How Banza, a Chickpea Pasta Start-Up, Thrives on Attention
November 30, 2016
By Steve Friess
DETROIT — The first big blast of attention could have easily ended the Rudolph brothers’ business dreams.
This was their chance to impress the restaurateur Joe Bastianich and the chef Tim Love, stars of the CNBC reality show “Restaurant Startup.”
They thought they had the perfect concept: Banza, a chickpea-based pasta. But on national television, they absorbed insults over package design and the brand’s name. More damning, the hosts questioned whether the young entrepreneurs even had “a real love or understanding of how your product tastes for your consumers.”
That was just the first five minutes. In another made-for-TV flourish, Mr. Bastianich threw an open package of uncooked noodles in frustration at the chief executive, Brian Rudolph.
Yet the public humiliation would pay off handsomely for Mr. Rudolph and his brother, Scott, the chief financial officer.
Brian Rudolph, in particular, understood throughout the journey from obscurity to the shelves of nationwide retailers that drawing attention by any means necessary to himself and, by proxy, the product, was a modern marketplace imperative.
Any number of his efforts could have blown up in the brothers’ faces.
But even those inauspicious moments on “Restaurant Startup” gave way to on-camera praise from a Whole Foods executive. Banza also drew compliments from most diners who tried it at the pop-up restaurant the brothers had to build as part of the show. And it led to $75,000 in start-up capital from Mr. Bastianich.
“We recognize there are these opportunities to get the word out and potentially accelerate our growth pretty dramatically,” said Brian Rudolph, 26, who developed the initial chickpea pasta prototype.
The show, taped in January 2014, did not air until that summer. By then, using Mr. Bastianich’s investment, $17,581 from an online crowdfunding campaign and $45,000 in seed money from Venture for America, a nonprofit group, the brothers produced the pasta needed to meet an August 2014 deadline to fill their first major grocery order for Meijer, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based chain.
Two years later, Banza is available in more than 3,300 stores across the United States. As of October, 250,000 boxes — five shapes of pasta and four versions of macaroni and cheese — were sold a month, according to Scott Rudolph, 34. In November, it began appearing in Target stores nationwide.
The brothers, who are from Pleasantville, N.Y., have five employees in New York and six in Detroit. They would not disclose financial results.
Such rapid growth is a testament to their tenacity, but brand promotion has remained central to their strategy. Throughout 2015, they even allowed Cynthia Wade, an Oscar-winning documentarian, to follow them for a recently released feature-length film called “Generation Startup.”
The origins of the Banza product line, however, were decidedly low-key, low-tech and personal. When Brian Rudolph was developing the pasta for his own consumption in the kitchen of his Detroit apartment, he was casting about for a start-up idea of his own, focusing on technology. He had been sent to Detroit to be the first employee of a brand-promotion app called Quikly by Venture for America, a fellowship program that puts aspiring entrepreneurs fresh out of college to work for start-ups.
His tech ideas fell flat with his Venture for America mentors and colleagues. But when he casually mentioned the chickpea foods he was making for himself to meet his need for high-protein, gluten-free food, something clicked.
“I couldn’t find a single person who didn’t want a healthier pasta,” he said. “If there was ever a time to go for something extremely ambitious, it felt like 23 was the time.”
Banza’s first brush with national attention was incidental, a small reference to the company in a USA Today article in February 2014 about Venture for America. The nonprofit group had run the crowdfunding contest that Banza won a month earlier. That contest had also drawn the attention of the producers of “Restaurant Startup.”
In the months between the USA Today mention and the CNBC show’s broadcast, Brian Rudolph began scouring the internet for journalists and “influencers” who might be interested in Banza. He then sent them customized email pitches referring to specific articles and reports they had done.
“I’d leave comments on the photos of people with big Instagram followings and say, ‘Hey this looks really good, would you want to try our product?’ ” Mr. Rudolph said from behind the orange folding table that is his desk at in the company’s headquarters, in a refurbished warehouse overlooking the Detroit River. “When an influencer shares our product, other influencers want our product. That was one way of getting the product out there for a small business without a ton of resources.”
He acknowledged the risks, recalling how stung he was when the food blogger Richa Hingle wrote negatively about Banza. Even now, he continues to try to offer Ms. Hingle the more recent version of the product, though he is unsure whether she has changed her opinion.
“If there’s one out of 100 people who don’t like your product, you’re taking a chance because those are going to be the people who are going to be very vocal,” he said. “You have to deal with that.”
The marketing efforts ran in tandem with constant appearances at pitch competitions, events where entrepreneurs vie for seed money. At one at the University of Michigan, Brian Rudolph met a judge who connected him with the buyers for Meijer. Months later, the chain placed an order for 20,000 boxes of Banza to stock its 215 stores.
The Mejier rollout occurred when Mr. Rudolph felt it wise to avoid publicity, he said. When production was scaled up, problems emerged with the recipe that made the pasta disintegrate if cooked incorrectly.
The weekend before the pasta shipped, he hired a crew to slap a sticker on each box with new cooking instructions. He then spent several months adjusting the manufacturing process, eventually finding a way to work with the dough that would allow his formula to cook the way typical pasta does.
“We didn’t promote it because we weren’t necessarily proud of the product on the shelf at that point,” Brian Rudolph said. “We didn’t want to hurt the brand with a substandard product.”
By early 2015, food chains including Sprouts, ShopRite and Wegmans started stocking an improved version of Banza, and Mr. Rudolph resumed promoting the product.
Ms. Wade, who co-directed the film with Cheryl Houser, said they chose to feature Banza in part because it was a consumer product rather than software or an app, like all of the other products in the film. “Generation Startup” began screening around the country in limited release in October.
Ms. Wade said they were impressed by the access Brian Rudolph provided. The film includes moments of peril, such as when a batch of pasta turned to mush just as he was about to present it to potential investors.
“Brian says to me, ‘Please, don’t paint me as somebody who thinks about pasta 100 percent of the time,’ but the truth is, what I saw, I recognized in myself, which is all I do is think about my work,” Ms. Wade said. Her film “Freeheld” won the 2008 Academy Award for documentary short. “I don’t know if it was media savvy,” she said. “It was just passion.”
Late in 2015, Brian Rudolph’s persistence paid off again: Time magazine included Banza among its top 25 best inventions of the year. A few days later, the anchors of NBC’s “Today” chowed down on Banza, and approved.
“That meant we were in the clear,” Scott Rudolph said by telephone in October as he stepped away from managing a sample table at a ShopRite in West Orange, N.J. “It was live TV. Anything could happen. We didn’t have a P.R. firm. We couldn’t control the narrative in any way. We were at the whim about how someone wants to present us.”
The company still does not have a public relations firm, but its marketing message has broadened. The term “gluten-free” has been minimized on the packaging to avoid turning off some shoppers, and the brothers insist to grocery operators that Banza belongs not in the health food section but beside Barilla and Ronzoni in the pasta aisle.
“Early on, after we did the reality show, Brian and I were so committed to getting everything off the ground prior to having that exposure,” Scott Rudolph said. “It was obvious that we were on to something. Over all, it’s all about momentum.”