New York-based Rule Breaker is a range of brownies, blondies and snack bites all made with chickpeas as the first ingredient. Every product they make is allergen-free, preservative-free, vegan, and certified kosher and free from GMOs.
Based in New York, Rule Breaker is a range of brownies, blondies and snack bites all made with chickpeas as the first ingredient. Every product they make is allergen-free, preservative-free, vegan, and certified kosher and free from GMOs.
Could you tell me a bit about your background? How did you get into making snacks?
I was a journalist mostly specialising in health for about fifteen years before I got started with Rule Breaker. I had no intentions of ever going into the food business; I would’ve said you were crazy if you had mentioned the idea before! I used to interview lots of doctors and nutritionists, so I had a very deep background in what it meant to eat healthy. I had also become a certified health coach to understand studies better and be a better reporter. But at the same time that I was learning all of this stuff about how to eat better, I had this horrible sweet tooth! I would go into the health-food store, spend a lot of money, and hope to find something sweet that also had the things that I wanted health-wise: gluten-free, good clean ingredients, no GMOs, etc.
I was disappointed over and over, so I decided to try baking some treats for myself. I had worked on cookbooks for Simon and Schuster, so I had a background in cooking and recipe development. I read on the internet about recipes for brownies with black beans, and I thought “That sounds healthy, I’m going to try that!” I did, but they tasted very beany. They smelled beany too, but they had a really good texture to them: that brownie, underbaked texture. So I just decided for myself and my family that I was just going to keep on going. I was determined! I switched to chickpeas and kept working with the flavourings.
I became totally obsessed with baking brownies; my poor husband and daughter said “no more!”, but that didn’t stop me. It took about a year, and then one day I made chickpea brownies that tasted like real brownies: no beany taste, no beany smell. I started sharing them, and people kept telling me how good they were, that I should sell them. I was looking to do something new, and I said to myself, “How hard could it be to start a food business?”
And how hard was it, in the end?
It was actually really hard! I started introducing my first products to health-food stores in 2015. I was really naïve at first: I used cooked chickpeas; that led to a shelf life of just three weeks. That meant that we couldn’t sell to larger chains, because they all wanted much longer. Eventually, I switched over to chickpea flour which extended the shelf life quite a bit. It’s now sixteen months with no preservatives. That helped us to expand our potential market, but the food business is super expensive. My ingredients cost a lot, and I always want to source the best ingredients possible.
You’ve been on the television program Shark Tank; how did that come about?
I decided to go on Shark Tank to get funding to grow the business. It was a great experience! I didn’t get a deal, but the filming was so much fun, and right after the show aired, I got these amazing investors. They’re the biggest baked-goods company in the world (Grupo Bimbo), and they’re folks who really know our business. They’ve been really terrific partners. And we got an incredible boost in sales from Shark Tank. It kind of worked out great as a marketing thing, and we got these fantastic investors anyway. We’ve tripled our sales since.
I know that making an allergen-free product was very important to you, but what made you go for pulses specifically as opposed to a non-allergenic grain?
As a health journalist, I know how incredibly nutritious pulses are. I switched from black beans to chickpeas only because chickpeas are kind of like the tofu of pulses; they take on any flavour, and they’re not too beany in taste. You don’t have to do quite as much work to get the beaniness out. And I was determined to make something that just about everyone could eat, although there are actually some people with chickpea allergies, unfortunately.
I feel really proud to have chickpeas as our first ingredient, because they’re so nutritious and also so sustainable; we feel really good about that. We’ve made them the center of all of our products now and going forward.
It sounds like you’re very happy with chickpeas! How have you found them to work with as an ingredient?
It takes a while to learn how to work with chickpeas properly in a sweet baked good. It’s different. People like chickpeas, but they really don’t want brownies that taste like chickpeas! That’s the tricky part. But once you learn how to work with them properly, they’re an incredible base.
You’re very focused on making sure that the products really are safe and allergen-free. In your time as a health journalist, have allergies and intolerances been on the increase?
They have. What’s interesting from a brand point of view is that it’s not only the people who have the allergies themselves, but of course there are the people who need to buy for and protect those people with allergies. It’s really hard not only to find ingredients that are allergen-free, vegan, and kosher but to find bakeries that are all of those things as well.
We have two bakeries, and they never produce a product that contains any of those allergens or animal products. Bakers can’t even bring sandwiches on regular bread for lunch into the bakery. We really go the distance to make sure that there’s no cross-contamination; we do third-party testing as well.
As a brand and as a brand owner today, you need to do what you can to make sure that your customers trust you completely. They need to feel that you have their backs, that you’re watching out for them, and that you’re not going to let anything happen to them as a result of your products. So we really make that extra effort, even if it’s behind the scenes.
What does the future hold for Rule Breaker?
It’s been a good 2021 so far, and we’ve been growing like crazy. We just introduced a new flavour: pumpkin spice bites. Those have been flying off the shelves. We’re going to be introducing some more flavours in 2022, and we’re working on a really interesting line extension: a new type of product that is lacking in the better-for-you space and certainly doesn’t exist with chickpeas. I can’t tell you any more about it yet though!
We’ve also just started exporting. First to the Middle East, as they’re very interested in us, and we’re also going to be exporting to the UK and South America. And on November 4th, our equity crowdfunding scheme goes live.
Aside from the snacks themselves, what has been a highlight of this journey for you?
Our stuff is used in schools for birthday parties and helping kids to be part of those parties where normally they wouldn’t be able to celebrate with their friends is really rewarding. And one of the best things for me is to see the children at consumer shows and fairs: especially children who have allergies, who are used to asking their parents “can I eat this?” These are little kids, eight years old, reading labels. When they get something that they can actually eat and that they like, they’re so happy! Their faces light up and I feel so filled with gratitude that I can give them that experience. It never gets old.