SANTA MONICA, CALIF. — Just because you can milk a gorilla doesn’t mean you should.
That was the message behind a marketing stunt by Barnana, a Santa Monica-based maker of banana-based snacks, which faked the debut of a fair-trade grass-fed gorilla milk at Natural Products Expo West last March. The campaign was launched to highlight the responsibility food companies have in shaping how people eat and how food is sourced, said Caue Suplicy, founder and chief executive officer.
“There’s a lot of things we can do, and some companies do it just because they can, not because it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Suplicy told Food Business News.
For its part, Barnana sources organic bananas that otherwise would have been wasted on Latin America farms to make chewy banana bites in various flavors, including peanut butter, coconut, chocolate, coffee and apple cinnamon. Organic banana farmers lose up to 20% of their yield because bananas may be too big or too small, a little too ripe or a bit scuffed. But for Barnana’s purposes, these otherwise rejected fruits are perfect.
“For the first couple of years, we didn’t really mention the upcycling because I didn’t know that people cared or that it was worth talking about,” said Mr. Suplicy, who launched Barnana in 2012. “But every time I had informal conversations with someone and I told them where our bananas came from, people said, ‘This is so unique; I didn’t know about this problem.’ And that’s when we realized it makes sense to talk about this because by doing so we might motivate other people to try to be more efficient and reduce food waste like us.”
Mr. Suplicy began eating dehydrated bananas as a child in Brazil.
“My parents were hippies in the ‘70s, trying to make everything they could at home,” he recalled.
Years later he started carrying and sharing the snack as a professional triathlete in Southern California. At the time, he never expected to create a business.
But then the coconut water craze hit the United States.
“It was a Brazilian commodity that was transformed into a premium product,” he said. “At that point coconut water in Brazil was only available out of the coconut… All of sudden, coconut water was available in the grocery store in different flavors in a cool little package, more convenient.”
After another Brazilian commodity, acai berries, gained popularity among Americans, inspiration struck.
“And that’s when I had the idea, why not bring those bananas?” Mr. Suplicy said. “I’m already eating them. My friends like the product, and unlike acai and coconut water, people know bananas, so it would be a lot easier to introduce product like that. That is what sparked the idea to start the company.”
The past year has been a busy one for Barnana, which in January closed on a $5.3 million strategic funding round led by Trently Advisors with additional investment by Blueberry Ventures, Boulder Food Group and Finn Capital Partners. The company also recently inked a distribution deal with Starbucks to sell its snacks in 8,000 stores.
Mr. Suplicy said company revenue is doubling every year with plenty of runway ahead.
“Most of our sales are still in natural, so the potential we have is incredible,” he said. “We’re just stepping now into the conventional grocery stores. In the natural channel, I can tell you we are the fastest growing company in our category.”
Also this year, Barnana introduced its second product line, Banana Brittle, after consumers requested a crunchy product. Flavors include gingersnap, peanut butter, toasted coconut and chocolate. The snacks are organic and gluten-free and made with oat flour, coconut palm sugar, coconut oil almond flour and cassava starch. Bananas are the first ingredient.
“Since the beginning we were very focused on the chewy line just because it was the first of its kind, and we didn’t want people to think they were another banana chip,” Mr. Suplicy said. “That was the only banana product on the market, banana chips, which a lot of times are fried in bad oils or have added sugars, and we didn’t want people to get confused.”
The company plans to launch a new banana-based product line next year at Expo West.“Our goal for Barnana is to be the leader in banana-based products,” Mr. Suplicy said. “You’d be surprised how many things can be made out of banana. We can go from savory to sweet in all different shapes or forms. To date, no one has ever tried to be the brand associated with banana-based products. That is our goal. You have the big players like Chiquita and Dole with their branded bananas, but we are first company to only focus on banana-based products.”