In February of 2013, Chris Kirby ’04 left a successful but unfulfilling career in the restaurant business to embark on a bold, new journey that would quickly convert him from chef to CEO. In just six years, Chris’ company has grown into a nationally distributed brand on the shelves of major supermarket retailers like Wegmans and Whole Foods. And, it all started in a summer camp kitchen in Ithaca, New York. Tiny, minimally equipped, and barely used, this kitchen was the birthplace of Ithaca Hummus.
After graduating from culinary school at Johnson and Wales University in 2006 and spending the next six years as a chef in restaurants throughout the country, Chris decided it was time for a change. “I had this yearning to do something on my own,” he explains. “I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to cooking and restaurants in the first place – the path to owning your own is pretty clear. But, after experiencing what it’s like to be a chef in a restaurant, it wasn’t something I could see myself doing long term.”
Still passionate about the food industry, Chris thought it was only natural to take his talents from dinner plates to grocery stores and put a plan in motion to get himself there. Step one, he believed, was to go back to school and receive a business education. So, he packed up his life in Austin, Texas, and moved back to Baltimore while he applied to programs. He was accepted into Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration – his top choice. However, when he arrived in New York, he was already hungry for something more. He didn’t want to wait until he graduated to begin pursuing his dream.
To get started, Chris performed a market survey and discovered, to his surprise, that there was no local hummus company; he saw that gap as the perfect opportunity. Another leap landed him in the tiny, rented summer camp kitchen with his heart set on selling fresh hummus with a culinary twist. With an initial investment of just $5,000, he bought four big pots to cook the beans, a blender, and ice cream scoops to spoon the final product into serving cups, and he spent every weeknight after classes making hummus. On the weekends, he’d load up his car with coolers and head to the farmers’ market to sell that week’s batch.
He maneuvered his way into some local grocery stores as well. “I would just walk in with a cooler and ask for the deli manager,” Chris says. “When they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of adding me to their weekly calls to distributors, I got a printer and plugged it into the cigarette lighter in my car, and I managed the inventory on the shelves for them. I would show up three times a week, restock the sold units, and print an invoice for that amount. It was a lot of thinking creatively to try to get people to say yes.”
Chris’ big break came about six months after his first sale when he met a representative for the local Wegmans store at the farmers’ market one weekend. Wegmans management invited him in to have a conversation, and within no time Ithaca Hummus was up on the shelves. After four weeks of being carried by that one store, they were selling 1,000 containers of hummus every week. So, that one store turned into five stores, and five became 10. Today, Ithaca Hummus is carried by nearly 4,000 stores nationwide.
The company’s exponential growth is evidence that consumers are loving the new-to-market brand. So, what sets Ithaca Hummus apart from the giants that had historically dominated the chickpea category? Chris would argue that freshness is key.
“The one thing that really separated me and my product – and still does – is that I came into this business as a chef,” he explains. “I didn’t have the manufacturing knowledge. And that definitely put me at a disadvantage in some ways, but in a lot of way it let me think outside the box and not take the shortcuts that other companies take. I don’t just assume we have to do things a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done.”
Unlike many of his competitors, Chris – now graduated from the tiny summer camp kitchen – has teamed up with a manufacturer that uses high pressure processing (HPP) to provide the same level of food safety as heat pasteurization without actually cooking the product. HPP causes no negative effect on the nutrient density, taste, or texture of the hummus.
“We’ve been able to commercialize the product over time, so it has longer than a seven-day shelf life like it had when we started,” Chris says. “But we’ve been able to do that in a way that really respects the process and the ingredients. We have really high-quality ingredients, and that shows up in the sensory experience for the consumer. It tastes fresh, like it just came out of your blender.”
A lot has changed at Ithaca Hummus over the years. The company has evolved through new manufacturing techniques, package redesigns, and increased distribution channels. They now offer six flavors: Roasted Red Pepper, Fresh Lemon Garlic, Smoked Chipotle, Fresh Lemon Beet, Classic, and Fresh Lemon Dill. But, one thing remains the same: Chris’ mission to package unparalleled freshness and flavors that speak for themselves. After all the growth and change, Fresh Lemon Garlic, the first flavor Chris created – the one sold at farmers’ market stands and carried store-to-store in coolers – is still the company’s bestseller.