Portland’s Better Bean Co. looks to go national with a product that’s both good-tasting and good-hearted
*By Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian, March 30, 2013
Better Bean Co. employee Santos Gutierrez strains beans before they are sauteed in safflower oil at the company’s Wilsonville production plant. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian
Some people want to rock the world. Keith Kullberg and his daughter, Hannah, will be happy if you just eat better beans. Preferably ones cooked by their Better Bean Co.
For now, Better Bean appears to have a niche market to itself. While everyone else packs beans into cans, Better Bean sells its five bean dishes in refrigerated plastic tubs that are resealable and recyclable. Consumers snatch them up at $3.99 apiece, and in three short years Better Bean has jumped from booths at farmer’s markets to cooler space in about 250 stores in a total of 15 American states and Canadian provinces. Keith Kullberg, who developed the recipes in his college days, has a goal of selling in 4,000 stores — the approximate number of natural and organic food stores nationwide.
One of the company’s early supporters, Whole Foods Regional Vice President Bruce Silverman, says Better Bean’s products are unique. When Silverman tried some of the Kullberg refried beans at a farmer’s market, his first thought was, “How can other people not be doing this?”
Whole Foods now carries Better Bean’s 14-ounce tubs in 14 stores in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
“It’s such a good freaking idea,” Silverman says.
But going big with the company, as Keith Kullberg hopes to do, is a gamble. A lot can go wrong in the food business. Money, suppliers, quality assurance and shipment networks can slip sideways. Silverman cautions that a refrigerated, perishable product may have limited distribution range and price point.
Keith Kullberg, left, and his daughter, Hannah, developed Better Bean’s refrigerated dips, side dishes and chili. The company has grown rapidly, and sells its products in 250 stores. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian
Kullberg expects competition from other manufacturers soon, too, or purchase offers from corporate giants. He says Better Bean is still in startup mode, cooking and packaging beans three days a week in space it shares in a Wilsonville industrial park. Increasing storage room, cooler space and production days are the first steps. Kullberg acknowledges that “a considerable portion of our family’s net worth is on the line.”
Better Bean is going for it, but Kullberg says businesses can’t grow indefinitely and success is not just about size.
“What’s our mission?” Kullberg asks. “What do we want to do that gives us deeper meaning?”
The answer sounds funny.
“We really want to change the way people eat beans.”
In the bean-ginning
The whole bean thing started during Kullberg’s college days at Oregon State, where he earned an electrical engineering degree.
During trips to Mexico he fell in love with the culture and cuisine, and tried to reproduce the refried beans and other dishes he’d found there. Why beans? They’re a great source of protein, low in cholesterol, low in fat and are versatile as dips or side dishes. Being a vegetarian, Kullberg substituted vegetable oil for the lard favored by Mexicans, and over the years was the family bean cook for his daughters, Hannah and Brooke.
He was also a self-described “serial entrepreneur.” He and a partner started a software engineering company, Step Technology, and saw it grow to 100 employees and three offices before it was purchased and eventually dissolved. Then the family operated a dress shop, Moda Nova, in downtown Portland. It’s now defunct.
Kullberg, 58, did management consulting for awhile but had the bug to start another business. During a hike, he realized the answer was in his kitchen, in the bean dishes others always praised.
“All my life, I’ve known you can’t buy good beans,” he says. Even gourmet cooks, he says, turn to canned beans. A light bulb glowed.
“I researched the market, went to natural-food stores — no one in the country was selling beans in this format. Would you buy hummus out of a tin can? Why buy beans out of a tin can?”
He took the idea through Portland Community College’s Small Business Development Center. He won a “recipe to market” contest in 2009, gaining shelf space at New Seasons Markets as a prize. Oregon State’s Food Innovation Center in Portland helped with a shelf-life study.
Daughter Brooke, 22, a University of Oregon student, came up with the company name. Better Bean, she pointed out, was not only alliterative but simply true.
Meanwhile, daughter Hannah, 25, returned from Vassar College in New York with a degree in geography and a passionate interest in farms and food systems. She joined Better Bean full time in 2011 and has become the company’s public sparkplug.
She wants the company to change the conventional food system by supporting local sourcing, regional production and community involvement, but recognizes they have to work with the existing norms and customer expectations.
“We want to bring beans back to the center of the plate,” she says, rather than “something you have once a month.”
Made with care and purpose
Santos Gutierrez, one of Better Bean’s half-dozen employees, deftly flips and drains beans before adding them to a reservoir of sizzling safflower oil in Wilsonville. The beans are sautéed, which Keith Kullberg says is key to enhanced flavor. The aroma fills the company’s work space.
Giant bags of beans, weighing a ton each, sit along one wall. Black beans come from Washington state; red beans from Idaho. Hayday Oil Co., in Madras, supplies the golden safflower oil. Veggies and spices are locally sourced when possible.
The bean dishes are made from locally-sourced ingredients and come in recyclable containers. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian
The company’s products include Rethought Red Beans, Cuban Black Beans, Uncanny Refried Black Beans, Wholly Chipotle Bean Dip and Three Sisters Chili.
Hannah Kullberg is a true believer. She says beans are the answer for everything that’s wrong about the way Americans eat, including obesity.
The company’s story and products resonate with others, too. In early March, Better Bean won an Entrepreneurship Award at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim, Calif., which attracts 2,400 exhibitors.
Whether the broader consumer market will agree, and support Better Bean’s dream of national expansion, is an open question.
Silverman, of Whole Foods, says regional success is more likely.
“I think it’s a really good idea. A solid, tasty product marketed at a fair price,” he says. “If they do that and not have a competitor come into the market and undercut him, I think they’ll do very well with it.”
Sarah Masoni, of OSU’s Food Innovation Center, says small food businesses need good design and production, someone who is savvy about money and a good sales and marketing person.
“If you don’t have all three it doesn’t matter how good your idea is,” Masoni says. “It will be up to Keith and Hannah to keep innovating and stay one step ahead.”
Ryan White, a grocery buyer for New Seasons, says Better Bean’s products have done well as customers caught on to the unusual packaging and placement in the cooler section.
The Kullbergs help their cause by eagerly doing in-store demonstrations, White says, and have proven to be a “great local partner.”
“We have a little bit of pride that we were one of the first retailers to pick them up,” he says. “We walked them through the process, and they’re all too happy to support us right back.”
Keith Kullberg says he and Hannah have to be smart about branding, adding stores and managing capital to have a chance to reach their goals. He believes multiple companies will eventually make money by producing refrigerated beans.
“Our definition of success is that we will become one of the national brands in this category we’re pioneering,” he says. “We’ve rethought everything about the bean.”
*Source: Mortenson, Eric. “Portland’s Better Bean Co. looks to go national with a product that’s both good-tasting and good-hearted.” The Oregonian, March 30, 2013. OregonLive.com