The Spanish version, horchata de chufa, which is made from tigernuts (which are tubers, not nuts), packs a significantly greater nutritional punch, however, and it’s slowly, but steadily, gaining momentum this side of the Atlantic, says Organic Gemini, a Brooklyn-based firm convinced the tigernut could be as big as chia in the superfood stakes.
Tigernuts – which Organic Gemini sources from Niger in Africa via its Spanish partner – are high in resistant starch, a prebiotic fiber that resists digestion in the small intestine and promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine.
But they are also rich in calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins E and C, says George Papanastasatos, who co-founded Organic Gemini with Mariam Kinkladze in 2014.
“People that emigrated from Spain to South America brought the concept of horchata with them but they used rice instead of tigernuts, which are indigenous to Africa, and added a lot of sugar, so that is what we are familiar with in the US. People here think of horchata as sugary and milky, but we use no added sugar and no dairy. It’s a completely different product. It’s tasty, filling and functional.”
Nine out of 10 people you talk to here have not heard of tigernuts
Papanastasatos, who has a background in the beverage industry, presented Organic Gemini’s horchata– which is treated with high pressure processing (HPP) and has a 35-day shelf life – to Whole Foods in Tribeca in New York City in 2014, and got an immediate Yes, he says.
“It was something genuinely different. I’d say even today, nine out of 10 people you talk to here have not heard of tigernuts, they just have no idea, and the name obviously is confusing, as they are not nuts. So we have put most of our marketing spend into demos.
“Today, most of our revenues are from tigernut snacks [raw, sliced and peeled tigernuts] and other products [granola, oil, flour] but we started as a beverage company with horchata, and that’s what got us into Whole Foods via the local vendor program.
“They gave us one store to see how it performed and three months later we went into the whole region.
“But we knew there was potential for other products from the beginning as we’d put tigernuts on Amazon just as a pilot product, and they sold out overnight, so we realized there was all this potential beyond drinks.”
“Now we are with [distributors] UNFI and KeHE nationwide and in other chains including Sprouts. We’re in around 1,000 stores but the number is growing all the time. We’re also on Amazon and in Thrive Market.”
We knew there was potential for other products from the beginning
While the horchata is often what opens doors for Organic Gemini with a retailer, the snacks potentially have broader appeal as the $6.99/12oz bottle price tag for the horchata can be a barrier for many consumers, he acknowledges.
“The snacks go from $5.99 to $10.99 and one bag goes a long way as they are incredibly filling. They also have a two-year shelf-life. What’s great is that the products complement each other, so people that try the horchata want to try the snacks and vice versa.
“We’re also expanding our range this year with a tigernut smoothie mix exclusively with Whole Foods.”
Last summer was probably the most stressful summer of my life
Initial financing for the business came from within the family, while sales and marketing agency Dynamic Presence came in later as a partner/investor, says Papanastasatos. “But we’re now at the stage where we are trying to raise more money – around $2m - to take us to the next level.”
Running an early stage business – especially one based oround an ingredient that most people have never heard of – is fun, but incredibly challenging, says Papanastasatos, who says last summer was “probably the most stressful summer of my life.
“We were moving from a 1,200 sq ft facility to a 15,000 sq ft facility and I think a lot of my gray hair dates back to that summer, but now I can see that it has really paid off.”