Food Business News

Q&A: Chickpea Snack Brand Heats Up

BOSTON — Poorvi Patodia may be peddling the perfect snack, at least in terms of top trends in the marketplace. Developed as a healthy alternative to chips and nuts, her Biena Roasted Chickpeas are rich in plant-based protein, high in fiber, low in fat, free of the top eight allergens and Non-GMO Project verified.

Poorvi Patodia, founder and c.e.o. of  Biena Foods.

“One thing we’ve learned is a big reason people eat our snacks is a combination of taste and health,” said Ms. Patodia, the founder and chief executive officer of Boston-based Biena Foods. “Particularly for the salty snacks category, it’s very difficult to find snacks that are high protein, high fiber. If you love your barbecue chips and you’re trying to stay away from fried stuff, there just aren’t a lot of options today, and that’s really what we bring to the table.”

She launched the brand in 2012 with four flavors: sea salt, honey roasted, barbecue, and cinnamon maple. In January, the company added a fifth flavor: habanero.

“Our very first store was a Whole Foods in Boston,” Ms. Patodia said. “I was very fortunate that one buyer believed in and took a chance with the brand based on a simple packaging mockup I had shown up with and some samples. That was the very beginning.”

Starting in June, the brand will be sold in Target stores nationwide. The products also are available in natural retailers, including regional Whole Foods Market stores and Sprouts, as well as conventional supermarket chains.

In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Patodia shared entrepreneurial insights and a glimpse of the innovation process at Biena Foods.

Food Business News: What’s new at Biena Foods?

Poorvi Patodia: We just launched our first spicy flavor, habanero. It was really developed out of consumer request. People have been consistently telling us they wished we had a spicy flavor. And spice goes so well with chickpeas as well, so my team and I took a full nine months to a year to fully develop that flavor.

We worked with a recipe developer and looked at a number of different flavor profiles, because within spicy there are so many different things you can do. We landed on the habanero flavor that we have now. It actually has a hint of lemon to it and has a little bit of a Mexican origin in terms of the flavor combo itself.

Biena recently launched its first spicy flavor, habanero chickpeas.

How do you explain chickpeas to the average consumer?

Ms. Patodia: It’s interesting because I think we’ve been able to benefit from the growth of the hummus category. That category has done a lot of education with the American consumer for over 10 years, and that’s been great for us because many people out there today know what chickpeas are because of hummus.

People know generally that it’s good for you. A lot of people may not realize how good for you. From a nutrition standpoint, it’s an ingredient that is a complete powerhouse. It has a combination of three things together make it a powerhouse from a nutrition standpoint and from a weight management standpoint, and that’s high protein, high fiber and low fat. That combination is very difficult to find in other places. That’s why you see a wide range of nutritionists and dieticians recommending chickpeas and chickpea snacks to their consumers.

Also, our snacks are naturally free of top eight food allergens. That’s another set of consumers who really love our brand, whether you’re sending it in your kid’s lunchbox because maybe the school is nut-free or someone in the family has some kind of food allergy.

How did you discover chickpeas were something you could roast, flavor and sell?

Ms. Patodia: I’m Indian, and I grew up eating a fried version of this snack. I’m also vegetarian, so I’m always looking for high protein, things that are going to fill me up. I grew up knowing this could be a snack and also that it could be flavored, so innovation for us and for this brand was really about how to do this in way that’s dry-roasted and crunchy.

American consumers love salty snacks. It’s that crunch and that flavor that they’re looking for, and from the very beginning we’ve been focused from an innovation standpoint on trying to nail the texture, having the right crunch, having enough flavor on there. When a person tries this, it’s got to hit their sweet spot, oh, and by the way, it’s actually so good for you, too. That’s what we’re trying to deliver.

It sounds so easy, but when I first started researching this idea, I had learned around 2009 or 2010 all these people started swapping recipes on-line for how to make roasted chickpeas, which are basically baked chickpeas in your oven. That’s how I started, in my own kitchen.

When I started working on this brand full time, thinking this is the kind of product line I want to create, and I was doing it for myself, I realized baking this in your oven is not as easy as it sounds only because it’s actually hard to get them to roast evenly. There are all these challenges with it.

Because the chickpeas aren't fried, flavoring them can be a challenge.

On the flavor side, because we don’t fry them, it’s not exactly like a chip that’s being fried and you can throw a simple seasoning on top and it’s just going to stick on there. Interestingly enough, the simpler you make things, it’s actually harder to get it consistently right over time, and so that’s something we’ve been very focused on — just the quality and getting it to a place we feel good about. And I think it’s paid off for us, in terms of the response we get from consumers.

What’s next for Biena Foods?

Ms. Patodia: We always have things under development. Nothing that I can share at this point, but, yes, we will be looking at other flavors in the future potentially.

Do you see the brand entering other categories?

Ms. Patodia: Potentially. Right now we’re still a young brand, so we’re still very focused on the core chickpea snack line. We just think there is so much potential ahead for this line that we don’t want to distract ourselves, and we want to stay very focused on getting this brand out there to as many consumers as we can.

There are a few other chickpea snacks on the market. How do you differentiate your brand from the competition?

Ms. Patodia: I can’t speak as much for the other brands, but for us, our focus is really our taste experience. We’ve really innovated on our process and our flavors, and people tell us our snacks tend to have a lighter, flakier crunch. I think our flavor profiles are somewhat unique as well.

We haven’t been focused as much on the quote-unquote “direct competitive set” because frankly it’s such a young category and there’s so much opportunity that our focus is more about share of mouth — what are people putting in their mouths today — and I don’t think we need to focus on other chickpea snacks. If anything, together we’re building a category, which I think is very important.

For us, our focus is on if a consumer is eating their barbecue chips, can we offer the same crunch and this awesome barbecue flavor? So, that’s really how we think about the category.