Mark Rampolla: Beanfields could be a $20-30m snack business before you even think about brand extensions

Mark Rampolla, PowerPlant Ventures, Bruce Friedman buy Beanfields

 “So why does the world need another [insert your product here]?” is a question entrepreneurs are well-advised to prep for before hitting the stage at any pitch slam judged by ZICO founder Mark Rampolla. So how does he answer his own question when it comes to his latest investment: bean and rice tortilla chip brand Beanfields?

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after teaming up with PowerPlant Ventures and media investor Bruce Friedman to acquire Beanfields, Rampolla said several factors made the L.A.-based brand stand out from the crowd, from its high dollar sales per point of distribution, to its social mission (it partners with gang intervention and rehabilitation charity, Homeboy Industries), and its management team.

But the #1 reason was taste, he said.

I’ve tried all the bean-based snacks and Beanfields just tastes the best,” Rampolla told FoodNavigator-USA.

Of course it’s subjective and it’s hard to measure ‘buzz’ scientifically, but I’ve talked to dozens and dozens of consumers as well as industry influencers and whenever you talk to people about this brand, they’ll say, ‘I love their stuff,’ which tells me that they have got the basics right, they’re just under-resourced and could use some additional management know-how.”

This brand can really scale

Founded by Reed Glidden, his wife Liza Braude-Glidden, and his brother Roy Glidden in 2011, Beanfields products are currently available in around 3,000 stores, primarily in the natural channel, plus selected locations in Canada, Australia and the UK.

Reed (currently president) is stepping back from the day to day running of the business, and will become co-chairman of the board of directors with Rampolla, but the team under him will remain in place, said Rampolla.

The CFO/COO and chief commercial officer will form the co-executive team; they have strong backgrounds and the capability to grow and scale this company.”   

While plenty of CPG brands have picked up more steam than Beanfields after five years in business, “given how little investment dollars they have raised, they have been very effective at attracting the right retailers and getting really strong sales in limited distribution,” argued Rampolla. “So we felt that with more funding and focus, the brand can really scale.”

Beanfields - a Certified B Corporation - has just launched an equity and revenue-sharing partnership with Los Angeles charity, Homeboy Industries, which helps previously incarcerated people, gang-members and young people get counseling and legal assistance, develop new skills and find work.

Extruded products?

So where could the Beanfields brand – which is currently manufactured by two co-packers with “ample capacity to expand” - go?

Aside from boosting the distribution of the existing product lineup, there are obvious opportunities to move into other formats, said Rampolla. Asked whether this meant extruded bean products, he said: “We’re definitely looking at ways to innovate around the fundamental proposition of rice and beans.

“But we also believe that just the current product line has the potential to be a $20-30m business with no additional innovation.”

PowerPlant Ventures - a venture fund led by Mark Rampolla (founder, ZICO), Kevin Boylan, T.K. Pillan (co-founders, Veggie Grill) and Dan Beldy (formerly head of Disney’s venture arm) – recently closed a $42m fund aimed at “emerging plant-centric companies

The fund, which has already invested in high-profile brands including Thrive Market, TerraVia, Rebbl, Hail Merry, Treasure8, Juicero and Hampton Creek, is looking to partner with entrepreneurs that are “helping to re-architect the food system to deliver better nutrition in more sustainable and ethical ways by leveraging the power of plants,”   

“We’re breaking things down into three buckets,” said Boylan. “About 70-75% of the fund will be in next wave better for you food and beverage businesses that already have traction (eg. Rebbl). The next bucket – 20-25% - will be on 'paradigm-changers,' companies at the intersection of food and technology that are disrupting existing categories or creating new ones (eg. TerraVia). The final bucket – around 5% - will be seed capital in really early stage companies (eg. Treasure8)."

Incremental innovation

So what makes a successful snack brand, and is PowerPlant Ventures looking for blue-sky innovation, or as snack entrepreneur Jerry Bello told us last year, something a bit more incremental?

True innovation is really rare,” observed Rampolla, who noted that there are “more and more exhibitors at Expo West every year, but not necessarily more innovation.”

That said, you don’t have come up with the culinary equivalent of the iphone to be disruptive in the food industry, he pointed out. “Sometimes, just a little bit better, with great execution is really good too. Beans and rice have been around forever, but Beanfields has figured out how to make them taste great.

“We all know the macro trends – plant-based foods, health and wellness and so on – but businesses that win must have that perfect combination of product, brand and execution, so we think that partnering [with fellow investor] Bruce [Friedman] – who is really an ‘in the weeds’ operations guy – really makes sense for this brand.”

Algae… a game-changer?

Asked about the potential of microalgae as a food source (PowerPlant Ventures has invested in algae ingredients pioneer TerraVia), Rampolla said multiple conversations with scientists, food companies and others had convinced him that algae was a game-changer, despite the fact that TerraVia has been in business for well over a decade and has yet to turn a profit

“In food, so many large and small companies are looking at algae as a source of oil, protein and other ingredients, so the only question from my perspective is whether TerraVia has what it takes to execute on its plan, and I believe it does.”

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