Jerry Bello - the founder of Veggie straws maker Sensible Portions (sold to Hain Celestial in a multimillion dollar deal in 2010) - remembers the exact moment when he stumbled across something he reckons could be an even bigger snack food hit.
Sitting down to a meal at a restaurant in Tuscany, Italy, with his wife in 2011, instead of the usual bread, olive oil and vinegar, he was served some chips with a very unusual texture. His entrepreneurial instincts on high alert, Bello asked what they were.
Pasta, said the chef, who had some offcuts of fresh pasta dough left after making ravioli, cut them into squares, lightly baked them, drizzled them with olive oil and sea salt and served them up as an appetizer.
Bello thanked him, grabbed his phone and rushed outside to make a call to his attorney. “Trademark ‘Pasta Chips’!” he instructed, before re-joining his wife.
“I’m always looking for idea when I travel in Europe and South America and I often get inspiration for things that I think will work in the US but just need ‘Americanizing’,” Bello told FoodNavigator-USA. “The Pasta Chips idea just hit me like a lightning bolt.”
The Pasta Chips idea just hit me like a lightning bolt
And once he started pitching the chips to the market in summer 2013 at the IDDBA [International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association] expo in Orlando, the response blew him away, and he was convinced he was onto a winner.
Pasta Chips first hit shelves in September 2013, and are now in scores of retailers from Roundy's and Shoprite to Safeway, Target, Von's, Albertson's, Harris Teeter, Winco, and Randall's, says Bello, who is CEO and founder of Keen Marketing & Manufacturing, which has partnered with and invested in fast-growing firms including Sneaky Pete’s, Sheila G's Brownie Brittle and Drink Chia.
The key was getting the texture right
Based on its success “right out of the gate”, Bello is confident Pasta Chips could be his next $100m brand, and is already working on the next generation of products: Whole wheat Pasta Chips, sheets of Pasta Chips, gluten-free Pasta Chips, veggie tricolor Pasta Chips and chips in the same shapes as pasta.
But what’s so special about them? They are satisfying - but lower in fat; simple, but sophisticated, he says. “The key was getting the texture right. It took us about a year.
“I wanted the chips to be rigid enough to hold a dip but not like hard dried pasta. We make the dough first, dry it and then toast it, and we found a manufacturer that had a pretzel line and a cracker line to get it to work. It’s a hybrid process.”
The ingredients vary according to the flavor but include durum semolina [durum wheat flour used for making dry pasta], olive oil, corn starch, seasoning and canola oil, says Bello. “The wheat has to be hard, and is treated and handled differently for it to work in a snack.”
60% less fat than regular potato chips, 20% less fat than pita chips
The chips - available in five flavors: Marinara, Alfredo, Spicy Tomato Basil, Garlic Olive Oil, and Mediterranean Sea Salt - are satisfying but surprisingly low in fat (60% less fat than a regular potato chip and 20% less fat than a pita chip, with 4g fat, 120 cals and 4g protein per 1oz/28g serving).
They also have a lighter texture, meaning you typically consume around 16-18 at a time instead of eight pita chips, he said.
“We know that when you have more hand to mouth moments - psychologically, it creates a feeling of satiety, so you’re less likely to overindulge. Women really like this aspect of the Pasta Chips. First we had bagel chips, then pita chips, and now Pasta Chips. We’re the next iteration of this trend.”
Beans: The next big thing in snacks?
So what’s next in Bello’s snacking pipeline? That would be telling, says Bello, but expect to see some innovation around beans, he says. “There is so much more I think we can do with fava beans and cannellini beans.”
There are also more snacking occasions to go for than there used to be, he claims, while consumers are blurring the lines between meals and snacks and turning snack foods into mini meals by adding components.
“I could see people adding some cubes of cheese or salami to Pasta Chips for a mini-meal as well as adding dips.”