Two years ago, chickpeas had the kind of breakout year that food developers can only dream about.
Product launches of chickpea-based items soared 79 percent in 2019, according to the Mintel Global New Product Database, as people in search of gluten-free alternatives turned to what are otherwise known as garbanzo beans.
But when the pandemic hit, chickpeas’ boom began quieting down. New product launches with chickpeas as an ingredient fell 22 percent in 2020.
Home bound consumers gravitated to products with which they were most familiar, less interested in taking risks than in normal times.
Now, however, interest in chickpeas may be rebounding, perhaps because locked down diners are looking for a healthier change from the dishes that comforted them during this past year of COVID-19.
In the midst of that uncertainty, Banza decided to expand its reach. Founded in 2014 as a maker of chickpea pasta, its products are now on sale in 15,000 stores across the country, with Publix supermarkets as its latest new outlets.
Last October, it introduced pizzas with a chickpea crust, giving it a stake in the growing market for gluten-free pies.
Banza CEO Brian Rudolph admits the move is a little unsettling.
“It’s a scary time to launch new products,” he says. “Your customers aren’t walking through the grocery store, they’re not browsing, they want to get in and get out. For a lot of people, they’re delaying something new.”
But, Rudolph believes Banza’s chickpea crust pizzas fit the intersection of healthy food and comfort, meeting diners’ twin priorities. The Banza pizza lineup includes four cheese, veggie, Margherita and plain pizza crusts.
Many shoppers will immediately compare them with cauliflower crust pizza, which has become ubiquitous in stores across the country. “Certainly, the explosion of cauliflower crust was an inspiration,” he says.
Samples sent by Banza baked up with the same crisp texture as pies from companies like Caulipower. But Rudolph says there’s a difference. Cauliflower’s main attraction, he believes, is that it is lower in calories along with being gluten-free.
Chickpea crust, he says, is high in fiber and high in protein. A serving of Banza pizza has 17 grams of protein and five grams of fiber.
Rudolph wants consumers to think of it as a pizza they could eat nightly, rather than an indulgent pie that they have once a week on their family’s pizza night.
The lineup does not include a meat-topped pizza, which Rudolph says would be counter to the company’s sustainable mission and ethical values. “We draw the line to not use meat in our pizzas,” he says.
But he hints a pizza with plant-based meat might be a future product. “We’ll definitely be continuing to challenge ourselves,” Rudolph says.
Rudolph was named to FORBES 30 Under 30 in Food and Beverage in 2016, two years after founding Banza with his brother. In 2020, he was one of the judges who chose last year’s group.
Banza produces its products at a factory that it owns in Riverside, Calif. Having its own manufacturing facility means it can add new pasta shapes to its lineup as soon as it feels they’ll find a market, he says, although the consistency of chickpea pasta can make it harder to process than a wheat-based version.
“We take a good look at the data, and decide what will do well, where,” Rudolph says. “Certain shapes are hard to make, even in conventional pasta.”
As the nation slowly begins to recover from the pandemic, Rudolph says Banza is “keeping a close watch” on consumers’ buying habits.
He believes they will spend more time grocery shopping, and may be eager to dine in restaurants again, which he’d personally like to see.
“I think, overall, it has been a very strange experience,” he says of the pandemic. “Things were so terrible on every level, and maybe that accrued positively to our business, because they couldn’t eat in restaurants.”
Whichever direction it takes next, Rudolph says Banza wants to continue focusing on “center of the plate foods” and dishes that can be shared among family and friends.
“We like the idea of creating foods that are communal,” he says. “Things that are as easy to cook for two people as for 10. It feels really special to create those kinds of foods.”
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