At our “Building the Next $1 Billion Brand” panel at Expo West 2023, cosponsored with Whipstitch Capital, we interviewed leading insurgent founders about the growth stories behind their brands. In this installment, we feature our discussion with Brian Rudolph, who cofounded the chickpea pasta and pizza sensation Banza with his brother, Scott, in 2014, soon after Brian graduated from college, and transformed the pasta category.
Q: Pasta is a big category. What gave you the belief that you could take on multibillion-dollar global competitors?
Rudolph: Chobani has always been one of Banza’s biggest sources of inspiration. They’ve shown you can be a large, fast-growing food company while making food healthier. Chobani was intentional about positioning their products as a mainstream option, and we’ve followed their lead. Instead of positioning Banza as a pasta alternative, we want people to think of Banza as pasta, full stop. On a personal level, I have food allergies and care about nutrition. Our pasta filled a personal need. I wanted more people to have access to it.
Q: We talk a lot about what it takes to become a billion-dollar brand. Is that something you had your eyes set on from the beginning?
Rudolph: You might as well have an audacious goal and work backwards from that vision. For us, that vision is creating a bean-based version of all foods made from refined grains. Needless to say, we have a long way to go.
Q: You've had to make countless decisions and say both yes and no many times. What sort of guardrails help inform those decisions?
Rudolph: When we were first launching pasta, we said no more often than we said yes. If a launch didn’t give us a real path to success—through facings or shelf location—we’d say no. Today when we launch something new, we can be selective about the stores we launch in. We like to test and learn before expanding.
Q: How has marketing changed for you over time?
Rudolph: We take pride in our ability to be nimble. When we first started, our main channels were Instagram and endcaps. We’d send Banza to basically anyone with an Instagram account. Because pasta is aesthetic, and chickpea pasta is interesting as a concept, more often than not people would post something, making it a good ROI. It also helped us build a community of Banza fans that we still engage today. Endcaps have a large impact on our business, too. Many of our earliest shoppers were otherwise not buying pasta. Endcaps helped us reach them outside the pasta aisle. Recently, we’ve shifted much of our spending to third-party e-commerce. In a few months I might have a totally different answer for you.
Q: How do you view innovation and the path in front of you in new categories?
Rudolph: We try to stay disciplined around innovation. While it’s fun and tempting to create new things, it’s important to give our team the ability to focus. Because beans are great for human health and the environment, we have an extremely long and broad roadmap, but at the same time we’re committed to keeping two to three years between the launch of each new category. We want to feel confident in our launch and make sure the sales team can really own the product while also supporting the base business. We’ve just launched our Protein Waffles! Separately, and potentially even more important, we invest in continuous improvement. This is the reason Banza has category-leading repeat rates in most of our categories.
Q: How do you approach adding new products in your core pasta category? The traditional insurgent approach tends to be prioritizing just a few “hero” SKUs to carry the brand, but in pasta it’s almost mandatory to build a big portfolio, right?
Rudolph: From a margin standpoint it’s more efficient to offer only a few shapes. But then on the shelf, we’d have only a tenth of the facings compared to traditional pasta, and we’d risk frustrating or losing a consumer who really wanted cavatappi. It’s a challenging trade-off, but we’ve found there is real value to expanding the assortment to offer more choice and bring more consumers in.
Q: Are there any especially valuable learning moments you've had as you've grown the business?
Rudolph: With pizza, I think we got a little too enthusiastic about the product and broke our own rules. Sensory tests were coming back strong, so we sprinted headfirst into a nationwide launch. We ended up learning a few lessons on a large scale that we probably should have learned from a smaller, more controlled test launch.