Setting Ben’s Table

Alums in the food, drink, and hospitality industries shared their wares at an event this summer.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

By Susan Ahlborn

Photography by Brooke Sietinsons

Earlier this summer in New York City, about 100 Penn Arts & Sciences alums braved the smoke from the Canadian wildfires to make their ways to Ben’s Table, an event featuring alums in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries. Presented by the Penn Arts & Sciences Ambassador Council and Professional Women’s Alliance (PWA), it was an evening of tasting, sipping, and networking. Good food and a good time were had by all.

Left photo: Jennie Ripps, C’03 (right), of Owl's Brew; right photo, Peter Stein, C'04 (left), of Peeko Oysters.


We thank all our accomplished participants:

Tonya Hopkins, a.k.a. “The Food Griot,” is a culinary history consultant, wine and spirits storyteller, cocktail cognoscento, and provider of nonfiction food and drink narratives across media. She helped cofound the nonprofit James Hemings Society to recognize and actively uphold the timeless Black culinary talents that so profoundly shaped the development of fine dining in the Americas. Hopkins was the first and only food historian to be featured and appear in episodes of the long-running, daily ABC TV show, The Chew, and she served as the foremost food historian for the best-selling celebrity chef cookbook, Carla Hall’s Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration.

In the beverage arena, Tonya teaches wine education classes at a Black-owned wine boutique in Brooklyn and creates historically informed, culturally-relevant cocktails for a range of clients. Hopkins custom-researched and wrote the “African Origins of Beer” narrative at Harlem Hops, the nation’s first 100 percent African-American owned and operated craft beer bar and restaurant, in addition to designing its inaugural wine list and creating the flagship cocktails. Tonya serves as the lead culinary history advisor for the Old Stone House of Brooklyn’s Food and Public History program, where she launched a seasonal spirits sipping series to convey inclusive American history through the “liquidy lenses” of pillar potations (rum, gin, brandy, American whiskey and bourbon, etc.). Tonya is an active advisor on the Museum of Food and Drink’s “African/American: Making the Nation’s Table” exhibition, and she currently produces and hosts the weekly multi-media show, Savory & Sweet: Food History & Culture, on, one of just a few Black-owned and operated talk radio stations in the nation.

Jennifer Abadi, C’88, is a researcher, developer, and preserver of Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Judeo-Arabic recipes and food customs. She is a culinary expert in the Jewish communities of the Middle East, Mediterranean, Central Asia, and North Africa, and offers a variety of virtual and in-person food talks and cooking lessons around the world for adults and kids. Her past and current clients include the Institute of Culinary Education, the Jewish Community Center Manhattan, Togetherhood (after-school classes for kids), The Jewish Food Society, and Context Travel (Jewish food tours of the Lower East Side and virtual cooking lessons and talks). Jennifer also works as a personal chef for intimate dinner parties in the New York City area.

Jennifer’s cookbook-memoir, A Fistful of Lentils: Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie's Kitchen (now in its new and revised third edition) is a collection of recipes and stories from her family. Her second cookbook, Too Good to Passover: Sephardic and Judeo-Arabic Seder Menus and Memories from Africa, Asia and Europe, provides an anthropological as well as historical context to the ways in which the Jewish communities of North Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean, and Middle East observe and enjoy this beloved ancient festival.

Ben Cohn, W’02, is the co-founder and president of RIND Snacks, a sustainable snack company sold in more than 15,000 stores including Costco, Walmart, Target, Kroger, and Whole Foods. Ben’s responsibilities at RIND include overseeing the company’s operations, financial modeling and scenario analysis, fundraising, and key account management. Ben also serves as a Venture Partner at BD Investments, an investment firm focused on early stage, growth, and private equity investments.

Prior to RIND, Ben was a partner and head of research at investment firm Latigo Partners, an event-driven hedge fund investing across the capital structure in debt and equity securities. While at Latigo, Ben was a generalist investor with a focus on opportunities in the industrial, transportation, energy, and TMT sectors. Before that, Ben was an analyst in the UBS Mergers and Acquisition Group and an analyst in GSC Partners Control Distressed Debt Group. Ben graduated magna cum laude from the Wharton School with a B.S. in economics.

Ingrid Hung, C’17, is co-founder of I Have This Friend. She began her career in hospitality in New York at Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). From there, she was awarded the Sam Beall Fellowship and traveled around the country training in the front and back of house at restaurants like The French Laundry, Eleven Madison Park, and Blackberry Farm. She returned to USHG to help scale their fast-casual, all-day cafe concept, Daily Provisions. She then joined the team at Endeavor Global to lead their food and beverage portfolio. Earlier this year, she founded I Have This Friend, a curated online directory that makes it easier and more affordable for consumers to discover and book coveted lifestyle services offered by emerging creative talent across food, style, art, interior design, wellness, travel, and more, backed by NextView Ventures.

Damone Johnson, C’12, is a chef and founder of Island Infusions Catering. Originally from the Bronx, New York, his love and passion for cooking was sparked at an early age, watching his Jamaican parents' preparation of their traditional dishes and using their inspiration to cultivate his own style while often cooking for friends and family. After graduating from Penn, Johnson began a successful career in the nonprofit sector. However, due to high demand for his cooking services, he established Island Infusions Catering in 2016, and began catering on a part-time basis. In 2022, due to the growth of the business and his immense love of cooking, Johnson left the nonprofit space and became full time owner and executive chef of the company. Island Infusions Catering specializes in Caribbean-fusion cuisine and aims to highlight and elevate Caribbean cuisine on the world stage. He now hopes to translate this love and passion for creating cuisine into unforgettable plates for his clients. His goal is to ensure his passion and respect for every ingredient shines through in each and every plate!

