A chickpea enthusiast who grew up in India but has spent his adult life in the US, Minnesota-based Kumar first started making chickpea butter a few years ago for friends of his daughter with nut allergies, realized he might be onto something good, and founded The Amazing Chickpea.
If you add dry roasted sunflower seeds and olive oil to dry roasted chickpeas, plus a small amount of cane sugar, sea salt and organic palm oil (as a stabilizer), the net result is remarkably similar to peanut butter, making it an ideal alternative for shoppers looking for avoid nuts or those simply looking for more options in the emerging alternative butters segment, Kumar told FoodNavigator-USA.
From a nutritional perspective, Kumar's chickpea butter is pretty similar to peanut butter, with a similar level of fiber and sugar, slightly less fat and sodium and slightly less protein (however each serving still contains 5g protein), while chickpeas are also packed with micronutrients including vitamin K, folate, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese, choline, selenium, iron, vitamin B-6, and magnesium.
“We're not marketing it as better than peanut butter, it's just another healthy option in the alternative nut butter category."
80-90% of our customers don’t have nut allergies
As for the target market, he originally thought the nut-free part of the story would be the key purchase driver - and some retailers have looked to merchandise it next to allergy-friendly foods - but has discovered that the product has far more mainstream appeal.
"We’ve had a lot of interest from parents who want to make peanut butter sandwiches for their kids but their schools don’t allow peanuts, so they love this alternative. But we’re also finding that more than 80-90% of our customers don’t have nut allergies at all, they just love the taste of chickpea butter and love having more options in the nut and seed butter aisle," said Kumar.
Choc 'a chic: Half the sugar of Nutella
A new choc-a-chic variant – in which cocoa powder is used instead of sunflower seeds – has also been popular with kids, while parents see it as a healthier alternative to Nutella (it has half the sugar, less than half the saturated fat, twice the fiber and slightly more protein) that tastes just as delicious, said Kumar.
"It's vegan, with no dairy, and much less sugary than Nutella, so it's a healthier option."
But being first in any category is a double-edged sword, in that it's great being ahead of the game, but you also have to educate consumers, and that's tough for any start-up, said Kumar, who says the price - at $7.99 for a 12oz jar and $9.99 for a 16oz jar - is the same or better than most alternative nut butters.
"The biggest challenge is encouraging trial, because when people try it, they love it, but they don't know what it's going to taste like, so sampling is going to be key. It's not hummus, the taste and texture is much closer to peanut butter."
That said, the growth of the hummus category coupled with the emergence of chickpea-fueled brands such as Biena Foods, The Good bean, Hippeas and Banza and the launch of chickpea flours and proteins are all slowly helping to raise awareness of chickpeas in the US, he said.
The go to market strategy
Right now, the bulk of Kumar’s business is online, via his own website and through Amazon, but after exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show and Expo West this year, he’s now aggressively pursuing bricks and mortar accounts to take the business up a gear in 2018.
Right now, the one frustration he has is that the products are nut-free, but are made in a factory that processes nuts, which is clearly stated on pack.
While the factory carefully controls for cross contamination, individuals with severe nut allergies typically avoid products with such disclaimers, so Kumar is looking for a nut-free site that could meet his needs in future.