Throughout its 34-year history, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) has worked with hundreds of food and beverage entrepreneurs, providing consulting and technical services to bring products to market. One such collaboration was with Sunil Kumar, founder of The Amazing Chickpea.
Sunil’s journey into the commercial food business started off in his role as dad. Twelve years ago, Sunil’s oldest daughter Enya hosted a slumber party at their home and wanted to share a few of her favorite snacks, including PBJ (peanut butter and jelly) sandwiches. It turned out, one of Enya’s friends suffered from a nut allergy. Sunil realized the limited options for great-tasting and allergy-free snacks and decided to produce an alternative to peanut butter spreads, utilizing chickpeas, a food he grew up eating in India. Chickpeas are protein rich legumes with a nutty flavor and contain several vitamins and minerals.
A HELPING HAND FROM AURI
After a move from Virginia to Minnesota, Sunil reached out to contacts at the University of Minnesota who then recommended AURI. Harold Stanislawski, business and industry development director, set up the initial project and Lolly Occhino, senior scientist, food, visited Sunil’s production facility to understand his formula and process. She provided technical guidance on ingredient selection and smallscale processing options to ensure the spreads would have uniform consistency and flavor.
“When I first started working with Sunil, I recognized his passion and dedication to developing the best possible chickpea spreads to bring to market,” said Occhino.
Founded in 2016, The Amazing Chickpea offers delicious, allergy-free and healthy spreads in a variety of textures and flavors.
MEETING A GROWING DEMAND
Sunil originally sold the spreads at the Linden Hills and Northeast Farmers Markets in Minneapolis where he was often approached by parents seeking an alternative to peanut butter in sandwiches for their children’s school lunch boxes. It was then that Sunil understood the incredible need for a flavorful and allergy-free spread, and demand for his products grew. Today, The Amazing Chickpea spreads are used in schools in more than twenty-five states, including California, Texas and several in the Midwest.
When thinking about new products, Sunil relies heavily on feedback from his most dedicated customers— parents and school administrators. One such new product was developed from a conversation with a school district in California that started using the chickpea spread on tortilla rollups. This year, Sunil launched two rollups, chocolate chickpea and apple cinnamon. He also launched a line of chickpea baking mixes for cookies, brownies and muffins.
And Sunil’s story came full circle with the official launch of CBJ (chickpea butter and jelly) sandwiches.“She [Lolly] has been just great. All I can say is that it has been a great experience,” Sunil said. “My special thanks to AURI and its amazing staff.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW AND WHAT’S NEXT?
The Amazing Chickpea has grown from a staff of one to a staff of nearly a dozen. From a new products standpoint, Sunil and his team actively engage with his core customers and consumers to identify opportunities. A couple of new products in research and development include chickpea-based granola bars and waffle cookie sandwiches. To assist in the growth of product development, this year, The Amazing Chickpea moved into a larger production space allowing Sunil to add more capability and increase production to meet demand. As a Go To Market strategy, Sunil is focused on K-12 schools, university cafeterias, summer camps and other food service channels.
Going forward, he hopes to expand into different sales channels, including supermarkets, retail and club stores, hospital cafeterias and potentially senior care homes. And support from the AURI team continues today as The Amazing Chickpea grows and expands, offering guidance to Sunil as more products are tested and introduced to the marketplace.
“The Amazing Chickpea is a wonderful story of Minnesota home-grown success,” said Jason Robinson, AURI business development director-food. “AURI is proud to have played a small part in the company’s growth, brainstorming new product ideas and troubleshooting its product development challenges. We’re excited to continue our relationship into the next phase of growth.”