It’s springtime, and while other farmers debate whether to plant corn or soybeans, Frank Wolf has been debating how much of his farm in Washington state to commit to chickpeas.
“We started out with about 1 percent of our acreage in production,” said Wolf. “It’s now approximately 25 percent of our production.”
Why the increase in chickpea demand? They are the main ingredient in hummus, a Mediterranean staple which is increasingly becoming the dip of choice in the U.S.
“We say, start from the chickpeas. You know this is what we’re using,” said Ronen Zohar, CEO of Sabra, by far the dominant player with more than half the U.S. hummus market.
Sabra is a joint venture between PepsiCo and Israel-based Strauss. The company expects in six years sales to grow from $16 million to $800 million And most Americans haven’t even tried hummus yet.
“The penetration of hummus in the U.S. is a low number right now, it’s something like around 20 percent of house penetration, so the opportunity is huge for us,” said Zohar.
Sabra is pouring some profits into a new research and development lab in Virginia to figure out new flavors Americans might like and the best chickpeas to grow to improve yields. To meet demand, the company is also talking to Virginia tobacco farmers to see if they’ll maybe switch to chickpeas.
“It’s only the beginning,” said Zohar.
The company’s success has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East, whre apparently the Lebanese have complained that Israel has co-opted the product in terms of branding. Zohar has said in essence that if they could reduce tensions in the Middle East to merely a food fight, that would be fine.
Sabra’s next strategy is to convince American moms to use hummus in kid lunches. It’ been sending out food trucks with free samples to areas of the country where people still don’t know what hummus is or how it tastes.