Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Hummus and other bean-based foods
Owner Wendy Butters is making a wide variety of sweet and savory foods with beans as the key ingredient.
Butters can trace the beginning of her business back to a favorite tradition at work: the office potluck.
"I work full-time for JetBlue, and they are known for their office potlucks," says Butters. "But we had coworkers with several food allergies, and one coworker in particular that could not eat anything much beyond hummus."
Butters wanted to ensure her coworker felt included and was able to eat with everyone, but there was one problem. Butters, personally, did not like traditional hummus. "So I came up with my own," she says.
Today her potluck experiment is sold as one of her Savory Hummus products: Lemon Garlic Hummus. "People in my office wanted to buy it. I was already in the boutique market, selling jewelry, and I thought I could just as easily sell hummus."
Butters developed a unique catalog of gluten-free, vegan-friendly products. "You can make great things from beans: bean burgers, bean cookies, marinated beans," she says. "I'm always wondering, what else can we introduce?"
What started with one dish specifically meant for a coworker has blossomed into a well-rounded business with a myriad of choices. If a bean can be an ingredient, Polka Bean Foods is making it a reality. The company now offers six savory hummus selections, seven marinated bean varieties, five bean burgers, seven dessert hummus varieties, five cookie dough varieties and miscellaneous items such as salsa, dip, palak, crumble bars, pops, dessert braids and coconut bites.
In all of her experimenting, Butters realized that beans did not have to be a bland side dish. "Beans do not have to be boring," Butters adds. "They can be the star of the show!"
And they could be used in sweets as well, a lesson Butters learned as she sold out of dessert hummus and bean cookie dough.
She typically uses great northern and pinto beans for dessert hummus; black and garbanzo beans for traditional hummus; and garbanzo, black, and pinto beans for cookie dough. "I use a lot of different beans," explains Butters. "Every bean has a different flavor, a different texture, and I let them do their own thing in a whole different way."
When she started the business, Butters took her time getting the right partners and processes in place. "Food is serious," she explains. "You can't just set it out for people to buy and hope it goes well. This is something people will consume."
Butters first had to find a local commercial kitchen that worked within her budget and schedule. She also needed to source her beans locally and find a way to package her products.
Polka Bean Foods launched at the Park City Farmers Market before opening up other sales channels. "It was a good audience to try things out on," she says. "That resort market cares about what they eat, where it comes from, and even how my packaging affects the environment."
From beginning to end, Butters took about six months before she started selling her products. "I wanted to do it right," she explains. "I did not want this business to look like amateur hour." Luckily one decision led to another. By finding the right commercial kitchen, Butters was also able to find a source for her beans through her kitchen contact. And other users of the commercial space also volunteered to take her products to new venues.
"Other vendors have been a key to my success," Butters says. "We talk to each other. Vendors become your new best friends, your new family, and they have always pointed me in the right direction. We use each other's products, and we promote and help each other."
Challenges: Price point. When Butters first started growing her business, she was excited about all the label and packaging options. "But I had to learn to keep those prices low so that I can sell my product for a fair price. I don't want to overprice my product," she says. "Every year I learn how to run this business a little better."
Opportunities: Publishing a cookbook. "This is my new focus," Butters says. "I want to help the everyday home cook create something amazing because I believe these home cooks are amazing, they just need more ideas! Beans are awesome. They are filling, tasty, and healthy. People just need more ideas on what to do with them."
Once her cookbook is out, Butters hopes to venture into new areas, perhaps even an online cooking class series. "But the cookbook must come first," she adds.
Needs: Exposure. "Once I have a customer, I have a customer for life," Butters says. "But I need help finding that customer."