more impactful than he could’ve imagined.
“The ability to think critically and about how technology and innovation can lead to solutions that impact people’s lives combined with creativity and that entrepreneurial spark armed me to build a very fulfilling life,” Cliff says.