At 25, Brian Rudolph's interests and talents don't differ much from those of most other Millennial entrepreneurs. He's a self-proclaimed "weirdo" who frequents the gym, loves anything having to do with tech and innovation, makes electronic music (it helps him unwind), and loves chickpeas--a whole lot.
"At one point, I was going through two pounds of hummus from Costco every week," says Rudolph. But his obsession with garbanzo beans isn't entirely bad. In fact, one might call it the real inspiration that led him to create Banza, a brand of low-carb pasta made from chickpeas--instead of wheat. Free of gluten, soy, and wheat, it's a healthy twist on one of America's most beloved dishes. Whatever shape you fancy--rotini, shells, elbows, penne--Banza contains twice the protein and four times the fiber of traditional pasta.
After graduating with a finance degree from Emory University, Rudolph was determined to start a food company that was ambitious and relatable to the masses. While testing out a few recipes one day, it occurred to him that everyone loves pasta. "We really just want a healthier alternative that actually tastes good," he says.
Banza's pasta production launched in 2013 out of a tiny apartment in Detroit--with Rudolph's brother Scott, 33, as co-founder. "Chickpea pasta is hard to make. We tried working with a large manufacturer and everything turned to mush," he recalls. After deciding to work with a small local pasta maker, and much trial and error, they finally nailed down a recipe to run with. In 2015, the brothers landed their first big break: a $500,000 prize at the Accelerate Michigan Innovation Competition. This ultimately led to a successful crowdsourcing campaign that raised $1.3 million in funding.
Rudolph didn't set out to change the food industry in an outlandish way; he just wanted an alternative that was healthy and simple. "You can get a highly processed food and still have it be healthy, but we didn't want our product to be rocket science," he says, adding that no one else has cracked the code on making healthy pasta from chickpeas. Affordability, accessibility, and convenience are key to the business model. "My dream is to create incredible, category-changing food products that improve people's lives, so we can all take steps toward eating better," says Rudolph.
The concept of creating a healthier pasta alternative actually makes sense--mostly because Americans love pasta. Google's recent 2016 Food Trends Report declared a "pasta comeback," suggested by the rise in number of folks searching for "rigatoni" and "linguine" recipes on the internet. And over the past few years, adopting a gluten-free diet has become both a cultural and dietary priority for many.
For pasta lovers who have yet to give Banza a taste, the company's astonishing growth rate speaks for itself. After a year of commercial operation, Banza has expanded across the U.S. to 2,000 stores, including Whole Foods, ShopRite, and Fairway--where it was crowned as the top-selling pasta. Although he declined to provide 2015 revenue, Rudolph says it grew more than 1,500 percent from the previous year.
From a pricing standpoint, chickpeas are incredibly efficient as a crop option--costing an average of 22 cents per pound to grow. Quinoa falls in the range of several dollars, and wheat sells at a much cheaper price of 10 cents since it's subsidized by the government.
Chobani played a huge role in the business model from the very start. "I saw what made them successful and realized the similarities between Greek yogurt and a pasta made from chickpeas," says Rudolph. The way he sees it, it's all about creating affordable and tasty alternatives in grocery story aisles. Take, for instance, what Silk did to the milk industry in 2010, when it introduced the alternative of less allergenic almond milk. Chobani disrupted the yogurt market with non-GMO, high-protein Greek yogurt in 2007. Now, it's a market leader in the Greek yogurt category, a market estimated to reach $4 billion by 2019.
When it had clicked that a similar business strategy would work for Banza, Scott reached out cold to Nicki Briggs, Chobani's former chief communications officer. Briggs then introduced the brothers to former chief finance officer James McConeghy, and Kyle O'Brien, who is currently head of sales. All three are now on Banza's advisory board.
"Customer feedback has been tremendous as consumers are becoming more aware of Banza on our shelves," said Will Magistrelli, director of specialty grocery at ShopRite. "It's one of our fastest-growing brands." The supermarket chain started carrying Banza after meeting the founders at Expo East in Baltimore in 2014.
Rudolph has high expectations for the company and hopes to expand into other categories, like pizza and cereal. "If Banza is successful, we've created a new and higher standard for shelf stable foods, by taking the foods that people love and making them better," he says. "We're on a mission, and it's ambitious."