Food Studies Fridays: Interview 2 – Food Entrepreneur

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So this is a little bit late because I was out last night tearing up Flavortown looking like this:

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Moving on…

This week’s interview is with Chris Beisswenger, Director of Insights and Analytics at Banza. Banza is a pasta made from chickpeas that is high fiber, high protein, and low carb. I’d tell you to go buy some, but it looks like they’re completely sold out on their site, so they must be doing something right. You can use their store locater here.

What I really love about Banza is that they were part of Chobani Food Incubator, a unique program run by executives from super successful company Chobani to help bring the latest mission-driven small food businesses to market. Other products that have taken shape in the incubator program include responsibly sourced chocolate snacks and juice made from ugly fruit. Banza’s mission is to become the Greek yogurt of the pasta category, i.e. the healthier, more nutritious version, and after being named one of Time Magazine’s Top 25 Inventions in 2015, they are well on their way.

 Q: How did you get to doing what you are doing now?
A: It was all pretty lucky. I was working in finance out of college, but I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be for the long term. I saved up some money to travel and left for a year long trip heading east around the world. I was about ten months in when I got an email from an old colleague of mine saying that his friend from college was starting a company making pasta out of chickpeas and needed some help.

My interest in food deepened dramatically as I was traveling. Across cultures, I saw delicious and healthy food fueling astonishing human pursuits and bringing people together around the table to build lasting bonds. Banza in particular appealed to me as the hearty base to such a wide variety of tasty, creative, and convenient meals.

I did my interviewing in various internet cafes around Southeast Asia. I loved the concept and the three impressive people at the company, so I tentatively accepted having never tried the pasta. As soon as I got back I tried a box of penne and was very pleased with the taste and texture. I joined the team in April 2015.

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Q: What are some of the major challenges in your work?
A: While Grocery is modernizing rapidly, it is still an old-fashioned business. We often hear, “that’s just the way things work,” which is a frustrating response when you are trying to take a new approach that you truly believe is in the best interest of consumers. Luckily, we have found a number of progressive partners in the business who are willing to take risks and lead constructive change with us. We double-down on these relationships when we find them.

Educating the consumer and inducing trial are really tough. People have deeply-ingrained preferences and eating habits, so it’s tough to tell them the benefits of a healthier pasta and even tougher to actually find a way to have them try a bite. You can’t tell someone a food tastes good. They have to try it to know.

Production is a challenge for food brands regardless of size. Producing at scale, matching manufacturing quantities to sales, ensuring consistent quality, and maintaining an edge in product innovation are where a lot of great food brands get lost and discouraged.

Q: What are some of the major pleasures of your job?
A: Being the reason people gather around a dinner table and share special moments is important for us. We believe food is family, and we aim to bring about more joyful meals in a time when so many people are snacking and eating on the go.

I love that we are changing peoples’ perceptions of health food. Rather than accepting healthy food as unappetizing, time-consuming, serious, or expensive, we believe it should be accessible. To this end, we are always thinking about how to make Banza more delicious, convenient, fun, and affordable.

From what I have seen, helping people to eat more nutritious food often leads a ripple effect that brings fulfillment in other aspects of their lives. I love that we can set this chain reaction in motion by giving them a simple swap to improve their diets and livelihoods.

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Q: What’s the process like to make Banza pasta and get it to the consumer?
A: First, Sourcing Raw Materials – This could be going as far as the farm level or purchasing from other ingredient suppliers whose capabilities match your requirements.

Manufacturing – Either you own your own facility, or you look for a third-party manufacturer who agrees to make your product for you.

Warehousing & Fulfillment – Logistical requirements for retailers and distributors can be complex. Again, you either build these systems yourself or you find a third-party logistics (3PL) company to handle it.

Distributors – Many retailers prefer to pull their product from a distributor, which is an intermediary that provides convenience for retailers (and in some cases brands/manufacturers). They add cost in the chain but can streamline if set up correctly, especially with smaller retailers.

Grocery Retailers – Getting on shelves is only the beginning in your relationship with a grocery retailer. Promotions, ads, displays, and other collaborative programs are key to understand. Often these relationships are managed jointly by a brand’s sales team and a “Broker”, which is an outsourced sales force specializing in certain retailers. Often a presence is required at the store level to assist with relationships with in-store decision makers.

Marketing – This is usually quite broad and diverse for many food brands. It includes areas such as field (often doing sampling of the product), digital, social, PR, customer experience, etc.

Q: If there was one thing you could change in this industry … what would that be?
A: Better technology across in the industry could help eliminate inefficiencies and bring innovative products to more people at improved prices.

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Thank you to Chris for Interview #2 and thanks to everyone for bearing with all the pasta gifs. Tune in next week for a chat with a manager at one of the most controversial grocery chains.

 

Urban Agriculture From Seed to Tart – Growing Basil Indoors at Square Roots

In two weeks, I start my first classes in NYU’s Masters of Food Studies program (true). I’ve got my backpack (true – I already own this), notebook (someone buy this for me), and pens (can I have this too?). I’ve done my summer reading (true) and I’ve sourced the most sustainable, artisanal, local, and organic apples to bring to my teachers (false – I’m not THAT big of a nerd).

Today I visited Square Roots, an urban agriculture incubator in Brooklyn founded in part by Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother. Square Roots has an office in the old Pfizer building at 630 Flushing Ave in Bushwick, home to many of your favorite artisan NYC food brands like McClure’s Pickles, People’s Pops, Cinnamon Snail, Joe’s Pizza, and the list goes on…

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Can you find Maple? (RIP )

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Josh and his farm

The bulk of Square Roots’ operation takes place in the parking lot inside large shipping containers that house indoor vertical hydroponic farms. Myself and another volunteer met up with Josh Aliber, one of the 10 entrepreneurs currently in an intense year-long entrepreneurship program with Square Roots. We helped him harvest, package, and plant new basil crops.

Fun facts about indoor vertical farming:

  • You can control everything about the climate of an indoor farm including temperature, humidity, and lighting, so the produce is extremely high quality and farmers aren’t at the will of the weather gods for earning their livelihood.
  • This method of farming uses a lot less water, but still uses a lot of electricity. Since it’s a relatively young technology, there’s a lot of room to grow in efficiency and automation. We harvested the basil plants, removed the leaves from the stems, packaged, and seeded new plants by hand.
  • It takes about 7 weeks from seed to harvest for a basil plant grown this way, which is less time than a traditional outdoor farm.
  • A lot of the advancements in hydroponic farming thus far have come from one of the early adopters of the technology: the marijuana industry. Thanks dude bros!

So what do you do with all this super high quality basil? Josh sells it direct to local grocery stores and restaurants. What did I do? I made the most beautiful fucking tart and sprinkled fresh basil all over it like a dog on their favorite fire hydrant:

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This tart was made with heirloom tomatoes and cipollini onions from the farmers market, fresh mozzarella from BKLYN Larder, and genovese sweet basil from Josh’s 8/23 harvest. I HAVE REACHED PEAK BROOKLYN. (Recipe adapted from Taming of the Spoon.)

Learn more about Square Roots here: Kimbal Musk — Elon’s brother — just opened a shipping container farm compound in New York City