Pasta is already fantastic. It’s been fantastic for as long as we can remember. So when we heard that Banza wanted to make a better pasta, we weren’t even sure what that meant. After chatting with co-founder Brian Rudolph, however, we got a clearer picture. Banza, a pasta made from chickpeas, has double the protein, four times the fiber and nearly half the net carbs of your normal noodles. According to Rudolph all that makes Banza more filling, which helps prevent overeating. With recently launched products, more on the horizon and acceptance into the Chobani Food Incubator, Banza has a lot going on. We asked Brian about the evolution of Banza, the gluten-free movement and the future of the company.
How did you get your start?
I joined a program called Venture for America, the goal is to create jobs through entrepreneurship, and I actually worked at a technology start-up for a year and half before starting my own business. I originally thought I would start a technology business, but there is something about food you don’t get with technology. It’s the connection with the people who are trying your product. It can bring people together. It’s pretty special. I ended up getting roped into food, rather than the tech world, and I haven’t wanted to look back since.
Do you have any culinary experience?
No, not at all. I was really just tinkering with all kinds of things, whether it was high protein ice creams or breads made with almond flour or pancakes made with chickpeas. I was trying to see how far I could push the limit. [Banza] is a product I was originally making in my kitchen for myself because I felt like maybe I could actually have something nutritious when I was eating pasta. It started off as a hobby and at some point it clicked that other people might want a better pasta, too. So I did a crowdfunding campaign to validate this concept, after making it continually in my kitchen and bringing it in to work and seeing if people would want it on a larger scale.
How did you decide on chickpeas?
Chickpeas are a very affordable ingredient and can be grown economically. They’re an environmentally efficient source of protein as well.
Are you gluten-free yourself?
I am, although I rarely talk about it. I would say it was definitely a motivation for using alternative ingredients when I was testing recipes, but it was mostly about eating more beans. Beans are a very healthy food. I was eating a ton of hummus, black beans, pinto beans and I was kind of getting sick of them in these forms. My intense interest in eating more beans started with being gluten-free, but trying to eat more healthily was the driving force.
Why so many beans?
As I started doing more reading, I learned that we are eating fewer beans than we ever have before. And in the areas of the world where people live the longest, they eat a tremendous amount of beans. There is definitely a strong correlation between eating more beans and a healthier lifestyle.
What is your opinion of the gluten-free movement and the stigma of a gluten-free diet?
It’s actually a really interesting and relevant question. If you look on our packaging, it doesn’t actually say “gluten-free” on the front of it and that’s very purposeful. What we recognized was a lot of people who aren’t looking for gluten-free products are turned off by products that are made to be gluten-free. It’s really not a focus of our brand. The point of our product is to be the pasta for everyone, so not just necessarily for people who have allergies. Of course, it’s great that it’s a solution for people who have allergies and our facility has no gluten on the premises, but the term “gluten-free” can be limiting. We’re focused on putting our product next to the mainstream pastas of the world, so the person who is buying regular pasta sees our pasta as the better version, not just the better version for their cousin who has a food allergy.
What do you like to cook with Banza?
My roommates will call it garbage plates, when I make everything I can possibly find and throw it on the pasta. Literally any vegetables I can throw into the mix. Garlic, olive oil, butter. Combining all of that and putting it on top of the spaghetti. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It usually leads to unique combinations. Despite its unflattering name, it kind of speaks to our story. A big part of our success has been a willingness to experiment and fail. We started at a farmers market in Detroit called Eastern Market. We tried all kinds of concepts, dishes, products and even descriptions of products until we found what people liked. A lot of things failed. But over time we improved the product thanks to what we learned.
You just launched mac and cheese and spaghetti. How did those become your next steps?
Mac and cheese was a natural expansion because people were buying our pasta and taking Kraft cheese and putting it on top. We figured we might as well give them a cheese that’s better and specifically created to pair well with our pasta. That was just based on watching what people were doing and listening to what they were telling us.
The spaghetti is what I’m most excited about because it is what I always made in my kitchen in the beginning. I really love spaghetti, which seems universal. People have been asking about it for a long time. We were always hoping to be able to make it, but it took forever to figure it out. Finally, the moving pieces came together. It’s a totally different process from our other shapes
What’s next for Banza?
We’re doing the Chobani Food Incubator. We want to change pasta. Eventually we hope that 50% of the pasta people eat is chickpea pasta. We’ve always looked at what Chobani did with yogurt and hoped to do the same with pasta. Now that they’ve taken us into their incubator, they will help us as we continue to grow. I’m pretty pumped about that.