Few foods evoke the Middle East more than hummus.
While 82 percent of Americans have never tried the chickpea spread, that number will be shrinking fast if two growing Israeli-owned companies have their way. Already, the popular staple among American Jews is slowly becoming a nationally recognized food, sold across the country in major supermarket chains.
In 1995, hummus was a $5 million industry, with just a handful of companies selling the product, according to the Symphony IRI research group. Today, hummus sales top $350 million a year.
And as the demand for hummus increases, one brand is rising to the top, holding 48 percent of the market, growing by double digits every year and running television ads in 11 major cities: Sabra.
“Hummus is becoming an American food,” said Mina Penna, brand manager for Sabra, a U.S. based-company whose name is also a term for native-born Israelis. It has “really been catching on nationally because of all the consumer trends.”
But that heightened visibility also puts it the cross-hairs of those seeking to boycott all things Israeli.
Sabra’s unprecedented growth led it to leave the Queens factory it’s inhabited since its inception in 1986, for a space in Richmond, Va., that is more than four times the size. Sabra’s new, 110,000-square-foot headquarters is, according to Penna, “the biggest hummus factory in the world.” The new plant more than doubles Sabra’s capacity.
While Sabra is leading the brand-recognition game, it’s facing some stiff competition, most strongly from Tribe, the No. 2 brand at 18 percent of the market. Tribe, a Massachusetts-based company that has been around since 1993, recently launched a new line — its “Origins” hummus, and a new ad campaign, declaring, “Not all hummus is all-natural.”
“A lot of people think that all hummus is all-natural,” said Elise Casto, brand manager for Tribe, “but a lot of the bigger players actually put preservatives in their products.”
And its new message is not going unheard. “Tribe is obviously hoping that by playing the natural card, they will be able to cut into Sabra’s steadily growing dominance in the national hummus market,” wrote Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing and organizer of the Kosherfest trade fair, on his blog. But Lubinsky told The Jewish Week that while the hummus market is strong, “the jury is still out to the extent that this will be a long-term mainstream product.
“It’s probably the same way when people outside of the Jewish community started eating bagels,” said Lubinsky. “No one knew how far it would go.” But if sales continue to increase, Tribe will “not be far behind. They’re going to want to cut into that market share.”
Both Sabra and Tribe went national after buyouts by major corporations: Sabra was bought in 2006 by Israeli food giant Strauss, and entered into a joint partnership with PepsiCo in 2008. That same year the Israeli company Osem bought Tribe (renaming it from the original “Tribe of Two Sheiks”), which is majority-owned by Nestle. (Confusing matters somewhat, in Israel, Osem distributes a line of hummus and salads called Sabra, which has no connection to the U.S. Sabra.)
“We continue to grow more than double digits every year,” said Penna of the U.S. Sabra. “We’re really fortunate in this economy that we really continue to see this growth.”
This expansion is driven in large part by Sabra’s national television campaign, the first ever of its kind. With the tagline “go Mediterranean,” the commercial features a man and woman sitting on their porch, watching the sunset and snacking on hummus. “It’s like our own Mediterranean vacation,” says the man.
That “Mediterranean” label — connoting relatively peaceful lands like Italy whose cuisines have long been popular among Americans — goes down more smoothly than “Middle Eastern” or “Israeli,” terms that are synonymous with “conflict” in the minds of many consumers.
Though both Sabra and Tribe are produced in the United States (Sabra’s chickpeas are U.S. grown, and Tribe wouldn’t disclose its chickpeas’ origin), both have been targets of a campaign by Philly BDS, the Philadelphia branch of Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, because of their Israeli parent companies, which publicly support the Israeli Defense Forces. Adalah-NY, a New York-based BDS group, lists both hummus companies on its list of “consumer boycotts against Israel.”
And last week, the Princeton Committee on Palestine submitted a referendum to the university opposing Sabra’s sale on campus. On Monday, it reworded the appeal, delaying the vote, and requesting that multiple brands be offered, instead of only Sabra.
Boycott efforts have seen some success at DePaul University, which “temporarily stopped the sale of Sabra hummus pending a review,” after a request by the Students for Justice in Palestine, according to a statement issued by the university. And while The Jerusalem Post reported last week that Strauss removed any mention of support for the IDF from its English-language website, a representative refuted that claim, and the company’s current website proclaims support for the Golani brigade.
“We donate money to help educate and to donate to welfare and cultural activities of soldiers,” said Osnat Golan, a representative of Strauss. “This is not a political statement; this is just a way of helping people.”
