DETROIT — At 23 years old, Brian Rudolph had created something that, alongside the hoverboard scooter and Tesla Model X, would be named among Time magazine’s best inventions of 2015. He, with his brother Scott, co-founded Banza, a brand of chickpea-based pasta with twice the protein, four times the fiber and 40% fewer net carbohydrates than traditional wheat pasta. Today he hopes his business will become the Greek yogurt of the pasta category.
“When we initially started the business, we looked at what Chobani did as a guiding light to what we wanted to do in pasta,” Mr. Rudolph told Food Business News. “The reason we put Banza next to traditional pasta in the grocery store is that’s one of the things that worked for Chobani in easing the customer into a more nutritious, higher-protein, lower-sugar option.”
At Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore, Banza is showcasing six new pasta shapes, including angel hair, cavatappi, linguine, wheels, ziti and rigatoni. The latest additions join a lineup that includes shells, rotini, penne, elbows and spaghetti.
“We want to make sure we offer everything that traditional pasta does with our brand,” Mr. Rudolph said. “We’ve gotten requests for some of the most obscure shapes. I can’t tell you how many people have requested tennis racquet shape.”
Mr. Rudolph began making chickpea pasta in his kitchen several years ago after discovering he could no longer eat one of his favorite childhood meals.
“At some point as I grew up I realized certain foods didn’t agree with me, and pasta was one of them,” he said.
He chose chickpeas because he loved the taste and, in pasta form, the legume’s yellow hue resembles that of wheat.
“If you’re going to make something with a new ingredient, it’s important that it be accessible and something that isn’t too scary to give to your kids,” he said.
Although he created the product to satisfy his personal dietary needs, Mr. Rudolph doesn’t want Banza to be typecast as a gluten-free brand.
“If we position it as an alternative product that is just for people with allergies, that’s not going to get the family that’s just trying to feed their kids something a little bit better,” Mr. Rudolph said. “The way we’re going to do that is by reminding them as they’re buying traditional pasta that there is also this highly nutritious option available.”
Over the coming months, Banza products will be sold in about 7,000 retail outlets nationwide. While Mr. Rudolph declined to disclose overall sales figures, he said the brand has grown 540% year over year in Whole Foods Market stores.
Since Banza’s debut, several other brands have emerged, offering similar pasta products made with beans, peas and lentils. Mr. Rudolph sees the additional competition as a boost to the emerging segment.
“We have to recognize that such a large percentage of the country still doesn’t know that this product concept exists,” he said. “It’s an exciting challenge, and if more companies enter the space, that’s one more step toward making a more nutritious food accessible.”
The brand was selected late last year to participate in the Chobani Food Incubator, a program launched to mentor and support entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry. Resources included a $25,000 grant to help grow the business, plus support from Chobani teams, top executives and experts.
“I started this business at 23 and had to be willing to admit that there are a lot of things you don’t know that you don’t know,” Mr. Rudolph said. “It’s amazing how much there is to learn in this industry. Seeking guidance and mentorship has made a big difference for our team.”
This summer, Banza closed on a $7.5 million Series A investment round led by Beechwood Capital. The financing will enable the company to increase production capacity, accelerate new product development and support team growth.
“When we think about how we’re going to grow our business, right now we think there’s an incredible opportunity in pasta and we’re just scratching the surface,” Mr. Rudolph said. “While there are a ton of extensions we could make, for now, we’re really focusing on how we become one of the top selling pastas in the stores we’re already in, and what kinds of partnerships we can make or other ways we can build awareness.“Again, there’s still so many people who don’t know this better version of pasta exists.”