Industry: Food & Beverage
Product: Gluten-Free Pasta
High demand and local sourcing have catapulted Manoj Venugopal’s food innovator from start-up to the leading gluten-free pasta manufacturer in the U.S.
With a fast-growing demand for gluten-free pasta, Virginia Park Food’s co-founder and president, Manoj Venugopal realized his experience was the key to successfully making his product better than the competition. "In India, my family was the second largest producer of pasta in the country," says Venugopal. "Making pasta is fun, but I learned how to make gluten-free pasta that tastes good, and won’t turn into soup when it's boiled."
Venugopal recalls starting the concept in the U.S. in 2015 and by April of 2016, he had a 4,000 square-foot building in Corona, CA. "We just moved to a 35,000 square-foot facility in Riverside, CA and by the end of 2018, we became the largest gluten-free pasta manufacturer in the U.S. with a 50-million- pound capacity, producing short goods such as penne, rotini, elbow shells, and long goods such as spaghetti, linguine, and angel -hair," says Venugopal.
The demand for gluten-free pasta has moved from traditional rice and corn pasta into using other types of flour from a variety of legumes. "Using my own ideas, we manufacture gluten-free pasta to taste better and have a good texture," says Venugopal. "The biggest problem with gluten-free products is when you boil it long enough, it becomes mush and loses its texture. Our pasta is made to taste good, have that al-dente texture, and a two-year shelf-life."
The growth towards consumers wanting more natural products is a huge demand that Venugopal has been able to capitalize on with his specialized manufacturing techniques. "With the demand for more natural products, consumers are wanting healthier varieties," says Venugopal. "Consumers want a healthier versions of pasta from rice, corn, peas, beans, and more. It’s possible to create a high-protein product that is a healthy alternative but also has the same texture as regular wheat pasta."
All of the ingredients for Virginia Park Food’s pasta are all sourced from within North America. "Most of the ingredients are sourced from farms in Northern California," says Venugopal. "The legumes, rice, and corn come from various millers across the country. We take the flour and convert it to pasta." The process is proprietary, so Venugopal has to find workers with lots of pasta-making experience. "We often look for people that have 10 to 30-years of experience," says Venugopal. "We have a very specialized workforce that for me to train, would take a long time. It’s all about the pasta production process, and we want our workers to make sure they are well trained and produce the product with the highest quality and at the lowest cost."
Focusing 100 percent on quality and not the marketing, allows the company to thrive on the private-label side of the market. "We produce for Banza, co-founded by Scott and Brian Rudolph, which is available in 8,000 stores nationwide,” says Venugopal. "But that’s only one part of the business. We supply to other private label companies and the category in the gluten-free space is growing. We make sure that the base for this market is created. No matter what type of innovative flour, or a variety of it, is popular, we convert it into pasta."
Needs: "We’re going through a growth surge and we need to make sure to satisfy the needs of our customers," says Venugopal. "We also need to work on the R&D side to innovate new pasta that people think they need, and is highly nutritious. This actually helps produce a new consumer who sees the product and wants it."
Challenges: "Space is our biggest challenge right now," says Venugopal. "At the pace that we are moving, our 35,000 square-foot facility might soon be too small. We made the conscious decision, however, to stay in California, since this is where we started. We’ve looked at other options such as Detroit and New Jersey, but based on labor requirements and the expertise needed, California is the best place."
Opportunities: "There are always new opportunities in new types of flour," says Venugopal. "Right now legume-based pasta is in demand. Pasta from red or green lentils, black beans, chickpeas are in demand and the retail stores are trying to catch up. Eventually, the opportunities are there for the store brands to pick up on the movement and offer what consumers are wanting. Right now, this is a huge category that has not been fully tapped into by retailers."