NEXTY winner Lentiful aims to convert ‘plant-curious chili dudes’

Colorado lentil-vangelist created lentil-based meal cups in seven flavors to help Americans eat less meat. Check out this flexitarian’s story.

Shara Rutberg

April 22, 2024

7 Min Read
NEXTY winner Lentiful aims to convert ‘plant-curious chili dudes’

There were so many reasons why Lentiful’s co-founder believed he definitely should not pour his life into starting a vegan natural food company.

“I’m not a chef,” he remembers thinking. “I’ve never started a company before. I’m on the wrong side of 45 to start a food company. And our last names, literally, are Bacon—which I still love to eat.”

Ben Bacon, who launched Lentiful’s line of instant lentil meals in 2022 with his wife, Brooke, is “very much a flexitarian,” he says. “I’m not 100% in the vegan camp. And you kind of take a look at the people that are starting these types of vegan food companies, and you can tell they live and breathe it. And I was like, I don’t know if that’s me.”

Then one day, it hit him: “Maybe this isn’t a bug in my software,” Bacon recalls realizing. Maybe being a flexitarian was a superpower. “Maybe this is going to allow me to communicate and develop these products in a way that really hits people like me,” he says.

Lentiful’s convenient, high-protein, high-fiber lentil-based meal cups cook in about a minute. And while vegans love them, they’re also hitting a bullseye with exactly the audience Bacon most wants to serve: “plant-curious chili dudes,” as he calls them. These are the “guys in small towns interested in trying to eat less meat, but who are not going to buy an Impossible Burger, not going to eat a kelp burger,” says Bacon.

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The humble lentil, on the other hand, is familiar. And what’s more downhome friendly than chili? If it’s delicious and filling, it’ll win over these guys, explains Bacon.

Glowing customer reviews are proving him right, such as this one: “My husband’s new favorite work lunch! He thinks he could eat the Homestyle Chili flavor every day. And he was a self-professed lentil hater before trying Lentiful.”

“Lentils are like the gateway drug for plant-based eating,” says Bacon. “Flavor chameleons,” they can soak up any combo of spices and convert newbies. Protein and fiber packed, they’re filling. “Then maybe people start experimenting with tofu and tempeh and things they never thought they’d try,” Bacon says. “That’s what happened to me!”


Lentiful’s seven flavors include Homestyle Chili, Thai Coconut Curry, Low Sodium Bolognese, Mexican Green Chile, Low Sodium Harvest Vegetable, French Mirepoix and Pineapple “Chorizo.” Lentiful Homestyle Chili Instant Lentils won the NEXTY Award for Best Plant Party at Natural Products Expo West. (Editor's note: Lentiful has discontinued the Cinnamon Apple flavor.)

That was hardly Lentiful’s first industry accolade. In December, the company won NOSH Pitch Slam 14, an annual competition for emerging food brands. Lentiful also won the Naturally Boulder Pitch Slam in February, winning a booth at Newtopia Now in Denver this August. The company competed in the Natural Products Expo West Pitch Slam in March, as well, but didn’t make the finals.

Related:Burroughs Family Farms pioneers ROC almond farming

During the State of Natural and Organic keynote at Expo, Carlotta Mast, New Hope Network’s senior vice president of content and insights, called out the brand as an inspiring example.

“The momentum is building,” says Bacon. “I just feel incredibly fortunate.”

Helping people eat more plants

Lentiful’s mission is to “help Americans make better, healthier eating choices, specifically around more plant-based eating,” says Bacon. “We're not saying the world needs to go vegan. We’re just saying we think all of us would be better off if we were to dial down the meat and dial up the plants a bit, you know?”

That’s something Americans need help with. Eating more plants isn’t easy. Especially when you’re busy. The Bacons were exactly the kind of busy people Lentiful helps. Jobs, four children and two dogs pack their schedules.

“All day long, like most of us, we’re on Zoom calls, and then we go straight into becoming Uber drivers at night [and] taking our kids to endless things like dance and softball and basketball,” Bacon says. “It’s very hard to take a break and cook something that takes a while. It’s hard when you’re busy to find something that fills you up and is tasty. You don’t always have the time.”

In the years before starting the Broomfield, Colorado, company, the family had made efforts to eat more plants. They went from dairy to almond milk. Bacon started adding pea protein powder to his smoothies. “That was easy,” he says. “Then it gets kind of hard.”

COVID lockdown provided the opportunity to explore more plant-based options. Around the time experts were showing us how to sanitize our groceries, the Bacons were reaching into the back of their pantry. “Brooke pulled out a bag of lentils that had been there for who knows how long,” Bacon says.

His wife found a recipe for cilantro lime lentils on She happened to have all 11 ingredients on hand, plus ample time to cook. It was so delicious, Bacon cleaned his bowl—then snarfed down five more servings over the next few days. “I’d never thought twice about lentils until that moment,” he says. Then, he started seeing lentils everywhere.

“The next day I got on the internet, and I saw this article that said the No. 1 healthy thing Americans should be eating but they’re not—is lentils,” he says. “I just kind of kept popping up everywhere, you know? I love Tim Ferriss, and he was calling out lentils for weight loss in his Slow-Carb Diet. Natalie Portman was talking about eating lentils to build muscle and beef up for her role in ‘Thor.’ Dan Buettner, in his Blue Zone talks, was saying lentils are the longevity food. On Instagram Live, Reese Witherspoon was cooking lentils.”

During that spring break, Bacon read “Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America,” about a group of Montana farmers who defied corporate agribusiness, saved their farms (and are saving the planet) by launching an organic lentil movement.

The Lentiful team won Naturally Boulder's Pitch Slam in February. The prizes include a booth at Newtopia Now in Denver, Colorado, in August.

Simplifying lentils

Good news about lentils seemed everywhere—except on store shelves as Bacon looked for convenient ways to eat them. Eleven-ingredient recipes with 45 minutes of cooking weren’t going to cut it. After about six months of lentils simmering in his mind, he had a kind of epiphany as he looked at the oatmeal cups in his pantry. “Could we get lentils down to a one-minute process?” he wondered. “If we could figure it out, we could get more people eating lentils,” he thought.

Bacon convinced Sarah Masoni of the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University to work with him, even though the organization usually works only with Pacific Northwest brands. The center had experience creating cups for brands such as Bob’s Red Mill. For about a year, Masoni’s team worked on lentil cups—doing the tasting and refining remotely, as it was still during COVID. “My FedEx bill was pretty high,” Bacon says.

Finding a co-packer that was the right fit and willing to take a chance on a brand that did not meet minimum orders was a challenge—especially because “I didn’t really know what I was talking about,” says Bacon, laughing.

To get the lingo, he dove into the packaging world. He flew to Las Vegas for a day to attend Pack Expo, where he soaked in model numbers and “cups per minute,” and “drops and double drops” phrasing among 30,000 attendees and 2,300 exhibitors. Armed with equipment model numbers and industry lingo, he renewed his cold calling. It helped him get in the door with his Idaho co-packer.

“Every day is a challenge,” says Bacon. “You’re always selling yourself. I’m essentially a one-person food company.” But this lentil-vangelist has faith that planet-friendly lentils, which have been nourishing humans for more than 11,000 years, are the answer for everyone—even plant-curious chili dudes.  

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