The tiny downtown pop-up restaurant was warm and softly lit, the tables groaning with food, the swirling wall projections stopping just short of disco-esque.
In fact, the room had reached such a cozy-trendy fever-pitch, that the news guests received felt especially shocking.
Customers in silk jumpsuits and tortoiseshell glasses raised glasses of white wine to their lips, pausing for a word from their hosts:
“Only 30 percent of Americans are eating hummus,” stage-whispered Ilya Welfeld, the head of Seymour PR, the agency that represents Sabra, in the tone teenagers use when trying to impart to adults the urgency of global warming threats.
“32 percent,” Jason Levine, the new CMO of Sabra, gently corrected her, looking grave.
“That’s a hard thing to accept, when you live in New York,” Welfeld said, bowing her head graciously at the many plates of hummus around the room. “I tell people that, and they just don’t believe me.”
Americans spent almost $800 million on hummus in grocery stores in 2018. Sabra makes up the lion’s share of the US hummus market. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that for Sabra, that’s simply not enough hummus. Sabra wants Americans eating chickpea paste like Christopher Walken wants cowbell. “Sabra was a big part of turning hummus into a major market in the US,” Levine said. That’s actually an understatement — Sabra is the main reason you can find hummus in coolers at gas stations. But for the first time in decades, the hummus market has plateaued. And in early October, PepsiCo, which owns half of Sabra, reported a double-digit drop in Sabra sales in the last quarter. “I think what it comes down to is some people just don’t relate to hummus,” Levine mused, looking bereft.
And yet, Sabra believes that hummus still has room to find its place on the refrigerator shelves of many more consumers. That is why dressy downtowners were gathered at the Sabra pop-up Whirled Peas, a takeover of Einat Admony’s downtown Israeli restaurant Kish-Kash. Every week of the pop-up, which lasts until November 24, Sabra is sponsoring Admony to create a blended menu with a famous chef who specializes in another cuisine — Korean, Thai, American soul, Mexican, and a Nigerian-Caribbean blend. “We’re just trying to open up people’s minds to what hummus can be,” Levine said, as waiters brought warmed bowls of hummus and fresh taro chips to each white-clothed table.
I visited on the week of Admony’s collaboration with Esther Choi, the young chef behind the high-end Korean noodle house Mokbar, as well as Ms. Yoo, a ritzy Korean dinner and brunch place attached to a nightclub. Our tiny table heaved under the weight of Korean barbecue ribeye and caramelized onions heaped on a bowl of hummus; couscous with kimchi apple hot sauce, hummus and Kabocha squash; crispy cauliflower glazed with Tamarind; Korean rice cakes in a hummus-mushroom cream sauce; and mung bean and hummus pancake. Choi and Admony rhapsodized about hummus’ versatility as an ingredient, not just a dip, that adds “that earthiness, that creaminess.”
Is this the future of hummus? Hummus like peanut butter or cream cheese? As a cooking ingredient and not just a condiment? Hummus as it is served in the Middle East — an entree, not a dip? Hummus that transcends Middle Eastern cuisine?
Perhaps, said Levine. All this and more. What hummus needs, he says, is “Some pizazz, some excitement, some…sexiness.”
Until the 1990s, few Americans had eaten or so much as heard of hummus. Unless you were Middle Eastern or Mediterranean, hummus either didn’t exist for you, or else it was a fringe hippie food, paired with sprouts for a sadness sandwich.
These days, there are people who base their entire personalities off of loving hummus. In America, the satiny pea-paste has shed its fringe reputation and ascended to the realm of goddess-fare consumed by people who aim to self improve with every action they take. Hummus enjoys cachet both as a grocery store staple and as ambrosia for the SoulCycle set.
Sabra was, perhaps, the biggest force behind that change. Now, the company wants to evolve to sell to the brave new world of snackers it helped create. But have Americans had enough of hummus?
The dish we would recognize as hummus emerged roughly around the 13th century, Ari Ariel writes in the Gastronomica article “The Hummus Wars.” Several cultures have claimed to have invented hummus — Greeks, Turks, Lebanese, Syrians, and Palestinians among them. Jews, too. One argument is that hummus is mentioned in the Bible. It’s not. “Come over here,” Boaz says to Ruth, in the Book of Writings. “Have some bread and dip it in the hometz.” Though Boaz does a good impression of a man successfully flirting with me today, “hometz” was not a name for hummus, but rather, vinegar. Tension over the origins of hummus resulted in Lebanon threatening to sue Israel for food copyright violations in 2008. Instead, the two countries competed in a hummus-off.
For centuries of Levantine hummus eating, hummus was prepared in homes, and eventually purchased in restaurants. Things only started to change in the 80s, with a confluence of food-preservation and Middle Eastern immigration. Enter Zohar Norman and the Yonkos — not a niche band name, but the Israeli-American cab driver and Israeli family who launched a pre-made Israeli salad business in Queens in 1986, marketed to Israeli expats. The Yonko family already owned Israeli prepared salad company Tzabar, so they named the American version Sabra. Both words describe a cactus fruit, local to the south of Israel, that is prickly on the outside and soft on the inside, the favorite national metaphor for a true Israeli.
