The Make Your Mark series shows you how some of our favorite food brands got their start. Meet their makers!
There are a lot of really impressive things about Banza, a beloved chickpea pasta start-up founded by brothers Brian and Scott Rudolph back in 2014. First is that they’ve formulated a kind of pasta with nearly twice the protein, more than four times the fiber, and forty percent fewer net carbs than traditional pasta. You know, no big deal.
It’s also noteworthy that their chickpea-based alternative comes in tons of different shapes, giving customers the option to choose between penne, elbows, shells, rotini, spaghetti, linguine, rigatoni, cavatappi, wheels, and ziti. They also just gave the chickpea-treatment to rice. In addition to all that, they’ve managed to secure prime grocery real estate, positioning themselves on shelves right next to the very pantry staples they’re trying to imitate.
If you ask us, though, Banza’s most Herculean feat as a company (aside from all that) is that they’ve earned hordes of supporters who eat chickpea pasta not because they need to, but because they want to. It all boils down to the fact that somehow eating Banza doesn’t taste like a sacrifice — because it’s just delicious.
To demystify this unicorn of a food company and get a crash course in all things chickpeas, we caught up with Brian and Scott for the inside scoop. Here’s how they got Banza off the ground, what it’s like working together, and why they love legumes so much.
People think that there’s this single “aha” moment for entrepreneurs just starting out. Can you pinpoint one for Banza?
Brian: It was definitely more gradual than a lightbulb moment. I grew up a super-picky eater who wouldn’t eat anything other than pasta, bagels, and chicken nuggets. As I got older, I started focusing more on what I was eating and learned that cutting out gluten made me feel a lot better. So it all really started with this pain point that I couldn’t eat the pasta that I loved.
So you tried your hand at whipping up a version you could eat?
Brian: None of the gluten-free pastas (usually made of rice or corn) on the market had the nutritional value I was looking for, so I started experimenting with chickpea flour around 2013. I tried out a bunch of different recipes, rolling out the pasta dough with a bottle of wine (I didn’t have a rolling pin), and boiling it to see what happened. Then I got more serious and bought a hand crank online. I really upgraded when I got an electric pasta maker from a pawn shop — that was a big win. The original final product looked more like french fries than pasta. It was very thick.
When did this go from home kitchen hobby to full-fledged business?
Brian: After I had been making the pasta in my Detroit kitchen for a while, I started bringing it to work or sharing it with friends and a lot of people really liked it. They were interested in the idea of being able to make this kind of pasta knowing it had a better nutritional profile than traditional pasta. I saw that the idea resonated.
Scott: At the time that Brian was getting excited about his chickpea pasta, I was working at a start-up and had come from a private-equity background. The idea of eating a healthy pasta that tasted great seemed like an obvious need for the world and I knew that Brian and I would make a good team, so I joined him in 2014. We started out by launching a Crowdfunding campaign to feel out interest. Then a producer for Restaurant Startups on CNBC asked to film us. We put together a business plan and found a co-packer in six weeks. Looking back, I still can’t believe how much we got done in such a short period of time.
What’s it like to be brothers and work together on such a high level?
Scott: Brian and I are eight years apart. Growing up we were close, but eight years is a large gap! When we started the business we needed to develop a new kind of relationship. Of course we went through some early growing pains, but at the end of the day, we’re family. We learned to play to each other’s strengths and clearly defined our focuses. Brian is incredibly gifted and I would say that he’s the North Star of the company. He should just say thank you now.
Brian: Thank you. Yes, Scott mentioned we are eight years apart and I am the younger one. When I was 13 and he was 21, the things we were thinking about were very different. I always looked up to my brother, but I never would have guessed that we’d end up working together. But I’m really grateful. To this day, when we disagree, it’s never personal.
Biggest hurdles starting out?
Brian: Making chickpea pasta in your home kitchen and making it to scale is very different. Regular pasta is straightforward enough to scale up, but chickpea pasta isn’t, and we couldn’t have known that. There were some real headaches early on.We went into our first meeting with Meijer grocery stores without packaging for a fully finished product, but we had this incredible ambition and story and ended up launching in all of their stores.
Scott: Today, our biggest challenge is keeping up with demand. While that sounds like a good problem to have, empty shelves can impact our relationship with customers. To prepare for that in the future, we are building our own manufacturing facility. It’s been a tremendous amount of work.
What surprised you most about starting Banza?
Brian: I love the way that people love food and how it can help create personal connections. We have a weekly team call where part of it is sharing a note from a customer. It’s amazing how personal it can be and the types of stories that people share with us.
Scott: I’ve been surprised by how willing people in the industry have been to give advice. Chobani is a company that we’ve always admired. We met up with them at an early trade show and cold emailed a bunch of their team members. To this day, we are in contact with much of their early team and were accepted into the Chobani Incubator program. We are always returning the favor as well. There are common challenges that other food businesses face, so it’s important to support each other.
Unlike a lot of other alternative food brands, Banza is super successful at converting and retaining regular pasta-lovers! Why do you think that is?
Brian: There are two things that come to mind. One would be the product itself. We are constantly thinking about ways to improve the taste and texture, and we have made some real progress. Second is that our brand is something that allows for more mainstream appeal. We think of ourselves as nutrition-positive. We don’t shame regular pasta. We don’t talk about what our pasta is not — we talk about what it is, which is high in protein and fiber and made from sustainable legumes.
Scott: We modeled our strategy around Chobani and their early decisions. They changed the perimeter of the grocery store. The center of the store, especially the pasta aisle, hadn’t changed in 100 years. We knew that to change the pasta category, we needed to be in the mainstream pasta aisle, not in a corner of the gluten-free aisle. We wanted to position our pasta as something for everyone. One of my favorite things to hear is when people can’t tell the difference.
What went into your branding and design decisions?
Brian: We’ve always taken the approach that less is more. When we first launched, our packaging was super different from what we have today. It was pretty loud and a little busy. We recognized that it said too much the message got lost.
When we designed the packaging that we use today, we challenged ourselves to be very intentional. There are only a few core messages: made from chickpeas, high protein, high fiber. We chose to not put gluten-free on the front. It’s a very minimal amount of information in a very loud color. The color orange was very intentional too. The pasta aisle is a sea of blue — making our boxes orange was unexpected.
What led to the expansion into the chickpea rice space earlier this year?
Brian: From a high level, our mission is to make nutritious food more accessible. What that means is taking foods that people love and making it from legumes instead. We’ve learned that chickpeas and legumes as a whole are an incredible category and ingredient that we just don’t eat enough of. Legumes are also sometimes cited as the most environmentally efficient form of protein, so we are motivated by both nutrition and sustainability. We wanted to focus on other foods that are typically high in carbs, and rice was a natural next step.
Scott: We are constantly asking our community online and in person what they need and want, and that informs our product development process. It’s natural for us to be in comfort foods that people love and crave. We want to innovate on those things — hence, rice.
Where else in the food space needs innovation?
Brian: As a country we eat too much wheat, rice, and corn. And it’s not a coincidence because they are all heavily subsidized by the government. If we can get more legumes and other crops into people’s lives, it would be a big win.
Scott: We think innovation in food should be about totally rethinking certain categories from the ground up — not just inserting an ingredient that’s slightly more nutritious into a pre-existing product.
Right now, we’re thinking about how a lot of our customers are young families. One of our values is that food is family. I have 2.5-year-old twins. My kids are just learning about sustainable food products for the first time. I’m always thinking about the ways my kids can grow up as healthy as possible and also enjoy their food at the same time — and I know a lot of other people do too.
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