Hummus sales are humming. The Middle Eastern mixture has experienced enough growth in recent years that some industry experts are calling it “the new salsa.”
Hummus is certainly similar. Like salsa, some retailers are promoting it as a more healthful alternative to traditional dips. It is often cross-merchandised with chips — pita, though, rather than tortilla. And an increasing number of restaurants now serve the chickpeas-and-tahini-based blend as a pre-meal munchie, inspiring diners in turn to seek out the spread at supermarkets for at-home consumption.
However, while some shoppers have become regular buyers, the category still has lots of room to grow.
“I believe that hummus is becoming more mainstream, even though many of our customers do not fully understand the health benefits yet,” said Bob Matthews, deli category manager, Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C. “This is a relatively new category, with the major brands making huge product improvements rather quickly.”
Food Lion currently carries 10 hummus SKUs across two brands: Cedars and Sabra. Flavors include original, garlic, pine nut, chunky, red pepper, and cranberry and fig, among others. The retailer stocks them in the deli case along with other dips and specialty cheese items.
Price promotions on hummus are few and far between there, according to Matthews. Instead, the chain relies on manufacturers to spread the word.
“We would like to see the hummus suppliers continue to educate consumers on the great flavors and health benefits on a broad scale,” he explained. “This would help drive the demand in stores.”
The demand has already grown some. During the 52 weeks ending Oct. 12, 2008, sales of hummus in the supermarket channel were up 24% to $44.9 million, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago.
Alan Hiebert, spokesman, International Deli-Dairy-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., reports that estimates of hummus sales across channels have been ranging from $140 million to over $180 million annually, with predictions of around $210 million within a few years.
“Hummus manufacturers are working to expand the category by adding unique flavors,” he said. “In addition to the now-common olive or sundried tomato flavors, we're seeing other savory options like artichoke hearts, dill and caramelized onions.”
Rick Schaffer, vice president, sales and marketing, Tribe Mediterranean Foods, the Taunton, Mass.-based hummus manufacturer, has seen similar sales lifts. But he pointed out that household penetration still remains low in the U.S.
“Household penetration is only around 5% [according to IRI]. In Israel, one of the places hummus originated, this number is closer to 95%,” he said. “There's still a lot of room to grow the category here in the States.”
The top flavors made by Tribe are classic, roasted garlic and roasted red pepper. But when the company came out with 40 Spices hummus a while back, it quickly jumped to fourth place and is now nipping at the heels of the three most popular flavors, Schaffer reported.
Other varieties made by the company include spicy chipotle, eggplant (baba ganoush), cracked chili pepper, scallion, dill, zesty lemon, calamata olive, garden vegetable, jalapeno, French onion and sundried tomato basil.
In addition to the wide variety of flavors, there are many unique variations from brand to brand. Each company's products vary slightly in ingredients, thickness and style, with some blending in ingredients and others piling them on top as a garnish.
Tribe reformulated its hummus three years ago to differentiate itself more from the competition. Now, all of its varieties contain only all-natural ingredients. They are also cholesterol-free, gluten-free, contain no hydrogenated oils or saturated fats, and are labeled “vegan-friendly” and “certified Kosher OU.”
According to Schaffer, the change was made to capitalize on the natural and organic trend, and thus far the strategy is working.
“Shoppers are very interested in naturals and organics, so it behooves retailers to offer at least one brand like this,” he told SN.
Hummus isn't just a pita dip that hails from overseas. It is a high-protein, low-fat blend that can be coupled with fresh veggies, used as a condiment on sandwiches or even function as a core ingredient in main entrees.
With so many options, it's surprising that most retailers present it only as a dip with chips, said Jim Wisner, president, The Wisner Group, Libertyville, Ill.
“People respond well when hummus is promoted with a price drop, and there's also a lot of value to putting it in circulars with ad copy that explains what it is and how they should use it,” said Wisner. “Panera uses it as a spread on some of its sandwiches instead of mayonnaise or honey Dijon. That's something simple that retailers can urge shoppers to try at home.”
Indeed, roasted pepper hummus goes well with turkey. Horseradish hummus is the perfect partner for roast beef, he added.
Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager, Highland Park Market, Glastonbury, Conn., feels that sampling would have the biggest impact on sales. American consumers are often put off by foods with bland color and mushy texture and need some coaxing to taste-test that type of food, he said.
The problem, though, is that most supermarkets don't want to invest time, money and energy on hummus. Highland Park hasn't put forth much effort. It's just too small of a category to warrant the attention, Cummiskey said.
