CPG Playbook   //   December 20, 2023

How Zenb is using a food truck tour to promote sampling

Why pasta brand Zenb is touring the country with a food truck

With so many new brands entering retail, more companies are getting creative with the ways they facilitate food sampling.

Zenb was launched direct-to-consumer in late 2019 by food manufacturer Mizkan America, which also owns Ragù and Bertolli — starting with short pastas. Zenb’s line is gluten-free, vegan, high fiber and a good source of protein. Over the past two years, spaghetti created its own unique pasta Agile shape, a quick-cooking variety. This fall the company added lasagna, cavatappi and cracker crisps – following the brand’s launch in retail in August as part of Sprouts’ innovation table section.

To promote the new products and retail door expansion, Zenb embarked on a nationwide “pasta lounge tour” earlier this year — using an outfitted food truck as a lounge, equipped with a full prep kitchen along with a section where the brand sells full-size products. The tour kicked off last summer and carried into fall, hitting retailers like Sprouts, Jewel-Osco, Clark’s Market and Central Market.

Thus far, the tour visited both local food events and new retail partners in major markets including Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and New York. The tour will wrap for the year at the Coastal Christmas Holiday Spectacular in Del Mar, Ca. on December 17, before resuming in January 2024 to showcase Zenb’s upcoming product launches. Thus far, the pasta tasting tour has hit 50 events in five states, engaging with nearly 330,000 individuals and distributing over 36,000 cooked samples and 10,000 packaged samples. 

Hugo Perez, chief brand storyteller and vp of marketing at Zenb, told Modern Retail the company was looking for a creative sampling approach to help it drive awareness and secure shelf space. “Normally, when you eat a plant-based product, you’re coming to it with a ‘good enough’ mentality,” he said. “We strived to make a better-for-you product that doesn’t compromise on taste or texture.” 

To win over shoppers, the company decided to embark on a large-scale sampling program to get as many people to try Zenb as possible during its first year in physical stores. Over the last 12 months the brand has transitioned from selling on its direct-to-consumer website and Amazon to national grocers, Perez said.

Out of the 50 events, about half were held at retail locations, “where we pull up to the parking lot with coordination with the retailer,” Perez said. “Normally, we’re set up right near the doors, we’re normally there for about three to four hours.” During this period, Zenb ambassadors also hand out pasta samples at the store’s entry or invite customers to enter the lounge for a tasting. “This is where we educate them about plant-based products and show them our full range.”

The other half of the stops are held at food-centric events and venues, like farmers markets, marathons, breweries or food festivals. In October the Zenb tour made a stop at the New York Wine & Food Festival, where Perez said “people waited in the rain to try the pasta.” Another recent stop was the San Diego Santa Run, where over 6,000 Santa Clauses ran a beachside 5K.

The lounge also features monitors displaying Zenb content, “but lately we’ve been showing football games to get people to watch while they talk to us and try the products,” Perez said. The brand is also seeing repeat visitors when doing events near each other. “We get people bringing their families back, or say they’ve seen us at Sprouts and want to try us,” Perez said. This crossover of being at local events and retailers is helping “create a synergy where people are becoming aware that we’re here,” Perez said.

The company is tracking sales at the retailers during the tour stop; Perez said that “every single retail location we’ve been at the sales have gone up in that store.” Perez did not disclose exact post-sampling sales figures, but said retail partners are excited about driving traffic into the pasta aisle. The samples also feature QR codes for people who want to order online later. 

Beyond introducing new customers to the products, the eye-catching tactic is also a way to boost Zenb’s new retail relationships. “It does take a lot of coordination and effort to do this, but it’s showing the retailers that we’re committed to making the brand a success at their stores,” he said. For example, the company tries to coincide a store visit to when Zenb products are due to hit those shelves, though Perez said that’s not always possible given the nature of event planning. A traveling Zenb field team is in charge of running the lounge at different locations. “We had the president of Albertson stop by, unannounced,” he said.

Traveling pop-ups are nothing new, and a number of companies adopted the mobile approach as things opened up post-Covid. Product sampling is a major part of new food and beverage brands that are just entering physical retail. Carly Sutherland, a brand and communications strategy consultant, said the demand for better-for-you food alternatives has significantly increased food innovation in recent years. 

“The challenge that comes with introducing new ingredients is that there just isn’t demand for them yet,” Sutherland said. In Zenb’s case of its yellow peas pasta, Sutherland noted people aren’t yet searching for “yellow peas pasta” (Google Trends backs this up).

“Innovative brands and products can’t solely rely on advertising to convince people to trial them. They need to get in front of them in a creative way and remove all barriers to trial,” Sutherland said.

Zenb plans to continue incorporating physical events in its marketing strategy. “We’re constantly evaluating the concept,” Perez said. For instance, the brand is weighing whether it should stick with a freestanding lounge instead of a traditional food truck with window service.

“We’ll continue to grow this [strategy] to reach more people and rotate the products to expose people to more of Zenb’s other products,” said Perez.