When Little Sesame debuted in the basement of DGS Delicatessen in 2016, co-owner Nick Wiseman was already on a mission. He wanted to convince Washingtonians that hummus belongs “at the center of the table always,” as a main dish instead of its common supporting role as a side or snack. He calls it an “everyday alternative protein” that should be a part of everyday life. A big bowl of hummus topped with cauliflower, onion tahini, herbs, and everything spice served with pita is a typical Little Sesame meal.
Wiseman, who co-owns Little Sesame with his cousin David, added to the hummus shop’s leadership team by bringing on Chef Ronen Tenne before moving out of the basement of DGS and into two stores—one on L Street NW that opened in 2018 and another in Chinatown that opened in 2019. While Little Sesame will continue opening more shops in the District, they’re about to make another leap.
“Now to make it accessible, people have to have hummus in their homes,” Wiseman says. “To get this product in front of people, we have to go into grocery. Now is our moment.”
Little Sesame is starting out by selling their new packaged hummus with a 90-day shelf life at two Montgomery County farmers markets this weekend. Find it at Pike Central Farm Market in Rockville on Saturday, May 8 and Bethesda Central Farm Market on Sunday, May 9. In mid-May, both D.C. locations of Foxtrot Market (Georgetown and Mount Vernon Triangle) will start selling it, as will regional online grocer 4P Foods. In June, Little Sesame will make its debut at a major grocery store with multiple locations in the region.
The sellers will offer 8-ounce and 16-ounce containers of plain Little Sesame hummus, plus two 8-ounce flavors that have either jammy tomatoes reminiscent of Little Sesame’s shakshuka sauce or caramelized onions on the bottom. You eat them like yogurt with a fruit base—dipping is part of the fun. One of Tenne’s next projects is developing a third packaged hummus flavor that will only be offered at farmers markets. He’ll utilize whatever produce is in season that the farmers are selling.
Even though it has a longer shelf life, the hummus bound for grocers and markets won’t taste much different than the hummus at Little Sesame stores. The goal was to create a smooth hummus with the right balance of creaminess and acidity from fresh lemon juice that doesn’t contain any ingredients that wouldn’t reasonably be found in a home cook’s kitchen.
Landing on store shelves was always part of the plan, but the pandemic accelerated the timeline. Since both Little Sesame shops are on quiet streets in downtown neighborhoods, the growing company experimented with how to get hummus to former customers stuck at home, like selling tubs of hummus to-go. “Wow, there’s a lot of traction—people love experiencing our hummus like this,” Wiseman recalls noticing. “How do we bring the product to market? Where do we start?”
Getting to this moment was a challenge, but fortunately, they had an ace in the hole. Ron Even, who studied food science in Israel, joined the Little Sesame team in 2019 as the production manager.
“I’m the guy you go to when you want to hear more than you expected to hear,” Even jokes. He lived in Israel for 13 years and his father grew up “a hill over” from Tenne’s family. “Coming to Little Sesame is coming to my roots,” Even continues. He recently worked at The Dabney. “I’d gotten back into fine dining, but it’s good to tell my parents that I’m using my degree.”
From July to October of last year, Even took 100 hummus iterations for a test drive in a lab Little Sesame built at their Chinatown shop. He consulted with Mezzoni Foods in California on the recipe and ingredients and worked with the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University in New York as well.
The first step was nailing the pH balance. Even added ingredients and adjusted quantities until the team realized less is more. They didn’t want to use citric acid or gums found in processed foods. “The food science world is industrialized, so my tendency is to go with powers and all that since it’s not taboo,” Even says. But Little Sesame found a way to use the recipe Tenne perfected back in the basement of DGS that calls for fresh lemon juice.
Wiseman had been following how a cold pasteurization technique called high pressure processing opened the door for cold-pressed juice makers to extend the shelf life of their products. It was exactly what Little Sesame needed to maintain the integrity of its hummus while making it last.
Tubs of hummus produced at Little Sesame shops enter a machine that Even says looks like a train locomotive, where they’re subjected to extremely high pressure—87,000 pounds per square inch. The average atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 psi. HPP explodes harmful pathogens like listeria and E. coli without any chemicals or extreme heat. “If it could kill us, it kills them,” Wiseman jokes.
Hummus that appears in grocery store refrigerators are more commonly cooked to 90 degrees Celsius to achieve the same goal of killing off anything harmful, according to Even. He argues this approach detracts from freshness and overall flavor. Some store-bought hummus can taste mealy or too sour. “The goal,” Even says, “is to keep it tasting like it was made in a small store in small batches.”
Nailing the pasteurization process was only the first step of the journey. “After you figure out the product, you have to create a whole supply chain,” Tenne says. Mind you, this is all going down in the midst of a pandemic that disrupted supply chains across the world. “There are so many details that go into having a product you can see on the shelf at the end of the day.”
The hummus containers come from Massachusetts. The labels, designed by Studio MPLS in Minnesota, are printed in Pennsylvania and affixed to the containers in New Jersey. The hummus is produced and packed at Little Sesame stores and sent to an HPP facility also in Pennsylvania. Then, after being placed in boxes and arranged on pallets, the finished product is sent to Little Sesame’s distributor in Maryland. “It’s been a 10,000-piece puzzle, Wiseman says. “We’re on piece 9,988.”
The most important ingredient, the chickpeas, come from Clearlake Organic Farm in Montana. Owner Casey Bailey is a leader in regenerative farming, which seeks to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil that has been stripped of its biodiversity. It ultimately results in carbon drawdown, more efficient water use, and other benefits. Bailey converted a commodity grain farm back to organic.
When Tenne and Wiseman visited the farm, they were taken aback by its expanse. “It took 45 minutes to get from one side to the other,” Wiseman says. Bailey relayed that Little Sesame will never outgrow him, even with more shops on the way and a CPG product that could go national.
Wiseman hopes consumers pick up on Little Sesame’s climate-friendly posture. After a little more legwork, they hope to add an organic label to their hummus. “This is climate friendly food,” he says. “The way [Bailey] farms is an investment in the planet and we stand behind that.”
Little Sesame isn’t the only restaurant experimenting with launching CPG products. “The restaurant experience has to shift,” Wiseman says. “They have to reach out beyond the four walls. That’s part of a viable restaurant model moving forward.” He sees small makers competing with big companies as a positive new frontier. “With all the hardships of COVID-19, it did create some opportunities and space to think about things differently.”
Wiseman thinks right now is the right time to launch, especially with more consumers getting curious about plant-based diets and alternative proteins that are also affordable. He likes the idea of a family emptying a container of Little Sesame hummus and making it the star of dinner. “I’ve seen people’s love of hummus grow so much over the past few years,” he says. “I feel like the timing is good. People want hummus.”