Growing up in Sandusky in an entrepreneurial family, Taylor Crooks always imagined that one day he’d be involved in starting a business.
Sarah Steinbrunner, on the other hand, sought a more nerdy path, majoring in food science in college.
When the two met at a party at Ohio State University a few years ago, they became a couple and their combined talents spawned a new food product with a bright future.
In July, Ms. Steinbrunner and Mr. Crooks’ BeanNut Butter — a garbanzo bean product that tastes like peanut butter — was one of just two winners of the annual Ohio Signature Food Contest, sponsored by the Center for Innovative Food Technology and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
The contest drew more than 60 entries statewide with the winners receiving future technical assistance from CIFT and the use of its cooperative kitchen near Bowling Green.
Most of the entrants are people who have cooked or worked with food for years, developing their own recipes or using an old family formula for their products.
But Mr. Crooks, 22, who graduated last year from Ohio State, and Ms. Steinbrunner, 21, a senior at the university, took an unconventional route to BeanNut Butter.
“A year ago I never would have expected to be in food. When people want to start a business, they don’t usually start in food,” said Mr. Crooks, whose company, Banzo Foods, is legally registered in Sandusky, though he recently took a job as a financial analyst in Columbus.
The peanutty-tasting product came about when Ms. Steinbrunner, from Anna in central Ohio, was encouraged by her parents to be more involved in college activities.
“The long story is that Sarah was a member of a product development team. Her parents asked her ... to get involved more in clubs at school because they were trying to get her better opportunities for internships,” Mr. Crooks said.
As part of a product development project, she worked with garbanzo beans to develop a cookie like an Oreo with Mr. Crooks helping on the business side.
Both ended up leaving that project, “but after we left that we decided we wanted to create our own product,” Mr. Crooks said. “We thought about making a spread that would be more scalable and we decided on a peanut-butter type product,” he said.
The challenge, Mr. Crooks added, was there was no formula to work from for a garbanzo butter that tastes like peanuts. “The formula changed over a dozen times. Then, we finally nailed down a formula,” he said.
“The texture is a little different from peanut butter. But it really does taste like peanuts, which nobody has been able to do without using sunflower seeds. Sarah is really brilliant at this,” Mr. Crooks said.
They launched their product in March, selling it at a farmers’ market in Columbus and setting up a product page on Amazon.com. Then came the food contest victory.
“I tried their product and it tasted totally amazing. It was almost like eating peanut butter. It’s just amazing,” said Paula Ray, CIFT’s small business coordinator who has worked with Mr. Crooks and Ms. Steinbrunner on their product following the contest.
“Everybody has grandma’s secret recipe or they have something they think is going to make it. But only 2 percent of new products make it big,” Ms. Ray said. “Anybody can make a new product. It’s marketing it, getting it to the stores, getting it out to the consumer — that’s the hard part.”
CIFT, she said, is helping BeanNut Butter develop a nutrition label and identify any safety issues.
Mr. Crooks and Ms. Steinbrunner held preliminary talks last year with a major retailer about distributing their product.
But for now, the two say they need to be sure they can boost output and maintain product integrity. Ohio State is providing a commercial kitchen to increase production.
“We’re the first to admit that we’re really clueless about this business and do appreciate any help,” Mr. Crooks said. “CIFT has offered us a four-year commitment to use their commercial kitchen. They’ve also offered a monetary amount to go to our production runs and for sensory testing, and they’ve also offered microbiological testing to ensure there’s nothing wrong with the safety of the product.”
The first step, he said, is to get BeanNut Butter — which has a name trademark pending — into stores and see how the public reacts. From there it’s uncertain.
“We don’t claim to know much about what we’re doing. But we’re doing our best to listen,” Mr. Crooks said.
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