“It's such an easy item to set out for shoppers to try, but I can't imagine many people stopping to try a sample unless someone was there to talk about hummus, to encourage them to try it,” he noted. “It would be in manufacturers' best interest to send promotional teams into stores to do this.”
Something as simple as hanging signs touting the health benefits of hummus would work wonders, said Don Stuart, managing director, Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn. He envisions hummus in a section of a circular centered on eating healthy during the holidays.
“The benefits of hummus are very much in line with the health and wellness trend sweeping the country,” said Stuart. “Most have no saturated fat, no cholesterol, no sugar and are high in protein and fiber.”
Another movement that bears mentioning is the “buy local” trend, he added. In the U.S. alone, there are upwards of 100 manufacturers of hummus, most of which are regional or niche-market players. Stuart advises supermarkets to stock such varieties alongside better-known brands, promoting the opportunity to support local businesses.
Meijer does this. The Grand Rapids-based chain stocks several flavors of hummus made by Garden Fresh, a manufacturer headquartered in nearby Fremont, Mich. A recent store visit to a Meijer in western Michigan revealed six Garden Fresh hummus flavors: original, garlic, Greek, original with pine nuts, red pepper and spice.
“We don't carry any organic hummus, but it's so healthy anyway that I'm not sure that would matter. It only has a few ingredients that are simple, but nutritious,” said a deli employee there. “We have people ask about it from time to time, most often when it's on sale. They want to know what it tastes like and how to eat it.”
The employee usually recommends Stacy's brand pita chips, which are merchandised atop the hummus case and in the chips aisle. She also points people to carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower and other pre-cut veggies located a few refrigerated cases away in produce.
Schaffer likes the idea of partnership promotions. Tribe routinely joins forces with Nonni's, the Tulsa, Okla.-based pita chips manufacturer, setting up cardboard displays filled with chips in retailers' stores and attaching coupons for $2.00 off the combined purchase of any Nonni's product and Tribe hummus.
“We also have a bunch of recipes on our website that go well beyond the expected,” said Schaffer. “We have a recipe for hummus fettuccine alfredo, one for tuna salad and another for smoked salmon and dill pizza with hummus.”
Schaffer wishes more supermarkets would direct shoppers to such recipe sites at the point of purchase and in ads. Chains could also put out small recipe holders next to hummus cases so shoppers can have instant access to meal and snack ideas, he added.
At Orchard Market, Spring Lake, Mich., price promotions draw the most attention to the category, according to the deli manager at the retailer's Fruitport store.
“When hummus is on sale, it goes like crazy. We promote it in circulars several times a year and use POP materials to point them out to shoppers,” she said. “Most people buy it to spread on crackers or pita chips, rather than a sandwich spread.”
Orchard Market sells Athenos brand hummus in original and garlic, roasted red pepper and black olive flavors. In total, the assortment takes up around 2 feet of space in a refrigerated case next to soft cheeses and other dips and spreads.
Shoppers tend to buy hummus more during the summer than any other season. This is when they tend to stock up on snack items for picnics, boating excursions and other outdoor events, said the manager.
As hummus continues to increase in popularity, retailers can expect to see new flavor profiles, more recipe suggestions from manufacturers and even unique packaging concepts.
Sabra is already ahead of the curve. The company recently came out with a new line of snack-size Sabra to Go packs. Varieties include garlic, classic and roasted red pepper hummus, as well as zesty or mild salsa. Each container comes with a handful of crispy pretzel chips stacked on top of a small tub of dip and sealed tightly in a separate plastic-protected bubble.
The company has also made updates to its online recipe collection, putting up directions for dishes like hummus mashed potatoes and baked eggs with hummus, tomatoes and Greek olives.
According to Wisner, one characteristic of hummus in particular will enable the item to expand well beyond its current reach is its rather bland base. Because the core ingredients — tahini and chickpeas — have very little flavor, they create a blank canvas on which food makers can paint whatever they want. In short, the flavor possibilities are virtually endless, he said.
“Hummus can take on a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean flair when topped with olives, garlic or tomatoes,” he said. “It could also be more Hispanic if you add hot peppers, chipotle or lime. Any new flavor trend could easily be adapted to hummus.”
The category also presents the perfect opportunity for retailers to expand their private-label lines. They could make a SKU or two of hummus or complementary consumables like pita chips, added Wisner.
“Whether you have a private-label brand or not, creating awareness is the biggest hurdle to boosting sales,” said Wisner. “Fortunately, there are many things retailers can do to draw attention to the category. It's just a matter of making the effort.”
Current household penetration for the $45 million hummus category.
Source: Information Resources Inc.