Sabra may be eaten as a dip by most consumers, but the hummus packaging and preparation is closer to what daily hummus eaters in the Middle East would enjoy — it’s sold in a flat, wide dish that encourages the wiping motion authentic to hummus eating, with a traditional red rim, and a topping. MaryDawn Wright, Sabra’s Executive Chef, who describes her job as “Key Hummus Inspiration, Globally,” told me that she and other tasters grade Sabra hummus on a seven-point sensory analysis scale, put to the test four times a day. She explains that the temperature of the hummus, as well as the grooves in the Sabra packaging, contribute to “the shoulders, the ripples, and the nipple you see in a bowl of Sabra.”
Records of control over Sabra’s in the early years looks like a timeline of Roman emperors — the Yonkos sold their share of the company to Norman, and in 1994 he brought on rabbi and kosher food distributor Yehuda Pearl, and the two men grew the business by 700% in less than a decade. Pearl bought out Norman in 2002, and in three years it was bought by Israeli food manufacturer Strauss-Elite. Strauss sold half the company to PepsiCo in 2007, with the promise that the food giant would give the pallid, Eastern bean dip some all-American bonafides.
It worked. Sabra vaulted past competing hummus companies. In 2006, Sabra was around 18% of the market, according to reports by Statista. In 1996, the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council said that total US hummus sales hovered at $5 million. Now Sabra’s annual revenue is over $370 million.
But how? “Sabra led a Cultural Movement rather than a traditional ad campaign,” boasted Scott Goodson — the founder of the creative group StrawberyFrog, which ran marketing for Sabra between 2008 and 2014 — in the Huffington Post. Obsessed with the idea that Americans didn’t recognize hummus or understand its uses, Sabra launched a guerrilla attack on American snacking, distributing two million samples in two years via jumbo trucks that roved American cities. As Athenos stumbled with “bitchy grandma” hummus ads that critics said played on nasty stereotypes, Sabra aired advertisements showing people from different countries gathering at a giant table. They started marketing themselves aggressively as a “taste intervention,” a delicious alternative to spray cheese and peanut butter.
Soon, Sabra inked a deal to become the “Official Dip of the NFL.” “I love Sabra hummus — whatever that means!” Hillary Clinton wrote in an email to a friend in 2011, which was later released by the state department. “I love hummus, I eat it almost every day,” Lady Gaga said, that same year. A TMZ report in 2014 proclaimed that Katy Perry’s backstage rider included a “large bowl of hummus.” Miley Cyrus said that she ate red pepper hummus out of taco shells. A 600% increase in veganism in the US helped hummus, increasingly marketed as a healthy snack alternative, to rise.
Sabra and other hummus companies paved the way towards more health-conscious snacking for Americans, but these days Lady Gaga is probably eating raw charcoal, not bean dip. Did Sabra slip because it’s just not new anymore? Or could it be the Listeria breakouts? Maybe it’s the company’s association with Israel — though attempts to boycott Sabra, which have been going on since at least 2010, have never hurt the company’s bottom line before. Or do Americans, as Sabra seems more inclined to believe, simply not yet understand the sacred-yet-quotidien place hummus should hold in their lives?
“It’s kind of been pigeonholed as a dip,” Levine says, “But hummus is more than dip.”
And Admony, like many Israelis, thinks Americans could learn from Israel when it comes to this topic. In Israel, she says, “It’s not just a dip for us, it’s a whole meal — breakfast, it could be lunch and dinner,” she evangelizes. “We say, ‘Oh, we crave for hummus today!’”
Levine says Sabra sees hummus as “The next craze in toast” (he recommends thickly-spread Sabra with a Jackson Pollock of Sriracha on top.) He’d like Sabra to make a hummus hot sauce. But what about the next frontier in hummus — at least as far as social media is concerned — dessert hummus? SharkTank-funded company DelightedBy broke into the market with Snickerdoodle and Brownie Batter hummus, and established brands like BoarsHead and Tribe followed suit. Levine says he could see Sabra trying it. Admony disagrees. “Sesame and sweet — it’s a perfect combination,” she said. But when it comes to sweet hummus, “No. And the problem is the garlic. That’s the main thing that kills it. I don’t want garlic.”
Former Sabra CMO Eurgenio Perrier, whom Levine succeeded in March, dreamed that Sabra would make hummus as commonplace as ketchup. Will anyone at Sabra live to see that dream fulfilled? Or at the very least, live to see some kind of brand collaboration, like hummus-flavored ketchup? Perhaps hummus-flavored dessert ketchup?
Sabra wants to do what it takes to make Americans “crave for hummus” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Dip it, wipe it, spread it, stir it into something else, they coax. But by god, they want to make sure you buy it.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny