Last summer, Nick Wiseman, a founder of Little Sesame, a small chain of hummus stores in Washington, DC, did all the “pivots” expected to save his business. He had provided supplies, food packages and pantry items, and worked with local nonprofits to feed the hungry.
But with his two stores in the downtown business districts – and there was no sign of office workers returning – he needed something else to keep the business going. The obvious solution: sell your hummus in grocery stores. “We have a great brand and a great product,” recalls Wiseman. “How hard can that be?”
It turned out that it took almost a year for three chefs at Little Sesame, each with experience in the kitchen of Michelin-starred restaurants, to prepare a hummus that looked and tasted the way they wanted, with the necessary shelf life and taste Food safety certifications. Along the way, they created a mini-food laboratory equipped with a magnetic stirrer (to pull even samples of hummus) and a pH probe, and became experts in the art of high-pressure pasteurization, which removes bacteria by applying isostatic pressure in stages kills. six times as high as on the ocean floor. This month their hummus finally hit the shelves of the Whole Foods Market.
The bumpy road from restaurant dishes to retail products – often paved with trial, error, and some compromise – is one that many chefs and food business owners have made in the past year as they looked for ways to diversify their businesses or reinvent themselves amid the pandemic .
Carbone Fine Food, a retail division of New York-based restaurant company Major Food Group, introduced a range of pasta sauces. Another New York company, Levain Bakery, sells versions of its famous sticky chocolate chip cookies in the freezer at Whole Foods. Independent restaurateurs across the country offer everything from glasses of hoisin sauce to salty snacks on their websites.
“If you are a proud cook and your soul is dedicated to making food that smells, looks and tastes wonderful, this is a difficult transition into the food manufacturing world where taste is not always paramount,” said Bob Del Grosso, a chef and former professor at the Culinary Institute of America who has advised a variety of food manufacturers. “The hope is that new, higher quality and unconventional products they bring to market can bring new value to the business.”
Wiseman was surprised at the challenges of making ready-to-sell hummus, but Ron Even, another Little Sesame chef, wasn’t. Taking a double degree in biochemistry and food science, Mr. Even initially thought he would need to use powdered stabilizers and acidulants that would extend shelf life and, more importantly, fight off dangerous bacteria like salmonella or Clostridium botulinum that can cause botulism. The risks are real and recalls are not uncommon. It was only in March that the large hummus producer Sabra had issued one because of possible salmonella contamination.
But the Little Sesame team didn’t like the pungent, sometimes sour, aftertaste that such additives created. Mr. Even began looking for ways to increase the acidity without affecting the taste. Over a period of weeks, he used a Bluetooth probe that sent data to his iPhone to test the acidity of each ingredient, including chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice. He even compared the pH of tap water to purified water. (Tap water was less acidic.)
Surprisingly, the solution wasn’t found in the ingredients, but in the making of the hummus. At its restaurants, Little Sesame cooks its chickpeas with baking powder, which helps dissolve them and make a creamy spread. But baking soda is inherently alkaline, and this added to the challenge of getting the overall pH to safe levels. After hundreds of iterations, the chefs found that using a pressure cooker broke down the chickpeas adequately and allowed them to use fresh lemon juice in place of commercial acidulants.
However, some things had to change. Food hummus needs to be pasteurized. Little Sesame opted for high pressure pasteurization, which uses intensity instead of heat to preserve fresh flavors. (It’s often used in cold-pressed juices.) But the extreme pressure crushed Little Sesame’s containers, pressing the toppings against the lids, and leaving an unsightly slick. The company is now placing its jam tomatoes or caramelized onions under the hummus. The chefs hope that this has the added benefit that the toppings (bottom?) Will last beyond the first serving.
The reality of retail sales also forced Levain Bakery founders Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald to drastically adjust their plans.
Originally, they envisioned their brand in the cookie aisle. But the characteristics that define a Levain Bakery biscuit – a buttery mound that’s crispy on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside – were impossible to recreate in a biscuit that could sit on the shelf for months.
“The moisture content of our biscuits is really high,” said Ms. McDonald. “After not too long, even two weeks, everything somehow turns around and gets wet and muddy on the outside and hard on the inside. That was really uncomfortable. “
Counselors who hired the women recommended making a thin, crispy biscuit instead. This was followed by a series of very uncomfortable phone calls, Ms. Weekes recalled: “You were the experts and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we knew we didn’t want to do what they said. “
Last fall, about two years after their founding, Levain delivered a smaller biscuit, but otherwise identical to what they sell in their eight bakeries. They are pre-baked and frozen.
The freezer aisle isn’t where a lot of people look for cookies, but Ms. Weekes and Ms. McDonald love it. “When people came into the bakery and asked how they could save cookies for later, we always told them to freeze them,” Ms. McDonald said. “The solution was right under our noses.”
This was not the case with Emshika Alberini, who wanted to radically recreate the Thai iced teas and coffees she sold at her Chang Thai Cafe restaurant in Littleton, NH. The drinks were incredibly popular and profitable. But like many Thai teas and coffees, they contained artificial colors and lots of sugar from condensed milk.
“You have to know that Thai tea is colored in the restaurant. How else would it be super bright orange? ”Said Ms. Alberini. “Somehow people in a restaurant don’t think about it. But they do it when they shop in a store. “
She was lucky enough to find a company in New Hampshire that made canned iced coffee and had a chemist on their team. Together they experimented with plant-based milk (to make the product vegan) and with various sugar substitutes (to obtain sugar-free nutritional labeling). It took Ms. Alberini three months to opt for oat milk for the lattes and 32.5 grams of monk fruit per can for the sweetness. The end products are sold at independent retailers and online.
For every chef who has made the leap into retail, there are plenty still trying. Ash Fulk, culinary director of Hill Country Barbecue Market in New York and Washington, has worked on a range of sausages for almost a year, but also researches barbecue sauces and rubs. Carbone Fine Food’s pasta sauce line doesn’t yet have the signature flavorful vodka, as new CEO Eric Skae stated, “Once you introduce cream and cheese, it gets a lot harder.”
As the demand for restaurant-quality food at home has increased during the pandemic, restaurateurs like Little Sesame’s Mr. Wiseman are hoping the hard work will pay off.
But on the culinary side, solving the retail product puzzles is a reward in its own right. Even after months of work on the hummus, the Little Sesame team is already working on new commercial products in the food laboratory.