Growing up in Pleasantville, Brian Rudolph seemed an unlikely candidate to start his own food empire.
As a kid, he had a self-described limited palate and zero interest in the kitchen. But through a combination of curiosity, ambition and luck, these days, that’s exactly where he spends most of his time.
Along with his brother Scott, Rudolph helms Banza, a chickpea-based pasta brand that has completely disrupted the category and currently appears in 4,500 stores throughout the U.S. and Canada.
“My story is pretty different from most food company founders,” admits Rudolph in an interview with lohudfood. “As a kid, I was the pickiest eater. The joke in my family was that I stuck to the three main food groups: bagels, chicken nuggets, and spaghetti.”
As such, he was a faithful patron at Mt. Kisco Diner, saying, “I’ve been going with my parents and friends for as long as I can remember. To this day it’s the default option whenever I’m in Westchester. Great food and great people.”
But towards the end of college, Rudolph developed an interest in nutrition and began adopting the Mediterranean diet in an effort to improve his health.
“Coming full circle, I started finding creative ways to make the foods I loved as a kid more nutritious,” he says. “I made everything from high protein ice creams to chickpea pancakes. One of those dishes was a chickpea pasta.”
Fueled by a desire to transform his beloved penne, rotini and spaghetti from caloric splurge to a nutrient-dense dish, fine-tuning his garbanzo bean-based recipe became a nightly pursuit.
Then, while working on an app in Detroit for Venture for America, a nonprofit that installs aspiring entrepreneurs at startups across the country, Rudolph was inspired by his colleagues to take his culinary idea to the next level.
“I brought [chickpea pasta] in to work for friends and coworkers to try,” he recalls. “When they liked it too, it clicked that I wasn’t the only one who wanted a better version of pasta.”
The creation was given the name Banza and, in a relatively short period of time, began to ascend in brand visibility.
The product won a crowdfunding campaign hosted by Venture for America, which in turn attracted the attention of CNBC’s “Restaurant Startup,” a food-focused reality competition judged by legendary restaurateur Joe Bastianich.
While the series wasn’t always kind to the Rudolph brothers as they refined their product’s taste and packaging, Bastianich ultimately invested $75,000 in its future. More accolades followed.
“In November of 2015, TIME Magazine named Banza one of the Best Inventions of the year,” says Rudolph.
“It was pretty surreal seeing our chickpea pasta among a group of game-changing tech inventions, like virtual reality. This was the first large-scale validation that what we’re doing has the potential to fundamentally change the way people eat.”
Banza also was accepted into the Chobani Food Incubator, a branch of Chobani Greek Yogurt that helps “socially responsible food entrepreneurs” develop their brands.
“Our mission is to make the foods people love better by using more nutritious ingredients,” says Rudolph, citing the program’s mentorship and guidance. “We’ve always looked to Chobani as a role model and we hope we can change pasta the way Chobani changed yogurt.”
That’s not just hyperbole: Banza boasts 25 grams of protein, 13 grams of fiber and 43 grams of carbs—almost doubling everything one would want and halving what sticks to one’s thighs.
From athletes and vegans looking for extra protein to add to their diets to those with gluten-sensitivities, to parents trying to sneak more veggies into their family’s meals, a chickpea pasta decidedly has appeal to many different shoppers. But the brothers admit that they are in a constant state of evolution.
“We had a hard time scaling the recipe from kitchen to large-scale production,” says Rudolph. “My brother Scott and I spent countless late nights in the manufacturing facility. I started reading food chemistry textbooks, cold calling and emailing experts to learn anything that I could. Eventually we got Banza to a good place, but it was not always a smooth journey.”
The road has gotten a lot creamier, however, with the brothers recently expanding into a line of chickpea mac and cheese.