When Tomer Harpaz was offered the chance to be the new CEO of hummus and dips manufacturer Sabra, he didn't have to think too long before accepting.
"What I loved about Sabra and about the opportunity — other than the fact that it's food and it's very emotional, such a beautiful, an important space that you can get really personal connection to — is the fact that you know Sabra is about feel-good food," Harpaz told Food Dive in an exclusive interview. "And that's kind of a tagline, if you wish. It's something that I feel so greatly about. Because ... it's not a new thing, how food is actually influencing, you know, who we are."
Harpaz, who was introduced Monday as Sabra's new CEO, came to the U.S. hummus leader from Israel-based Strauss Coffee, one of the world's largest coffee companies. He spent four years leading the coffee giant before his new job at the dips company, which is a joint venture between Strauss and PepsiCo.
Harpaz had been at Strauss Coffee since 2010, and worked at its parent Strauss Group before that. There, he had stints as a member of the management team and as executive vice president for strategy, business development and technology, establishing food and tech incubator think tanks.
He replaces Shali Shalit-Shoval who recently returned home to family overseas after five years with Sabra.
Looking at the remarkable growth of Sabra in the United States — from one of the very first to introduce hummus to the nation a decade ago to leading a category found in about a third of all homes today — Harpaz is excited about the opportunity Sabra provides.
"Food products are products that people take into their bodies," Harpaz said. "It's something that they bring inside, and this is why I feel so great about the opportunity. About Sabra engaging in feel-good food. Engaging in a space that's bigger. It's vegetarian, it's plant based. I don't want to reference all the buzz words here, but these are very strong powerful trends that are emerging now for the very right reasons."
According to numbers cited by the Today show, hummus sales in grocery stores are worth $725 million annually. Statistics cited by just-food say Strauss has forecast the category will be worth $3 billion by 2020.
Harpaz said hummus is at a turning point where growth is certainly possible. Many Americans think of hummus as a snack. However, its use can be much wider. In restaurants and among social media influencers, people are starting to use hummus as the base for a meal, as a sandwich, as an important flavor. The spread is versatile, tasty, and matches up with food trends — it's plant-based and full of nutrients. Those influencers, especially restaurants, will help drive hummus to its next growth area, Harpaz said.
"It's vegetarian, it's plant based. I don't want to reference all the buzz words here, but these are very strong powerful trends that are emerging now for the very right reasons."
"They go to the restaurant, and they are having a new dish or something new, and they're really passionate about it. And it happens with hummus, then they want to replicate the same experience at home," he said. "And the beautiful thing about hummus, it's so easy to replicate the experience at home. You don't need to be a master chef. You just have to pick up Sabra hummus and make yourself a plate. You add whatever it is you like adding to your hummus, and so on and so forth, and it's happening."
Harpaz did not say if he had any plans for marketing campaigns to push hummus beyond the the snack barrier. However, he feels that hummus is going to move into the meal-like territory no matter what the company does. With a large test kitchen at its headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, Sabra has significant resources to test out ways to transform hummus into a meal component.
Helping a familiar product evolve is something Harpaz is familiar with. He worked at Strauss Coffee as the coffee shop boom stretched worldwide. He saw customers whose coffee preferences were set suddenly discover specialty drinks like lattes and cappuccinos in coffee shops. Soon, those customers wanted to be able to have similar products at home, Harpaz said.
"We as a coffee company could capture that great opportunity and adjust ourselves so we could be very relevant for consumers and ride these trends. And adjust our product, adjust our supply chain, adjust our operating [procedures]," he said. "... It's very exciting for me to see that now it's happening also when it comes to fresh food, to plant-based food, to hummus for sure. And I'm pretty much sure that there's a lot of lessons that ... I've learned in my time in the coffee company ... that will be applied here to plant based, to hummus, to fresh foods absolutely."
Although Sabra is best known for its hummus, it also has lines of other fresh dips including guacamole, salsa and tzaziki. Harpaz sees growth there as well. After all, they're all healthy, taste good, and have similar stories. He said avocado being made into guacamole has almost the same story — of a wholesome and natural food being made into a plant-based better-for-you snack — as chickpeas being made into hummus.
Harpaz has big plans for helping Sabra — and its international sister company Obela, which sells similar products outside of the U.S. and is now under his leadership — grow in the next several years. According to Statista, Sabra currently commands about 61% of the U.S. hummus market.
"Nobody in the world has ever invested so much years, time, and capital in understanding hummus. So we have to make sure that we continue this way, and that's the trajectory ahead of us," he said. "We always have to be diligent. We always have to be one step ahead of everyone. That's our role in the category."