The firm’s Chicago business, called Zen B, aims to reinvent everyday foods such as pasta and crackers with yellow peas and other better-for-you ingredients.

How a Japanese company plans to take over plant-based pantry items in the US

Courtesy of ZenB

Zen B, a two-year-old, Chicago-based startup from the Japanese Mizkan Group, is taking a “plant-full approach” when it comes to standing out in plant-based, natural and organic markets. Focusing on gluten-free pantry staples, the company is entering an already saturated arena, with brands like Banza and Jovial Foods selling gluten-free, plant-based pastas and other products like pizza dough. Even Barilla, a household name in the pasta space, boasts a gluten-free line. 

But the brand is confident it can set itself apart from competitors with the help of the yellow pea, the main ingredient in all of its products.

The five-year-old company’s products include skillet sauces and microwaveable meals in bowls loaded with pasta, vegetables and cracker crisps. At Expo West recently, Zen B’s head of storytelling said the company is looking to expand into other categories, including ramen. All of its products use yellow peas, which are similar to chickpeas but contain higher protein and fiber content. 

“We’re the ‘tip of the arrow’ kind of brand,” Hugo Perez, chief marketing officer and head of Zen B’s storytelling, said at Expo West on March 13. “We’re not waiting for the trends. We’re trying to set trends by understanding consumers.” 

Zen B started as a direct-to-consumer brand two years ago on Amazon. Now, Zen B products are making their way into retail with Sprouts Farmers Market stores nationwide. 

Zen B also launched a traveling kitchen, as Perez described it, where consumers can taste and sample products.

“We’ve done 62 events so far, and the events are sort of like a mobile kitchen where people can experience the brand. Seeing is believing,” he said. 

The company’s mission is to revolutionize the yellow pea. Zen B claims its products are good for the consumer and the environment, without compromising on taste or texture. Perez said while the company considers its brand flexitarian, its vegan and gluten-free products will resonate with consumers no matter their dietary lifestyle.

The plant-based space has drawn criticism in recent months for being divisive in terms of its messaging toward consumers who are not fully plant-based, while also not including clean, whole ingredients in products. 

Zen B is trying to distance itself from such critique through its ingredient list. Its crackers, for example, are made with organic yellow peas and other ingredients like olive oil, Himalayan pink salt, nutritional yeast, onion and white pepper, while all of its pasta variations have only one ingredient: yellow peas.

“From the beginning, we’ve always wanted to create food that did not compromise on taste and texture, but still had benefits like being high in protein,” said Perez. 

  • Storytelling helps new products pop at Expo West By Elizabeth Flood • March 20, 2024

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