According to Statista, the global hummus market size is expected to reach nearly $1 billion by 2024, due largely in part to the shifting diet trends and snack-savvy consumers. It’s hard to ignore the rise in upstarts getting in on the hummus trend, each offering a different take on the spread with unique flavors. Ithaca Hummus is one such brand. An early player in the hummus game, Ithaca is disrupting the category with its use of only fresh ingredients and cold-press production process.
Foodboro spoke with Ithaca founder Chris Kirby on his background in the restaurant industry, what led him to entrepreneurship, his advice for other food & beverage makers, and what we can expect next from his company.
Before starting Ithaca Hummus, what were you up to?
I was a chef working in restaurants.
What brought you to hummus?
In all of my years of traveling as a chef and visiting different farmers markets, I thought for sure there would be a local hummus maker when I moved to Ithaca, NY. On my first weekend in town I headed to the Ithaca Farmers Market and was shocked to find that I was wrong. I came up with our lemon garlic recipe and within a month the local hummus maker at the farmers market was me!
How has your background in the restaurant business helped with growing Ithaca?
There’s nothing better to me than changing someone’s mind about a dish or ingredient they thought they didn’t like. The passion I developed for influencing people through food in the restaurant business is the same passion that drives me today at Ithaca Hummus. The bigger we grow, the more impact we can make.
What were the early days of business like?
The early days were tough. I was going to school during the day, making the hummus at night, and selling it on the weekends. But it was also super exciting to feel 100% in control of my own destiny. I felt like the sky was the limit and I used that excitement to fuel the hustle.
What was your experience like working with buyers? What does distribution look like now?
Buyers can be tricky to figure out at first, but ultimately they want to know how your brand is going to contribute to the growth of their category. The best way to convince a new buyer to give you a shot is to show them amazing results from retailers you’re already working with. That’s the method I’ve always used and today we’re in about 5,500 stores.
Retailers: how important is transparent communication?
Having good relationships with your retail partners is essential. Just like with any relationship, trust, communication, and transparency are key.
What are the hurdles with having a perishable/refrigerated product?
Where do I start? Shelf life, shipping costs, inventory, shelf space…All of these things add extra challenges throughout the supply chain of a refrigerated product, but I strongly believe the future of food is fresh (refrigerated). To deliver the quality that we promise our consumer there is no other way.
Where have you focused most of your marketing budget?
The most effective marketing an early stage, brick and mortar CPG brand can do is in the store, at the point of purchase. It’s very difficult to measure how your online marketing tactics translate into sales at store level, so I focus most of our marketing on in store activity and promotions.
Any advice/insights on Instagram partnerships?
Keep them authentic. Consumers can sense when partnerships are forced or paid and I think it’s always better to have true fans do the talking for you.
What has been a hardship as a founder? How have you overcome this?
I started Ithaca Hummus with no experience in CPG or running a company, so, for me the biggest challenge has been developing my leadership skills as the company has grown. My best moments are when I’m honest and authentic with our team, not trying to be someone that I’m not.
How have you seen the industry change since launching in 2013? Particularly consumer tastes/preferences.
The overwhelming majority of consumers will always have a desire to be healthier. Over the years fad diets have come in and out of fashion (some good, some bad), but if you look back even in history you’ll see that the consensus among doctors and health experts really hasn’t changed that much. The best diets from around the world consist of whole food ingredients, mostly plant based, and nothing processed or artificial. Consumer demand for products that fit this profile have continued to grow since I started Ithaca Hummus and I can’t think of a reason why it would ever slow down.
You are pretty out there with your social presence (swag, etc.). Any advice on building a founder style that is authentic and personable?
Go with your gut. I think founder led brands truly are a reflection of the founder, so don’t second guess yourself too much and don;t be afraid to put yourself out there.
What inspires you? Who in the industry do you turn to for inspiration?
There are so many inspiring people in our industry. I tend to be drawn to stories of authenticity – Travis Grillo (Grillo’s), david vs. goliath – Hamdi Ulukaya (Chobani), compassion – Daniel Lubetzky (KIND), and hard work – Seth Goldman (Honest T).
Any other brands in the industry that you think are killing it?
On the emerging side? Simple Mills, Banza, Perfect Bar, Caulipower, Siete to name a few.
As a founder, what do you do to take care of your health, “turn off” work?
This is a tough one and always something I struggle with. It’s difficult for me to turn work off but now that I have a son though I find times throughout the week to hang with him. When I get the chance I like to ride my bike for exercise.
What advice do you have for early-stage entrepreneurs?
Focus on your consumer first. Don’t build a product/service and then go try to find a consumer for it. That’s a very long and risky process. Instead, find your target audience first, and then build your product/service to serve them.
How have you been managing business during COVID-19?
Our primary focus has been making sure we have plenty of inventory on hand and in the supply chain to keep the shelves full. Secondarily we’ve been searching for ways to stand as a beacon of hope for our community. As a country we are in a constant state of fear, worry, and at times hopelessness. We are doing everything we can as a brand to counteract that by giving back and sharing our hope for the future.
What can we expect next from you? Do you foresee taking the brand beyond hummus?
Our mission is to introduce America to its new favorite brand of hummus. We are operating in a very crowded category dominated by a multinational corporation (Pepsico owned Sabra). So, it’s critical that we stay focused on just hummus. Our opportunity for growth and impact is massive if we are successful.
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