And the American companies aren’t too concerned with these developments.
“It hasn’t really affected us in terms of sales,” said Casto of Tribe. “The company, Osem Inc., is part of Nestle. We don’t support any particular affiliation.”
Sabra, which was founded by Israeli expats, continues to affirm its U.S. roots, saying it has “no political positions or affiliations,” in a statement sent to The Jewish Week. Sabra, Strauss and PepsiCo “each [have] different and independent corporate giving programs.”
While Tribe and Sabra are the two biggest sellers of hummus, many smaller players are carving their own niche in the market. Athenos, Cedar’s and Marzetti — all sold nationwide — are Greek brands. No Arab-owned brands are distributed nationally, but Holy Land hummus — owned by a Kuwaiti immigrant — is available throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Sahadi’s grocery store in Brooklyn, which was opened in 1948 by a Lebanese family, offers its own brand. Local brands like Sonny and Joe’s, Mediterra, Abraham’s, Humm, Good Neighbors and Yorgo’s are all sold at the Fairway Market in Stamford, Conn., according to its kosher director Moshe Morrison. Manhattan Fairways tend to have a smaller selection due to space restrictions, said Morrison, but they still sell a variety of brands. “Hummus [sales] have increased tremendously with the publicity it has been getting,” said Morrison. “Pretty much any major supermarket now is carrying hummus even if it’s not in a Jewish area.”
Hummus popularity isn’t confined to the supermarket shelves — restaurants devoted to the pureed chickpea are springing up across New York. While the boundary between falafel joints and hummus bars isn’t easily defined, several new Israeli-founded establishments are devoting top billing to the chickpea spread (as opposed to the chickpea fritter). Hummus Kitchen has two locations in Manhattan, Nanoosh (which is organic but not kosher) has three, and Hummus Place leads the pack with five.
“I’m opening like one [location] a year now,” said Ori Apple, owner of Hummus Place, which opened the first franchise in 2004. Apple said he was surprised at the widespread success of the restaurants.
“I assumed that Israelis and maybe some Jewish people will know it and love it,” he said, “but it caught on with different people, different ethnic groups and everybody loves it.” Right now Apple, a native Israeli, has thoughts of expanding beyond Manhattan to Brooklyn, but won’t rule out opening chains across the country. “I think it will be popular everywhere,” he said. “Students love it, vegetarians love it, athletes love it, health-food people love it,” he said.
And as hummus takes off around the country, national magazines are taking notice. Cooking Light performed its first hummus taste test last month, declaring Tribe the winner. Everyday with Rachael Ray tested hummus in 2009, and gave top honors to Trader Joe’s brand, with “best garlic” to Tribe’s roasted garlic hummus and “best oddball” to Sabra’s sun-dried tomatoes hummus.
The toppings and additions that are ubiquitous in American-sold hummus would be unheard of in most restaurants throughout Israel — where hummus is generally accompanied by pine nuts, mushrooms or ground beef — but they are what keep American consumers coming back for more.
“The zesty spicy garlic and the spicy red pepper are the top two flavors in our Origins line,” said Casto of Tribe. The company’s traditional hummus also comes in 14 varieties — including savory dill and spicy chipotle. Sabra offers 15 flavors, including versions with salsa, and spinach and artichoke.
And innovations in hummus packaging are emerging.
This year’s Kosherfest trade show saw the launch of Ami’s Squeeze Z Hummus — “the first ever squeezable hummus product.” With the motto “no more double dipping,” Squeeze Z Hummus (also established by an Israeli expat) is considerably smaller than Tribe and Sabra, and distributed only in New York.
Adventurous hummus enthusiasts can even partake of Crazy Camel’s “dessert hummus” — which comes in flavors like chocolate mousse and pumpkin pie. The two-year-old New Hampshire-based line is not kosher, but is “vegan friendly”; it is only distributed in stores throughout New England and online.
“I think [hummus] is going to the next step,” said Jeff Nathan, renowned Jewish chef and owner of Abigael’s restaurant in New York. “Sabra did a great job with brand recognition in the supermarket and putting the name out there.” The new innovations and flavors of hummus are also key to reeling in new consumers, Nathan said.
While Sabra and Tribe hold the biggest shares right now, “there’s a ton of room to grow, that’s why you see a lot of players interested in the market,” said Casto. “It’s very much on trend because it’s healthy, it has protein in it, it’s basically gluten free, it’s so convenient and so easy to use — it’s kind of a feel-good product.”