Green chickpeas, or young garbanzo beans, have started to hit food aisles in various forms; including traditional products like hummus, but Vana Life Foods is doing something a little different: legume bowls.
Established just over one year ago, the start-up’s green chickpea legume bowls are stocked in more than 1,000 stores across the east and mid-west, including Wegmans and Whole Foods.
The legume bowls retail for under $5 and come in four varieties with green chickpeas the primary ingredient, including chipotle, black beans and sweetcorn and chimchurri, coconut and butternut squash. The packs can be torn open, heated in the microwave and eaten directly from the bowl-style pouch.
Creating a ‘superfood’ sense
Krishan Walia, founder and CEO of Vana Life Foods, said sales so far had proved very promising.
“It’s a category that not a lot exists in, and that’s why retailers are jumping on our product,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But at the same time, it’s got its ups and downs; benefits and downfalls,” he said, which was why R&D is underway to expand the soup and legume division, as well as stretch into new categories.
“We are developing a snack line division and a protein division,” Walia said. “It’s a huge risk. If you read Nielsen’s data, you understand the percentage of brands or products that make it to the market, and actually grow and stay on the shelf and rotate, is less than 5%... So, theoretically the odds are against a product succeeding.
“… But what we’re trying to get into – a snack line – it’s essentially a high-volume line and high volume lines create that awareness.”
The CEO said he wanted Vana Life Foods to be considered the go-to green chickpea company within the next five years.
“We want to be known as the green chickpea superfood company. When you look at us as an ingredient supplier, you’ll see you have Vana’s green chickpea powders, meals, burger patties, or whatever, down the line.”
A ‘what’ chickpea?
Green chickpeas are harvested early – before they dry up and naturally fall off – and are therefore considerably higher in protein, fiber and other vitamins and minerals.
Walia said it was this impressive nutritional profile that meant the legume fitted into the superfood category, although consumer education was proving a big hurdle.
“Consumer education is one of our main challenges that we’re coming against. If you go to the supermarket you’ll see green hummus; purple hummus, but these are all flavor-induced with chive or avocado as an ingredient and there have been brands out there that have failed; that have been in the market based on colors. So, just coming in perspective of that, it’s the education that we need to try and convey through social media or PR or different channels that depict a green chickpea as ‘the green chickpea superfood.'
“And that’s what I’m trying to focus on in building our logo and brand name,” he said.
Once consumers connected an ingredient as a ‘superfood,' Walia said it was immediately considered a healthy, viable option in their mind and so this was the easiest direction to take to improve market traction.
The green chickpea network
Walia said Vana Life Foods worked very closely with its grower, who had patents on all the harvesting technology, as well as a couple of other small food companies in the sector, which helped maintain a competitive edge.
“There are only selective amounts of individual companies that are involved… We decided together that for as long as the patents are there, and protected, we want to maintain this within our tight circle.”
The goal, he said, was to build awareness around the protein-packed legume while remaining relatively small-scale.
“We’re sitting on a commodity that we all manage different divisions of in terms of final products – one hummus, one soup and one snack,” he explained. “We are working together, but it’s more so the growers making sure there are no individual companies out there going over each other’s categories.”
While large corporations had already expressed interest in the green chickpea network, the CEO said the group was determined not to sell out.
“When you get to a certain level, that’s what happens – your biggest problem is staying away from those big sharks that chew you up and make you a mass market and forget the true passions the company started off with.”
A ‘better’ business from scratch
Walia self-funded Vana Life Foods after selling two of his own businesses – a real estate and fashion company. Maintaining company values, therefore, was a very personal priority as the business evolved, he said.
“We have a mission of actually giving back a lot; a mission of giving back to the earth.”
Vana Life Foods, he said, was dedicated to local charity work and eventually wanted to affiliate with the UN to try and make a difference, big or small, to world hunger.
“You don’t have to be a billionaire to be a philanthropist. I have Vana meals in my car and whenever I’m at a red light or stop sign and there’s a homeless person there, I hand out meals. That’s the way I live my life and that’s what keeps me going.”