A dietary staple in India and China laced with protein, fiber, magnesium, iron, folate and potassium, mung beans are actually widely available to Americans in the form of beansprouts (which are typically made from mung beans), although most consumers are unaware of this, says Crunchsters Inc founder Frank Lambert, a software entrepreneur who had his eureka moment after making some home-made snacks for his daughter.
“I started making mung bean snacks for my daughter and she loved them, and started taking them to school, and then her friends started eating them and then before I knew it, Moms were coming around to our house asking to buy them for their kids, and I realized I was onto something."
Mung beans are like an empty canvas for flavors
He adds: “It’s funny…I came up with the idea all on my own and then I later discovered that a variation of this snack has been consumed in India for years – although they don’t sprout them, and the texture and flavor is different. So I can’t lay claim to be the first human being to come up with a mung bean snack!
“My wife Gina is a certified Yoga therapist, with extensive knowledge of Ayurvedic medicine and cuisine in which mung beans are prevalent, as they are non-allergenic and easily digested. So we take raw mung beans, sprout them [to start the germination process], flash fry them in high oleic sunflower oil, and add simple seasonings. None of the snacks [SRP $2.49/1.3oz snack pack; $5.99 for a 4oz sharing pack] have more than four or five ingredients, they are really simple.
“What’s great about mung beans is that they have a fairly nondescript flavor, they are like an empty canvas for flavors. This means they also work well in sweet dishes – you see this in Asian cooking - so we may work on some sweet as well as savory options down the line.”
Kids just gobbled them down instead of potato chips
Unlike some other virtuous ‘healthy’ snacks, which can have an unfamiliar taste and texture, Crunchsters actually taste a lot like potato chips, and make for a satisfying, crunchy snack, which is probably why children like them, despite their novelty, says Lambert.
“They are reminiscent of comforting junk food, except they’re not junk. We found that kids just gobbled them down instead of potato chips, so we’re displacing something in their diets with something with a far more robust nutritional profile.”
Nutritionally, indeed, they are a much better choice than potato chips, cheese puffs, or corn chips, says Lambert, who has just closed a financing round with VG Partners after going through the Accelfoods incubation program.
“They’re high in fiber and protein and low in fat and sugar, and they have a lot of vitamins and minerals. Owing to the sprouting process they are also easy to digest.”
Retailers don’t want etsy-like items on their shelves
Perhaps the biggest challenge for his fledgling food business has been branding, says Lambert, who says this was one of the main areas of discussion while going through the Accelfoods incubation program, during which Crunchsters underwent a packaging overhaul that transformed the appearance of the snacks and has helped open a lot of doors.
“If I’d known how packaging and branding was so key, I’d have tackled this far earlier,” says Lambert. “Retailers don’t want home-made, etsy-like items on their shelves. They want a professional national brand feel right from the outset, and I think we've achieved that with our new look.”
Notably, the front of the new pack doesn’t mention mung beans at all, but instead uses the phrase ‘sprouted protein snack’ with additional call outs highlighting their non-GMO, nut-free and gluten-free credentials, he says.
“We're not trying to hide anything [and mung beans are clearly listed on the ingredients list], but it's about creating a comfort zone for the consumer.
"I’ve found through all the sampling and conversations we’ve had that 80% of people don’t know what mung beans are, so if they are the very first thing you talk about, people are not sure if they will like them [which can put up barriers]. Whereas if you just say it’s a sprouted protein snack and ask people try them, they love them, and then you tell them about mung beans and they are really interested to find out more.”
Novelty factor is a double-edged sword
The company is very new [Crunchsters have been in stores for less than a year], so at this stage, the Lamberts have focused on getting their production facility up to speed, building a presence in independent natural and specialty stores and online, and getting their ducks in a row for a broader roll out in the Rocky Mountain area and the west coast over the coming months, he says.
The fact that Crunchsters appear to be the first sprouted mung bean snacks in the US is a double edged sword, he says, in that buyers love the novelty, but are also wary of taking on an untested product.
“It’s like anything, people are reluctant to try new things, so some buyers want to see data, the velocities you’re doing in other retailers before they take you on, but we’ve been getting a lot of interest as they work really well in the nuts section, like a kind of nut-free nut, or in the protein snacks section as a great alternative to protein bars, and also at the point of sale.”
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