One momentous evening in 2011, amidst the verdant hills of Italy’s Tuscany region, as Jerry M. Bello, Jr. and his wife Shannon sat down for a meal at a traditional osteria while on vacation, inspiration struck. Instead of the usual bread basket, an intriguing aperitivo arrived on the table—small squares of pasta, lightly baked to a satisfying crunch and simply dressed with a drizzle of olive oil and a garnish of coarse sea salt.
It was pasta, but snackable.
Instantly inspired, Bello—already a successful snack innovator with global renown—envisioned a new business opportunity back home in the U.S.
Soon, the idea for Pasta Chips became reality. By 2015, Pasta Chips was a $10 million brand stocked in retailers from coast-to-coast—and sales continue to grow.
A knack for ingenuity
Vintage Italia is the first company in the industry to mimic the pasta aisle in snack form. “We launched Pasta Chips in 2013 and, in doing so, created an entirely new snacking category—snacking pasta,” says Bello, founder and CEO of Vintage Italia.
Formerly an innovator in the pharmaceutical business, Bello crossed over into food in 1999.
He’s a proven food entrepreneur behind the genesis and growth of a wide range of successful snack brands.
For his first foray into food, Bello helped bring biscotti to a wider audience, co-founding the Mamma Says Biscotti brand, which he later sold to Nonni’s Foods in 2005.
Bello also commercialized Veggie Straws via the Sensible Portions brand—which he co-founded—a snack concept that subsequently spread across the industry. He also was the brains behind Pita Bites, another Sensible Portions product. His work on Sensible Portions drove the brand toward rapid success, with significant annual gains. This garnered attention, and the Hain Celestial Group, a leading organic and natural products company, acquired Sensible Portions in 2010.
Bello also served as president of Brownie Brittle, working with founder Sheila G. Mains to drive the brand into the national consciousness, bringing accelerated sales success. In the process, Brownie Brittle helped define a new style of cookie—an ultra-thin type inspired by the highly craveable crispy edges of brownies.
The other visionary behind the scenes at Vintage Italia is Adam Cohen, chief marketing officer. Since 2006, he has worked alongside Bello on a range of renowned snack brands, including Sensible Portions, Brownie Brittle, Goodie Girl Cookies, Cookie Pop and more.
These days, translating pasta into snackable form is Bello’s primary passion. The first pasta format to undergo the transformation were ravioli-styled shapes, Pasta Chips, which launched in 2013. Late last year, Pasta Bow Ties—a pasta type otherwise known as farfalle—joined the lineup. And other options are taking shape on the horizon.
The pasta snack process
Vintage Italia produces its pasta snacks with thinly sheeted durum semolina dough that’s gently dehydrated via proprietary methods to achieve the right moisture level, then baked. It’s similar to a cracker process, but with select adjustments. High-protein farro wheat also goes into the dough mix for some of the products.
The process required refinement in order to yield a product that maintains the core characteristics of pasta, while still eating like a chip, with a uniquely light crispiness. The snacks have the texture of fried chips—but without the extra calories.
The new Pasta Bow Ties, launched in 2016, follow a similar process, but with an additional step that puffs the farfalle shapes into a three-dimensional structure. Bello cites this achievement as a key aspect that will drive Vintage Italia’s future business forward, opening new snack possibilities.
Vintage Italia bakes its pasta snacks with herbs and spices, with varieties, like Alfredo Pasta Chips and Meatball Parm Pasta Bow Ties, clearly inspired by classic Italian cuisine.
Veggie Pasta Chips add characterizing vegetable ingredients to the mix. “Our Veggie Pasta Chips, available in Spinach Broccoli Kale and Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper, have come on strong over the last 12 months,” says Bello. The products make use of spinach powder, dehydrated broccoli and kale in the Spinach Broccoli Kale Veggie Pasta Chips, and red bell pepper granules, tomato powder and dehydrated tomato—and a touch of organic beets—in the Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Veggie Pasta Chips.
The production facility has three lines, and all three have the ability to run every product type.
Bello notes that the Veggie Pasta Chips have proven best-sellers, along with Garlic Olive Oil Pasta Chips and Meatball Parm Pasta Bow Ties.
Bello and the Vintage Italia team have fine-tuned some aspects of the formulas since launch. “The market wants cleaner labels, lower sodium and aspirational flavors, and we have modified accordingly to deliver these aspects to our consumer,” he says. “Non-GMO and whole-grain—but with low fat, calories and sodium—are still front-of-mind for mainstream consumers.”
Pasta Chips have a significantly lower fat level than regular potato chips and 120 calories per serving. All products are non-GMO.
Vintage Italia’s pasta snacks are natural carriers of other flavors via dips. The Pasta Chips website offers a wide range of dip recipes, including Pesto Hummus, Mango Jalapeño Curry, Apple & Fig, Roasted Garlic Salsa, Italian Herb Ranch, Creamy Bruschetta and more (see www.pastachips.com/recipes).
When possible, Bello works with retailers to merchandise Pasta Chips in the deli section of the store, with Pasta Bow Ties sold in the snack aisle. Distribution runs from coast to coast. “We are in all of the major retailers,” says Bello, spanning multiple retail channels, including Walmart, Kroger, Safeway/Albertsons, Tom Thumb, Harris Teeter, Mariano’s, Publix, Costco, Sam’s Club, Duane Reade, Vons, Sheetz and 7-Eleven.
The company is open to working with retailers to develop private label products, and does some contract manufacturing.
Vintage Italia has continued to innovate, most recently in terms of a new packaging format. “We have a clever packaging initiative for fourth quarter of 2017,” says Bello.
Looking toward the future, Bello’s goal is to create a focal point for Vintage Italia’s products at retail. “We want to have a dedicated section in stores for pasta snacks, which will include other shapes, sweet flavor profiles and additional exciting offerings,” he says.
In 2016, Advantage Capital Agribusiness Partners, along with Silas Capital and Emil Capital Partners, made an investment valued at $3 million in Vintage Italia, which will help drive business to the next level of profitability.
A unique position
Bello notes that Vintage Italia hasn’t seen any notable competition for its pasta snacks business due to the challenges posed by the ingredient matrix. Cultivating just the right process took time and ingenuity—but now that they’ve cracked the pasta snack code, multiple opportunities have availed themselves.
“Nobody else is making snacks out of pasta dough, says Bello. “The semolina wheat is the hardest of wheats, and allows for innovation because of it.”
Bello also notes that the recent introduction of Pasta Bow Ties adds new dimensions to Vintage Italia’s potential. “The puffing, three-dimensional snack creation is only the beginning of the ‘pastabilities.’
“Anything that is possible with pasta is possible with pasta snacks,” continues Bello. “Watch out for more exciting new items and flavors that will totally disrupt the market and the snack section.”