Chickpeas: A Crunchy Hit Of Protein

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Cleveland — While a significant number of consumers view chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans) exclusively as salad toppers and the main ingredient in hummus, if a growing number of snack suppliers have their way roasted chickpeas could become a pantry staple.

The crunchy bite-size beans boast high-fiber and high-protein claims and are a strong platform for both sweet and savory flavors. However, the success of the companies forging a path for these still fledgling snacks, might depend on how effective they are in their consumer-education and product-placement efforts.

At GlobalData Plc, Tom Vierhile, innovation insights director, notes consumers have complex perceptions when it comes to chickpea-based snacks. “In our 2017 Q1 survey, we asked consumers if they thought chickpeas would have a positive impact on health. Fifty-seven percent answered yes. The awareness bodes well for companies diving into the market,” she says.

What could be unsettling is that 10 percent of consumers surveyed by GlobalData were not familiar with the beans. “This shows that the makers of chickpea-based snacks cannot assume consumers know about the benefits,” explains Vierhile, “so there are consumer education issues with which to contend.”

Going Social To Spread The Word

“We are not worried about the 10 percent who are unaware of chickpeas; we are more concerned about reaching the 90 percent who are aware,” retorts Sarah Wallace, cofounder, of The Good Bean, who, while growing up in India snacked on roasted chickpeas. Today she heads a company she claims was first-to-market in the U.S. seven years ago.

Wallace says to look for continued heavy use of social media by The Good Bean and “a bunch of interesting retailer-specific promotions” this year.

This emphasis on social media and events is proving effective for growing overall sales in the sector, according to CST sources.

“We are leveraging social media to communicate and personify our brand with consumers,” confirms Biena Foods Founder and CEO Poorvi Patodia. “Our most recent social media success was in response to a pop culture trend that emerged during the first week of December when many social media users were confessing that they had eaten all of their Advent calendar chocolate.” The company responded by offering the consumers free samples of its chocolate-covered chickpeas. “Many users took the offer, and we can only hope they will become lifelong fans,” says Patodia, who grew up eating fried chickpeas made by her Indian mother.

“We are at a really pivotal time for snacking,” notes Livio Bisterzo, CEO and cofounder of Green Park Snacks Inc., which launched its Hippeas baked chickpea puffs in 2016. “We saw that there was an opportunity to create a huge disruption in puffed snacks.” Now with placement in thousands of stores throughout the U.S. and UK, high-profile investors such as actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and an emphasis on sampling, he says the disruption is in full swing for the startup.

“Our goal is to reach our audience throughout their day — whether that is Instagram, their inbox, where they get their morning coffee or at the grocery store,” he explains.

Such efforts are not only about growing individual company sales, they are about growing the segment says Shaun Bayles, co-owner of Chic Naturals, a small Hawaii-based company set to add manufacturing and distribution on the mainland this year. “Belly-to-belly events (food demos) are important for reaching consumers who don’t know about chickpeas. The best way to educate consumers is to get them to try the product,” he tells CST.

“What it comes down to is creating greater awareness of our products,” concurs Jonas Singer, cofounder of Watusee Foods. And that begins with engaging retailers with promotions, which really is the company’s number one way of communicating, says Singer, referring to the colorful presentation of ingredients, flavor and nutrition on packs.

Efforts to reach consumers are coming at the right time according to industry research. The Nielsen Co. (US), LLC’s recent global survey found 23 percent of consumers want more plant-based protein, noting plant-based options appeal to significantly more people than those following vegetarian and vegan diets. The survey also shows dollar sales of plant-based salty snacks grew by 6.2 percent, while salty snacks overall grew by just 1.7 percent.

This bodes well for chickpea snack sales. Jack Acree, executive vice-president at Saffron Road Food, which claims to hold about one-third of the market, says the sector accounted for about $12 million in total sales in 2017, marking a 21 percent increase on 2016 dollar sales. He adds Saffron Road is showing a 40-percent increase in year-over-year dollar sales.

Industry executives including Acree predict continued growth, partly because the segment is still relatively small, and also because consumers are craving high-fiber, high-protein plant-based foods.

Looking For A Place To Call Home

Despite such favorable food trends, product placement remains a challenge, according to CST sources. One exception is Singer, who says the product belongs alongside traditional snacks. “That’s where we think we sell best because we’re different from other products there, so our impact is greater,” he points out.

Other sources note repeated instances of consumers, and even store personnel not knowing where to find products in-store.

Such scenarios are becoming rarer as retailers including Whole Foods Market IP, L.P. and lately Target Corp., The Kroger Co. and Walmart, Inc. establish sections specifically for bean- and plant-based snacks. “Retailers are catching on so consumers know where to find ours and related products,” says Acree, who also sees opportunities for cross merchandising the product as salad toppers in the produce section, and in the deli near hummus.

Wallace stresses retailers need to consider developing snack areas according to nutritional needs rather than ingredients, indicating chickpeas would have a place alongside other protein-rich options including meat snacks and jerky.

“Consumers are looking for variety and diversity,” she asserts, “so it would be interesting to see retailers aggregate meat snacks with bean-based snacks. We’re not there yet, but I wish it would happen.”