An American refrigerator may not be the first place you’d think of to find hummus, that mashed-up marriage of chickpeas, olive oil, sesame paste, lemon juice, and garlic so ubiquitous in the Middle East.
But if Ronen Zohar has his way, hummus will become a staple snack next to the peanut butter and jelly in your fridge. As CEO of Sabra Dipping Company, Zohar’s presided over sales of hummus that bounced from $16 million to $800 million in just six years. Founded in 1986 to serve a local community of predominately Jewish customers in Queens, New York, Sabra eventually grew and became a joint venture of PepsiCo and the Strauss Group in 2007. The company now boasts more than half of the hummus marketshare and about 25% of the fresh dip category that includes salsa and guacamole, ahead of competitors Tribe  and Athenos (owned by Kraft). Zohar believes hummus will bring Sabra a billion dollars in annual revenue in the next five years.
Sound crazy? Not at all. Sabra is poised at the sweet (make that salty) spot where American tastebuds are craving ethnic flavors and healthier snacking options in ever greater numbers. Consumers with the healthiest diets consume 36% more snack meals a year than the average consumer, according to market research firm the NPD Group , while the entire American snack market is expected to top $82 billion next year thanks to bigger spending on healthy options, according to a report from Packaged Facts .
In response, heritage brands in the food industry have had to innovate. To wit: 143-year-old Campbell’s serving up Thai-inspired  coconut curry soup in a travel pouch and 107-year-old Dr Pepper's latest sipper is its low calorie soft drink TEN .
Zohar couldn’t have asked for a better product to hitch his ambitions to. The Israeli native grew up eating hummus at his family table. Though the dip’s been made for hundreds of years, Sabra’s hummus starts with same two ingredients that packed a nutritious punch that fed Zohar’s forebears a millennium ago.  are a good source of protein and dietary fiber while the sesame tahini  has Omega-3s and other vitamins and minerals.
Innovation Beyond Borders
So how do you improve (and cash in) on an ethnic recipe that’s been beloved for centuries? A degreed food scientist, Zohar laughs before answering this question. “If you asked me personally if I could make hummus with spinach and artichoke I would say no, but it is a very popular flavor in American dips and it has become one of our most popular sellers,” he explains. “We consider ourselves a company that brings food from all over the world right to American tastes.”
As such, Sabra has developed and introduced a number of variations on classic hummus that incorporate everything from jalapeno, chipotle, and basil pesto, to ginger and sesame in its latest creation, “Asian Fusion.”
Though he insists he stays out of the approval process for new varieties (“I do like to taste them,” he admits), Zohar maintains, “You can play with the percentages [of seasonings] and add garnishes but you have to have the elements, like the right variety of chickpeas.” Which is why he says, Sabra won’t be making hummus from edamame anytime soon.
In fact, Sabra’s so protective of its main ingredient and its suppliers in Ethiopia that co-owner PepsiCo formed a trilateral partnership  with USAID and the United Nations World Food Program last year. The objective of this "Chickpea Alliance" is to help build long-term economic stability for smallholder chickpea farmers in Ethiopia by involving them directly in PepsiCo’s product supply chain.
Innovating With the Basics
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Sabra plunked down a $28 million investment  to build a “Center of Excellence” to house its R&D efforts as well as expand its existing manufacturing plant in Richmond, Virginia. The aim, says Zohar, is to establish best practices in food science and product packaging as well as lead research on chickpeas and the other fruits and vegetables it uses to produce its dips.
He says Sabra’s beginning to grow chickpeas in Virginia and testing sesame crops, too. “There is no reason we can’t grow them here,” Zohar says, although it may take several years to yield the best variety.
Beyond the Bowl
Hummus is traditionally served in a bowl surrounded by pita or other flat bread to dip, family-style. Zohar says that Sabra had to think beyond the bowl in order to get the dips into more homes in the U.S. Enter the “grab and go” concept.
“We found that people need something nutritious to take to work or for children to take to school,” he explains. So Sabra developed single-serving containers of its classic hummus as well as packaged three varieties with a diminutive container of pretzels for a more complete, but still portable, snack. The concept is particularly popular in airports and colleges, says Zohar. “I hope that when college students have a family they will have it in their fridge because they became familiar with it in school.”
Try It, You’ll Like It
What’s a global culinary product if it’s not traveling the world to initiate new devotees? As part of Sabra’s efforts to introduce its dips to more people across the U.S. and Canada, it’s dispatching food trucks to a host of cities and offering passersby samples of the stuff.
Zohar says the trucks have converted hundreds of new customers in this way, especially by offering them flavors they enjoy from other ethnic cuisines. Red pepper hummus, for example, is a “bridge” he says, “Then they take the extra step to try it and they love it.”
Sabra’s currently in about 80% of grocery stores in the U.S., Zohar says, but hummus is still only in 14% of households. “It’s a huge opportunity for us,” he says. “It is still only the beginning.”
[Image: Flickr user Julia Frost ]