When he moved to Detroit as part of Venture for America, a program that sends new grads to startups in struggling cities to train as entrepreneurs, Brian Rudolph thought he would eventually start a tech company. Three years later, he’s making pasta instead.
Rudolph just raised $1.3 million in a round of funding for Banza, a pasta made from chickpeas instead of wheat. It has twice the protein, four times the fiber, and half the net carbs as your average rigatoni. A serving has 25 grams of protein, as much as a three-ounce steak.
“I had this hobby of making really nutritious foods just for myself,” he says. “I was making high-protein breads, high-protein ice creams. Most of them were not really very tasty, but this actually was. I was able to trick my roommate into thinking it was regular pasta, which I knew was a good step.”
Last year, after a successful stint on Restaurant Startup, a foodie version of Shark Tank, Rudolph officially launched the product, which is now in 1,700 stores. He’s hoping it will transform the pasta aisle.
“I looked at what Chobani did, and realized that you can completely disrupt a category–they took yogurt and just flipped it on its head,” he says. “Now 50% of all yogurt purchases are Greek yogurt. … We could do the same thing that they do in yogurt, but in pasta.”
It doesn’t taste exactly like traditional pasta. I bought some at Whole Foods and found the texture slightly different, and it had a subtle chickpea flavor when I sampled it straight out of the pot. But in sauce, it can pass for the real thing. “If you have it in a marinara, if you have it in pesto, most people can’t tell the difference,” he says.
It’s so much like classic pasta that Joe Bastianich, a judge on Restaurant Startup and the scion of an Italian restaurant empire, has endorsed it and invested.
As the startup quickly grows, it’s also bringing some manufacturing jobs back to Michigan. “A lot of the people who are making our pasta actually formerly worked at some of the big auto plants,” says Rudolph.
Though cars might not directly translate into pasta, the general principles do. “You want people who think in a process oriented way,” he says. “You want an efficient manufacturing process. … There is this void where people who previously worked in car manufacturing now are looking for opportunities, and that’s also something that we’re grateful for.”