Launched in August 2014 by brothers Brian and Scott Rudolph, Banza - pasta made from chickpeas - promises to rival the taste and texture of regular wheat pasta, but has twice the protein and four times the fiber, says marketing chief Avery Hairston (full-time employee #1).
Of course, non-wheat-based pasta is hardly new, acknowledges Hairston, who says rice-, corn-, soy-, lentil- or quinoa-based products are gaining shelf space in many stores. The problem is that they just don’t match the taste or texture of the real thing, and are still seen by many consumers as niche items for people avoiding gluten.
Banza has 14g of protein and 8g of fiber per 2oz serving; regular pasta has 7g protein, 2g fiber
Banza, by contrast, happens to be gluten-free [ingredients: chickpeas, tapioca, pea protein, xanthan gum], but is aimed squarely at mainstream consumers who are looking for pasta with fewer empty carbs and more nutrition, but are not prepared to compromise on taste or texture (no mushy pasta), he says.
“Banza can be enjoyed by celiacs and people intolerant to gluten, but it’s a mainstream product with 14g of protein and 8g of fiber per 2oz serving and 25g of protein and 13 g fiber in a 3.5oz serving [which is more realistically what people eat]. It also has half the net carbs.
“The fact we’re getting picked up by stores such as Meijer, Shoprite and Fairway as well as Sprouts and Eataly also shows that we have a broader appeal. We’re competing with Barilla and De Cecco, not so much the ‘alternative’ pastas.”
Replacing empty carbs with fiber and protein
And so far, the message seems to be getting through, both to retail buyers and consumers, says Hairston, who says Banza is set to be in 800 stores by the end of this month and is in talks with several major retailers in multiple states.
“So far I don’t think we’ve met a retailer that we’ve pitched to that doesn’t want to carry the product. They want genuine differentiation and we’ve got it.
“At the moment you have wheat pasta that’s tasty but not that nutritious – with all the empty carbs, and you’ve got allergen-friendly pasta that’s not tasty. We fill that gap and as Banza is so like regular pasta, it’s a really easy transition to make for the mainstream pasta consumer. There is no need to compromise.”
We want to do what Hampton Creek Foods has done with eggs (replacing them with plants) but with wheat, rice and corn
For such a new company, Banza has also been fortunate to pick up a lot of media attention – from an appearance on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup show, during which co-founder Brian Rudolph persuaded restaurateur and Eataly founder Joe Bastianich to invest in the business; to a coveted slot on the Dr Oz show.
Fans of Banza also love the fact it is based in Detroit (not New York or San Francisco), says Hairston, who was recruited via a program called Venture for America (VFA) in which college graduates go to work for start-ups in struggling cities from Baltimore and Detroit to New Orleans, with the aim of building businesses, revitalizing cities, and creating jobs.
“We’re thinking big, so it’s not just about pasta for us. Longer term, we want to do what Hampton Creek Foods has done with eggs (replacing them with plants) but with wheat, rice and corn.”