Debuting at the same time as RightRice (which utilizes chickpeas, lentils, peas, and just under 10% regular rice and is also debuting at Whole Foods this month), Banza chickpea rice (MSRP $3.99) contains more than 90% chickpeas, plus some potato starch, xanthan gum, and sea salt.
It also has a 'bite' to it that distinguishes it from cauliflower rice, said co-founder Brian Rudolph.
"It's very different to cauliflower rice, which fits one kind of consumer need, to be less caloric [and increase veggie consumption], but chickpea rice [from a legume] is high in protein and fiber and it will make you feel full, so we're occupying different spaces and consumer needs.
"We did some sensory testing and it was preferred to quinoa from a taste and texture perspective."
Retailers, in turn, have been enthusiastic about the product -which is launching nationwide in Whole Foods this month and other retailers later in the year - because it's bringing something new to the mature rice category, he said.
"Our customers were also asking for it - they were using our pastas in things you'd use rice in like stir fries and grainbowls - and so we created a form factor that was closer to the experience they want in those kinds of dishes.
"Manufacturing it was harder than we thought it would be, as when you make something this small the dynamic changes a bit, so we use a slightly different recipe than our pasta [which uses chickpeas, tapioca, pea protein isolate and xanthan gum]. But we were in a good position to do this because we self manufacture our products so we have learned a lot about making extruded products with chickpeas."
Banza products are now in 11,000 stores nationwide
Launched in late 2014 by Brian and his brother Scott, Banza pasta is now in 11,000 stores from Kroger to Stop & Shop, and is the "the #1 pasta by velocity - dollar per distribution point - in Target and Whole Foods," claimed Rudolph.
Banza - which raised $7.5m in a Series A funding round in 2017 led by Beechwood Capital, with participation from Strand Equity Partners and RSE Ventures – manufactures its products on its own equipment at Virginia Park Foods in Riverside California, which has a 50 million lb facility producing products for Banza and other brands, none of which directly compete with Banza, said Rudolph.
Unlike a lot of food start-ups plugging their wares at Expo West and the Fancy Food Show, Banza products are aimed squarely at mainstream consumers who are looking for more protein and fiber in their rice and pasta, but are not prepared to compromise on taste or texture, said Rudolph, who has worked hard from the outset to position Banza as a mainstream brand, not a gluten-free ‘alternative’ or a high-end natural foods brand.
"The good thing is that as we see new trends, chickpeas tend to fit in. But I'd say our messaging really hasn't changed much since we started. Our mission is to make nutritious food more accessible, and making a positive impact for human health and the environment, and so far we've done this by taking the foods people love and making them from legumes. But there are a lot of directions the brand could go in.
"However, we're trying to be very disciplined about the way we grow - I've talked before about shiny object syndrome - and we want to be very particular about how and when we choose to move into new spaces."