Hummus is no longer a delicacy just among foodies.
And it’s not an acquired taste, either.
“It used to be but now it’s becoming a staple of snack cuisine,” said James Gardner, founder of the Belton-based The Hummus Company. “I think even more and more kids are coming to enjoy it. It’s healthy and it’s good for you.”
The 30-year-old Gardner operates a commercial kitchen in a production facility on North Scott, with the capability of producing enough hummus to feed a small army – coincidently not far from his alma mater – Belton High School.
With enough hands helping, he can whip together up to 4,000 pounds each week.
Gardner distributes packaged hummus to a number of grocery retailers throughout Kansas City. He also supplies large bulk orders to area restaurants and a large corporate cafeteria in the metro.
In Cass County, his five blends of flavor can be purchased in the deli at the Raymore Price Chopper.
Just a couple years ago, Gardner was making his living as a restaurant server at Brio, an Italian restaurant on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.
In his spare time, he fiddled with making garbanzo goodness in the kitchen of his sister’s Belton home for both himself, but also for friends and family.
Gardner had recently moved back to the area from California where he worked for a gourmet food store.
On the West Coast, he was hired as the catering director but was later asked to develop a prepared foods case.
“I started making curry chicken salad, meatloaf, and all kinds of things,” Gardner said. Then (my manager) asked me to come up with some kind of dip – a hummus.”
Gardner said he took a couple of weeks to try a variety of different kinds of hummus before he started formulating his own recipe.
“I took what I thought hummus should be to make it what I thought hummus should taste like,” he said. “I tried lots of different kinds, then I came up with my own recipe.”
His original recipe was similar to what now sells as his Smoky Southwest Chipotle blend.
“It’s nothing more than chipotle, an all-natural hickory seasoning and cilantro,” Gardner said. “It’s got a little kick to it but it’s not too spicy, nothing crazy.”
While in California, his Mediterranean snack started selling like crazy.
“I was making hummus almost every single day,” he said.
After he felt it was time to leave, Gardner came back to Missouri where he started sharing his hummus for friends and families.
After a neighbor told him he should start selling the dip locally – the idea stuck.
“I went home that night and stayed up to about 7 a.m., sitting in my room on my computer, with pieces of paper, and my food processor,” Gardner said. “I made some hummus, and I ate some hummus.”
That same night he tried to come up with a name for his up-and-coming hummus business.
“I remember asking myself what I should call the hummus company,” he explained.
The name, “The Hummus Company” donned on him.
“From that night on, I made the development of the business my job,” he said. “I started looking for containers, ways to make labels, and coming up with a marketing plan.
From the start, fresh ingredients was a key to his success.
Gardner’s first real sale came in March 2011, but his big break didn’t come until he was able to get a meeting with a group of local Hy-Vee managers.
There was still one problem, Gardner was still making his concoction in his sister’s kitchen.
He pulled together what resources he could find to install a health department-approved commercial kitchen in his basement and started selling the hummus at Hy-Vee in April 2011.
Gardner moved out of the basement kitchen into his current Belton location a year ago when it became too hard to make such large quantities in his limited space.
In March of this year, he began selling the hummus at the Raymore Price Chopper.
The entrepreneur's hummus line now consists of one base recipe but with five distinctive flavors: Lemon and Garlic, Garden Basil and Chive, Fire Roasted Red Pepper, Smoky Southwest Chipotle and Spicy Jalapeno and Lime.
“All of our flavors our fantastic,” he said.
In the future, he hopes to develop new flavors that will tickle the fancy of hummus-enthusiasts.
“I want to be the Ben and Jerry’s of hummus,” Gardner said. “I want to show people that we can do different stuff.”
The smooth, hearty texture of Gardner’s concoction is one that took quite a bit of time to get just right.
In working towards that goal, Gardner evaluated different proportions of a canola/extra virgin olive oil blend, garlic and fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices.
“It’s easy to make but you have to have perfect ratio of everything,” Gardner said. “Everything has to bind together well.”
The only thing that comes in canned to Gardner’s kitchen are the garbanzo beans. The rest of the ingredients are freshly prepared – chopped, squeezed and roasted daily in-house.
“It’s connects you to your product,” Gardner said. “If you take everything out of a can, there’s no fun in it. You’re just mixing ingredients at that point.”
The hummus is sold at approximately 15 Hy-Vee stores and two Cosentino Price Choppers in the Kansas City area, and at two independent stores in Lawrence.