WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — While a handful of brands at Natural Products Expo West in March debuted pastas formulated with beans, peas or chickpeas, Walnut Creek-based Modern Table had a finger on the pulse pasta trend two years before.
|Jamie Thomas, co-founder and head of product development at Modern Table|
“Pulse pastas have significantly increased,” said Jamie Thomas, co-founder and head of product development at Modern Table. “When we launched at Expo (West) two years ago, to my knowledge there was no one else there in that space. Last year, there were two competitors. This year there were at least five and likely more. The competitive landscape has changed dramatically since we launched.”
The brand’s bean-based pastas and meal kits are gluten-free, non-G.M.O. and vegetarian with 5 to 7 grams of fiber and 12 to 20 grams of protein per serving. Meal kits include Italian, Mediterranean, Pesto, Southwest, Teriyaki, and Homestyle Mac & Cheese varieties, each featuring a dry mix of pasta made from lentils or navy beans, vegetables and a sauce or seasoning packet. The company also offers bean pasta meal starters, including confetti, lentil penne and mixed lentil penne. This year at Expo West, the company unveiled four new products: Cheddar Broccoli meal kit, Creamy Mushroom meal kit, lentil rotini pasta, and lentil elbow pasta.
Modern Table was founded in 2013 by four mothers with extensive experience in the consumer packaged goods industry. Co-founders Gulbin Hoeberechts and Jennifer Eiseman previously worked at Nestle USA; Elizabeth Cole held a management position at a fine wine company; and Ms. Thomas was a senior food technologist at H.J. Heinz Co.
“We have a company sponsor that brought us together and gave us the tools that we needed to be able to bring this product to market,” Ms. Thomas told Food Business News. “We quickly formed as a team and identified this opportunity and were given the ability to develop this brand, bring this product to market and build this business.”
Modern Table products are sold nationally in retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Inc., Target Corp., Kroger Co. and others. The brand saw unit sales nearly triple last year, and even more growth is expected in the year ahead as distribution continues to expand.
In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Thomas shared insights behind pioneering in a new product category.
Food Business News: What drove the insights behind launching Modern Table Meals?
Jamie Thomas: We identified this kind of unsolved dilemma for consumers; that they wanted something they could feel good about feeding their family, that was convenient, and that their family would actually love. It didn’t start as being pasta, per se. We had this problem in our lives and thought that there had to be something to solve it.
So then we started to look at what are the really great, healthy foods that are intrinsically good for you … and that’s when we identified beans. And we thought what would be really great is if we could provide those beans in a format kids will eat. Kids love pasta. So that’s the insight that drove us to bean-based pasta.
What inspired the initial flavor varieties?
Ms. Thomas: We wanted something that gave a nod toward global flavors, yet was still really approachable to families. We knew things like Moroccan or Thai or Indian might be a little bit unapproachable for some families. We wanted something our kids would eat.
What are your nutritional criteria for the products?
Ms. Thomas: We weren’t really developing this from a nutrition panel benefit perspective. We were developing these products to give natural protein that’s not there from fortification…. and vitamins that are natural to the food source; we didn’t want to have to add vitamins. Those were the only two requirements starting out.
Then as we went down the path of development, we started to add a few more must-haves. We added that the product needed to be non-G.M.O. and needed to have rigorous clean label standards… We took all of the restricted ingredients lists out there that we could find (from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Panera Bread Co. and Kroger) and combined those to make a really robust restricted ingredient program so we could be as clean as we possibly can with our ingredients. That has really been our guiding principle.
What are the challenges in product development?
Ms. Thomas: That really clean profile makes it so we have to be really careful in what we choose to use as ingredients because of shelf stability. This product has a one-year shelf life from the date of manufacture. We have clear packaging … so having a product that can make it through a one-year shelf life without any additives and preservatives is very difficult with certain ingredients. We had to be really choiceful in what kinds of ingredients we could put into the meal kits and have it taste great at the end of the shelf life.
How do you educate consumers about lentil-based pasta?
Ms. Thomas: That’s another challenge. We’ve tried to communicate that by changing it to “bean pasta.” A lot of consumers don’t understand what lentils are, so we have changed the way we talk about the pasta. Pretty much everyone knows what beans are.
The other thing we have had to do to educate consumers when we’re out in the field with them is talk to them about how they’re gluten-free and how they’re naturally high in protein. That lentil disconnect is something they struggle with.
Do you see the brand expanding into other product categories?
Ms. Thomas: We’re always looking for innovation opportunities coming our way. We’re keeping our eye toward the future. We’re not really saying we are only going to be what we are today. We think the possibilities are endless to what Modern Table could be.
What are your thoughts on emerging competition in bean-based pastas?Ms. Thomas:We think it’s good that it’s bringing news to the category and attention to this area. All of us in the category have a little bit different positioning and benefit that we’re offering, so we really think this will help us all grow the industry.