By Tan Wai Fong
“Selling hummus is not going to make us rich so soon,” laughed HummusCo’s co-founder Aneesha Veriah as we wrapped up the interview. Perhaps not just yet for this start-up. But HummusCo has just joined the hummus war – a battle which is now being fought out in the United States and Europe for a bigger slice of the growing US$1 billion a year market.
The global hummus market is currently dominated by Strauss, the largest hummus manufacturer in the world. The company has even formed a Chickpea Alliance, a global partnership to advance the knowledge of chickpeas.
But HummusCo is in great company as most major hummus manufacturers started as cottage industry companies. And for Aneesha and her partner, Fariz Zain Zahedi (pic), the starting point couldn’t be any smaller than their kitchen.
“It started as a hobby. When you spend a long time eating a certain product, your taste buds adjust to it. I used to eat a tub of hummus daily when I was living in London. When I came back, I found that I didn’t like the varieties or the taste of the hummus sold locally. They were also loaded with preservatives.
“So, Fariz and I decided to make our own hummus. When we started receiving positive reviews from friends and family, we decided to exploit the gap in the market and push our preservative-free flavoured hummus products,” she said.
Before HummusCo came along, only the classic hummus (blended paste of steamed chickpeas, garlic, fresh lemon juice, olive oil and tahini) was sold locally.
Today, less than 15 months after HummusCo sold their first tub of classic flavour, the company now has 12 varieties of hummus including Spicy Sriracha, Tangy Jalapeno, Smoky Chipotle, Roasted Garlic, Greek Olive, Sun Dried Tomato and Classic Pesto (pic).
They have also rolled out three flavours under their Modern Pantry, non-hummus dip line; Baba Ghanoush (roasted eggplant), Mexican Black Bean and Roasted Pumpkin.
“We are constantly exploring new ideas. From time to time, we bring out new flavours to the pop up markets. There are also seasonal flavours. For example, during Christmas last year, we had Hazelnut hummus and Roasted Red Pepper hummus,” she elaborated.
An innate skill for business
The constant experimenting with new flavours, and what Aneesha (pic) called, “hers and Fariz’s innate skill for business” saw HummusCo’s products flying off the shelves at supermarkets, as well as pop up markets where the two partners are constantly trying to familiarise more people with their brands.
Their first break came when an investor in one of the high-end supermarkets in the Klang Valley came across this new food brand.
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, HummusCo is available in some 10 supermarkets, which serve affluent customers and the expatriate community. Entrepreneurial Aneesha and Fariz are working on stocking their products in more of such supermarkets.
During the interview, Aneesha’s sense for business was quite evident. She talked about customer profiling – generally the affluent; using social media especially Facebook to connect and engage with their customers; and being “quite selective in where (supermarkets) we place our products.” In fact, she and Fariz always do reconnaissance work to assess the suitability of any supermarkets before placing their products.
The partners, who both have finance backgrounds, were very clear about their pricing strategy. “We looked at similar products out there, and priced our Signature product slightly lower. However, with the rest of the line, we priced them slightly higher as we use imported spices and ingredients which tend to be quite expensive,” she said. Their strategy seems to work just fine, with all their products selling equally well.
And while the company offers all 15 products at pop up markets, “less is more” as they currently only stock five varieties of hummus and the Mexican Black Bean Modern Pantry dip in the supermarkets. The supermarket offering will be expanded over time to include more flavours from their repertoire.
They have also revamped their packaging to cater to affluent customers. “When we did our pop up market in BSC way back then, we knew that the customer profile was different from that of Jaya One. A lot of research went into creating new labels and jars to take our packaging to the next level. When we got to BSC, our product had gone from cottage-like to having that niche and gourmet look and feel,” she said.
Ensuring freshness of products
Production-wise, ensuring the freshness of the products is top priority. “It’s not that we can’t increase capacity and make many tubs of hummus a day. But, we deliberately make small batches so that when our products hit the supermarkets, they are still fresh,” Aneesha explained, adding that the partners now have a central production facility with three employees (and yes, they have moved out of the original kitchen).
A long product shelf life product that is preservative free was another area that the partners took very seriously. They would regularly take samples from the batches of hummus made and set it aside in the fridge to assess the shelf life. In the beginning, their hummus products only had a shelf life of 2-3 weeks refrigerated.
“We felt we had to increase the shelf life of our products without using preservatives before we started stocking at supermarkets. Eventually, we were connected to a food technologist who advised us on how to reduce moisture from our products while keeping olive oil and lemon juice as the natural preservatives.
“Our improved recipe worked and today, the shelf life of our sealed products is up to 6-8 weeks refrigerated,” she also said, adding that they have also tweaked the packaging to make it tamper proof.
They are also constantly engaging and interacting with their customers on social media, especially via Facebook. They have a good following on Facebook, and pepper their updates with creative recipes. If you think hummus is only used as a spread, check out the hummus pasta salad, romaine salad with orange-hummus dressing and hummus flatbread pizzas recipes.
The entrepreneurs are excited about the potential of the business and might soon make their products available outside the Klang Valley. “We have been asked to sell in other states. We are not sure about this yet. We might hire a marketing firm to do the research first before making a call,” said Aneesha.
In the meantime, there are more supermarkets to conquer. A day after the interview, they started stocking hummus and dips at the Hero TTDI Plaza where, “the foot traffic is overwhelming” enthused Aneesha just a day ago during the interview. Looks like this gourmet homemade dip company is going places. In time, they may just spring a surprise on the big boys in the industry.
For more information, please visit HumusCo’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the Wholesale and Retail NKEA (National Key Economic Area) aims to catalyse the transformation of the wholesale and retail sector, enhancing its role in attracting domestic consumption, which contributes over 50 per cent to Malaysia’s GDP. For more information about how a brand gets noticed and eventually reaches the shelves of a supermarket, click on this video.