Orlando (OJ) Lima, C’94, is a spirits expert, whiskey blender, and the founder of Taste Select Repeat. TSR is an e-commerce marketplace for whiskey and tequila enthusiasts, renowned for its curated selection of spirits and exceptional tasting events. With decades of experience in journalism and media, Lima played a pivotal role in launching First We Feast and currently contributes to culinary publications such as Bon Appétit and Vinepair. Recognized for his discerning palate, Lima judges spirits competitions and has been featured in Vanity Fair, People, Wine Enthusiast, American Whiskey, and Bourbon+ for his innovative work with TSR.

Billy Peelle, C’05, is a partner in thank you nyc. As former director of operations at Make it Nice (NoMad, Eleven Madison Park, EMP Summer and Winter House, Davies and Brook) and general manager of Eleven Madison Park, Billy helped open the food and beverage programs at all the NoMad Hotels (New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and London) and led the opening operations at Davies and Brook at Claridge’s in London. During his time there, Eleven Madison Park was named the number one restaurant in the world, awarded three Michelin Stars for a decade, and won numerous James Beard Awards. Prior to joining the teams at Make it Nice, Billy worked with Ritz-Carlton in various management roles. Today he is a partner at thank you nyc, a leading hospitality and consulting company behind projects with Tiffany, Four Seasons, Atria, and the Welcome Conference, the leading hospitality and leadership conference, which they founded in 2014. Peelle just ended his term as president of the Fitler Club in Philadelphia, helping reorganize and restructure the club.

Jennie Ripps, C’03, a tea sommelier, is co-founder and CEO of Owl’s Brew, an award-winning brand which crafts 100% clean, great-tasting spiked beverages made from fresh-brewed tea and botanicals. She is a graduate of Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses and is the co-author of Wise Cocktails: A DIY Guide to Crafting Tea-Based Cocktails. Ripps holds a certificate in green medicine. She has been profiled by The Today Show, The New York Times, and Forbes, among others.

Mark Schlecker, C’09, is co-founder and CEO of Ember, a New York-based consumer brand that develops and markets functional gummies. Ember’s energy chew, its first product, is designed to provide busy working professionals, students, athletes, and military servicemen and women with convenient, effective and jitter-free energy for attention and focus. Mark oversees all aspects of Ember’s business, including marketing, sales, product development, finance, and legal functions. Prior to Ember, Schlecker was an analyst/director at HoldCo Asset Management, a special situations-focused private equity firm with $500 million of assets under management. Prior to this role, he was an associate at Houlihan Lokey, a full-service investment bank. His experience includes entrepreneurship, confectionery manufacturing, asset management, and financial analysis.

Peter Stein, C’04, is the owner and founder of Peeko Oysters, the oyster of choice for many of New York City’s most acclaimed restaurants. His lifelong love for the North Fork and surrounding waters in eastern Long Island inspired him to begin oyster farming and he opened Peeko Oysters in 2016. Through his work at Peeko Oysters, Stein prioritizes building and sustaining community in the North Fork, creating jobs through aquaculture and ensuring the environmental health of the region for future generations. Prior to founding Peeko, he worked in management and business consulting, public education, and educational software business development.

Lance Stier, C04, is the CEO of NC Custom, the customization business of Nassau Candy Distributors, Inc., and co-owner and co-head of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A)/Product Development at Nassau Candy. Nassau Candy is a vertically integrated, family-owned manufacturer, importer, and distributor of specialty confections, gourmet foods, baked goods, and personal care products. Lance is a second-generation principal of the company. As CEO of NC Custom, Steir has led organic and M&A growth throughout the U.S. and Canada, including 12 acquisitions, forming a vertically integrated top-40 Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI) supplier, the largest food supplier in the promo products industry (Chocolate Inn), a leading hard goods, apparel, and personal care supplier (ACE USA and Lanco Corporation), and growth platform in retail, travel and resort markets (AmuseMints and ACE USA). At Nassau Candy, Lance is Head of Business Development and leads M&A, strategy, and financing, having completed acquisitions across industrial real estate, specialty food distribution, confectionery distribution, trail mixes, and hospitality.

He was previously a private equity investor with Paine + Partners and Wellspring Capital Management where he invested globally across food, agribusiness, and energy industries. Prior to entering private equity, he was an investment banking analyst in the Leveraged Finance Group at Lehman Brothers, where he structured and executed leveraged buyout, recapitalization, debt financings and M&A transactions, principally across food, pet food, direct marketing, specialty retail, energy, and other industries representing over $20 billion of transaction value.

Lance is a member of Young President’s Organization, a member of Glen Oaks Club, a member of the Penn Arts & Sciences Ambassador Council, and is active in numerous local charities and causes. He is a multiple time winner of Acquisition International's Consumer/Food M&A Award and the DealMaker Award. He was named 40 Under 40 by Long Island Business News, Griffin Supermarket Report, Blank Slate Media, and Young Jewish Professionals. He received Finance Monthly's Game Changer Award, Axial’s Top-50 consumer investors, and is a member of ASI's Power 50. Lance received his degree in philosophy, politics and economics.

Ari Tolwin, LPS’09, is the co-founder of NUMILK, an easy and convenient plant-based milk maker. In March of 2021, Ari and his co-founder, Joe Savino, appeared on ABC's Shark Tank to pitch their food-tech start-up to revolutionize the plant-based milk industry. They pitched their business with the hopes of securing a Shark to invest in their dream of shrinking down their machine to fit on home countertops, and did just that, securing a $2 million deal from billionaire investor Mark Cuban, making it one of the largest vegan investments for the Sharks.

Prior to NUMILK, Tolwin was the co-founder and CEO of Happytree Maple Water. He earned his undergraduate degree in political science and an M.B.A. from Duke University.