Student Turns Eating Disorder Struggle Into a Burgeoning Business
Sophomore Liam Frumkin’s wellness journey is central to his Duke experience
And they didn’t know he had finally sought help at a facility that treated adolescents with disordered eating.
His classmates knew none of this until he told them that day. After, Frumkin was floored by the number of students who told him they could relate. He thought he was in it alone.
“People I didn’t know came up bawling and gave me a hug,” he recalled. “They said they went through the same thing. People told me my speech changed them.”
Frumkin’s mom and dad were in the audience that day, wound up and anxious.
“He walked out there and told his story in a way that was very authentic,” said his mother, Shari Barkin. “That was a turning point for him. He named it, and then he helped other people dealing with it.”
That catharsis didn’t end Frumkin’s problems, but it was a new beginning. He realized his story could help others.
He was always a good student, and through it all, Frumkin kept his grades up. His high school doesn’t assign traditional GPAs, but the average of all his grades was 98.5 out of 100.
He enrolled at Duke in fall 2021. Another new beginning.
So Many Food Points
Frumkin’s first Duke experience had a profound impact. In his first week in college, he took part in Project Edge, an orientation program that exposes new students to Duke’s many entrepreneurship resources. He met several Duke alums who had started their own businesses. They emphasized that barriers to entrepreneurship were largely in his own mind.
“I stepped onto campus and my first experience with Duke alums was people who made their own path,” he said. “They didn’t go from Duke to a classic finance job or something like that. They used what they learned at Duke to build their own thing. That opened up a whole new way of thinking for me. They showed you can use a Duke education to build whatever you want.”
This resonated with Frumkin, who already had something to build. His disordered eating centered on an obsession with ingredients. He refused to eat anything unfamiliar, and the fewer ingredients, the better. In high school he started tinkering with recipes and cooking for himself. At Duke, he continued this habit, cooking in his dorm kitchen rather than eating at the campus dining hall. At the end of his first year, he had about $2,000 in unused dining hall food points, which, if you’re familiar with college life, is unheard of. He used it to buy snacks for his friends.
He had boiled down the process for three vegan snack foods – brownies, cookies and cookie dough bites – that were proving popular with his friends. He toted backpacks full of them to campus and sold them for $5 a bag.
They went fast. He thought he was on to something – until Duke officials stepped in to stop his budding snack food empire out of public health concerns. They did however point him to the student entrepreneurship center on campus, which in turn pointed him to Union Kitchen, a Washington, D.C.-based business accelerator.
Here’s where the Liam Frumkin story really takes flight.
Duke officials say that eating disorders is a common issue for students and other members of the Duke community. More information about eating disorders can be found at the National Eating Disorder Association.
Assistance is also available through a variety of Duke services, including Counseling and Psychological Services, Duke Reach, Student Health and Blue Devils Care. A full list of wellness resources is available on Duke Today.
Off to DC
In the summer of 2022, Frumkin had just finished his first year at Duke and needed help to make his cookie dough bite venture take off. So he applied for space with Union Kitchen. He was accepted, which meant moving to Washington, D.C., and taking time off from college.
He would miss the entire year. Instead of Duke classes, Frumkin had a crash course in product development. With Union Kitchen providing kitchen space, suppliers and expertise, Frumkin learned about recipes, packaging, production scaling and marketing.
The decision to temporarily leave Duke was agonizing. Frumkin worried he’d lose academic momentum or that the gap on his transcript would hurt him. But Kimberly Blackshear, who runs Duke’s Time Away office, assured him he could leave and come back in good standing.
“Duke could not have been more supportive,” he recalled. “I was told ‘go and do what you need to, and Duke will be here when you get back.’ That made me feel at peace.”
On New Year’s Day 2023 he launched his company, calling it Ahav – which means “to love” in Hebrew. His product is a cookie dough bite snack – rich in protein and made with just six ingredients. They come in four flavors; the chocolate-peanut butter option is particularly popular.
Ahav, which you can find on Tik Tok and Instagram @Ahavfood, launched with a big initial sales spike thanks to the support of family and friends. But Frumkin realized quickly that sales weren’t guaranteed or consistent – lots of peaks and lots more valleys – so he did what most teens do: he turned to social media. An initial 2-minute Tik Tok video got hundreds of thousands of views, so he made more. He badgered popular food reviewer Keith lee – whose Tik Tok following tops 13 million – eventually getting Lee’s attention and a positive review. That led to a spike in sales -- $60,000 in 12 hours. Other reviews followed, creating a cascade of Internet attention.
Business was starting to boom.
Back to School
Today, Frumkin is back at Duke, navigating economics classes while managing his burgeoning enterprise from afar. Up in D.C., Ahav is a bustling business with six employees and a colorful website. He sells primarily through that website but has placed his product in some D.C.-area stores with designs on getting it onto far more shelves. He donates a portion of his sales to the National Eating Disorder Association and No Kid Hungry, an organization that helps feed needy youngsters.
Frumkin’s mother, Shari Barkin, marvels at her son’s journey. Barkin is a pediatrician and knew early on her son was struggling. But she also knew she had to tread lightly.
“The challenge with disordered eating is that if you want to intervene and the person isn’t ready, you can make it worse,” she said. “This is a very painful thing for a parent, to watch your child suffer and not intervene until he is ready.”
He tells his story willingly. In an entrepreneurship class called “Design Your Duke Journey,” Frumkin has spoken from the heart several times, prompting questions and support from other students, said instructor Greg Victory.
“His is such a great story about building resilience,” said Victory, executive director of Duke’s Career Center. “He comes with this positive, glass-three-quarters full mentality. That comes with maturity and growth.”
That resilience is still occasionally tested. Disordered eating is a chronic affliction, and Frumkin is acutely aware of it all the time. He still counts calories and knows precisely what goes into his body. But talking about his life journey – in class, on Tik Tok, or right here in this story – helps him.
“It takes up a lot of my brain space,” he said. I’m definitely aware of it but I can’t let it go. When I talk about it out loud, it really helps me heal. “I’ve learned that it is so much easier to win this fight together, not alone.”