Lucille Jennings is sitting in a mall in a suburb of Salt Lake City, about to have her first taste of hummus. The great-grandmother peels back the seal on a small cup of Sabra and peers at the beige mass inside. “You know what that reminds me of?” she says. “Chicken mesh. My mom and dad were farmers, and they ordered baby chicks through the mail. They fed them this kind of stuff.”
Sabra has heard worse. It owns the largest share–60%–of the American hummus market, but that doesn’t mean much when only 26% of households regularly buy the Middle Eastern chickpea dip. (A quarter of America, or about 80 million people, just straight-up don’t know it exists, Sabra says.) In focus groups, hummus virgins are often befuddled. Sabra execs especially love the tale of one woman who plunked a chip into some hummus and was stunned when it didn’t snap on contact. She thought hummus would be hard.
In the past, Sabra didn’t make much headway in confronting this problem; the brand was sold mostly in hummus-loving markets like New York and Florida. But in 2007, PepsiCo bought half the company and soon started distributing the stuff across Velveeta Nation. Sabra needed a way to entice this new audience despite the product’s inherent marketing problems. “It’s tough to pronounce, even,” says Sabra CEO Ronen Zohar. “What is it? Chickpeas? Who wants to eat chickpeas?”
And so, in both product and marketing, Sabra has recalibrated to meet Americans where (and how) they already eat. Chief among its efforts: It has six colorful trucks roaming the country to hawk hummus, stopping in cities like Phoenix and Milwaukee for four to six weeks at a time. Staffers hand out tiny packs of the product at supermarkets and churches and Little League games, hoping to lure newbies.
I meet up with one such truck on a freezing January day outside a mall in Murray, Utah. The truck’s manager estimates that, around here, one in five people have never even heard of hummus, much less tasted it. Jennings, the great-grandmother, is one of them. She accepts the sample tentatively, then scoops a bit on a pretzel and tastes. Her eyebrows raise. It isn’t chicken feed after all. “I like it!” she says. Would she buy a tub? “Yeah. I think I would.”
Chances are, she really will. According to Sabra, more than 70% of people who try it at a truck purchase some within 60 days. In the past five years, Sabra’s presence in households has gone up 118%. America is ready.
Sabra has been around since 1986, launched in Queens, New York, by a rabbi named Yehuda Pearl. Israeli food conglomerate Strauss Group eventually bought half of the company, convinced of its international potential. Meanwhile, PepsiCo had purchased Stacy’s Pita Chips in 2006, the ultimate Americanizing of another Mediterranean staple. In Sabra, it saw a beautifully arranged marriage–“a great opportunity for that premium chip-and-dip combination,” says Frito-Lay VP of marketing Dave Skena. At PepsiCo, “premium” is the future: The category–which it defines broadly to include Smartfood popcorn, Simply Lay’s, and basically anything with better ingredients–is “growing at a significantly faster clip than other snacks.” PepsiCo bought the remaining half of Sabra, to run it jointly with Strauss. So began the great hummus expansion.
Ronen Zohar, an Israeli now living in New York, became Sabra’s CEO just before the PepsiCo deal. He has a degree in food science, but he’s no purist: Under his command, Sabra now has up to 17 varieties out at any one time, many of them designed to mimic the foods Americans are more familiar with. There is spinach-and-artichoke, sun-dried tomato, and even chipotle hummus. “These are not in my top 10,” Zohar says. “It’s okay. We’re a diverse company.”
But to sell hummus at a PepsiCo scale, Zohar has had to step back and consider how to address more fundamental questions. They’re the sort of queries often posed at the trucks, like when Utah mom Stacy Hudson accepts a sample: “Wow,” she says, “what is it?” Encouraged to dip in a pretzel, she lowers it completely vertically, without scooping, and extracts the world’s smallest serving of hummus. At home, she usually serves clam dip or queso. The verdict on this dip? “Wow, that’s . . .” she trails off. Then she gives some to her 5-year-old son, who declares it yummy.
Sabra has identified a three-step hummus learning process. It’s currently promoting phase one: Hummus as dip. Sabra recently wrapped its first full season as the “official dip” of the NFL, which it hoped would lead to more hummus at Super Bowl parties, where people will eat anything. This year, it also launched TV commercials that offer a “guide to good dipping.” The advice, in summary: Dip whatever you want. “I need to explain to the people what to do with the hummus,” Zohar says. Phase two involves discovering hummus as a spread for sandwiches and burgers. And phase three, in essence, finds people using hummus the way they do in the Middle East: on everything. Sabra.com has Americanized recipes for these pioneers, including hummus-stuffed chicken breast and hummus mashed potatoes.
All of this is growing hummus at an accelerated rate. Since the PepsiCo deal, Sabra’s revenue has grown 400%, to more than $373 million a year. Though Sabra’s efforts are also a boon to its competitors: “We have both the enviable and unenviable position of owning the category and growing the category,” says marketing director Greg Greene. As Sabra has to busily explain hummus–instead of just promoting its own–a consumer might recall how much they like the new food, not the brand that brought it to them.
For now, though, Sabra sees no other way than to just roll with it. It’s even created a book, Hummus for Dummies, which will be given out at the trucks beginning on May 15. That is, of course, National Hummus Day. “It’s the third Thursday in May every year,” Greene says. “Starting last year.”
R.J., a twentysomething from Utah with slicked-back hair, is sitting outside in the freezing cold eating his first serving of hummus. “I thought it was straight vegan food,” he says, not meaning it as a compliment. But now that he’s tried it, he’s skipping right to phase three: “It’d be good with, like, a chicken wrap. Take the vegan style out of it.”
To improve its marketing, Sabra tracks reactions like this–who prefers to dip, what they dip with, or who’s just slathering it on the nearest meat. “We’re seeing a little regional stuff, but not enough to make a specific move yet,” Greene says. If Sabra can find the right patterns, it can localize its tactics and skip some of the guide-to-dipping dance. Who needs to cast about persuading people to eat hummus when you know exactly how they’ll like it?
And so, the trucks chug on. Typically, a hummusmobile in Utah hands out some 5,500 samples a day–and 12,000 in busier places such as Manhattan–but by 4:30 p.m. on this afternoon there are plenty of leftovers. The mall’s parking lot feels like an arctic wind tunnel, the red-jacketed Sabra reps are jumping around to stay warm, and most residents have the good sense to stay home. So the team packs up early. In a few weeks, this truck will drive, mercifully, to San Diego.
I head into Salt Lake City to find more hummus eaters and take a tour of the Mormon church’s Conference Center. My guide there is a retiree named Dave Clements, a soft-spoken, jolly guy who pronounces hummus like hyoo-miss, one of many variations across the country. (“You can pronounce it however you want,” Greene says, though in Sabra’s ads, the pronunciation rhymes with dumb bus.) “Years ago,” Clements says, “I saw a movie, and it was with this guy on the beach, and he was nude and he was spreading hummus on everything. And I thought it must be a mayonnaise or something.”
This, it turns out, was Adam Sandler’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, about an Israeli counterterrorist agent. It came out in 2008. But Clements didn’t actually taste hummus until last year, when he was handed a sample at Costco and tried it because of the movie. “I thought, This is good. I see why people eat it,” he says. In fact, he even bought some. But he doesn’t remember which brand. Sabra’s work continues.