BGBS 059: Chris Kirby | Ithaca Hummus | It’s Simple.
Ithaca Hummus. America’s fastest-growing hummus brand founded by Chris Kirby: CEO, trained professional chef, and mustache aficionado. Chris’s career identity began in the restaurant world before he gained the courage to declare that he had a different path to follow, and returned to school. It was a tough decision to make, but this pivot lead to Chris stumbling upon a certain, special chickpea dish that needed his help. Did Chris Kirby find hummus or did hummus find him? We may never find out. From here we learn about the birth of Ithaca Hummus, which shot from a farmer’s market stand to 7500 stores nationwide today using a small, yet big-hearted team of 8. We can’t wait for you to hear all about Chris’s journey to get here. Fair warning: After all that mouth-watering hummus talk, you may find yourself checking out ithacahummus.com/where-to-buy for your nearest retailer selling this delicious dish. We speak from personal experience.
[17:27] It’s almost like admitting failure, you know? Kind of like, “Oh, I thought one thing, and now, I don’t think that anymore.” And it’s not failure—it just feels like it in the moment.
[25:32] It seems so simple on its face, and it really is at the end of the day. But you know, sometimes those simple ideas are the ones that really have the most impact.
[29:43] I can’t remember a moment where I had any hesitation that I was going to throw myself full-fledged at this. I think in the beginning like what was so just fueling me was having something of my own for the first time and just being able to experience these little success points along the way.
[39:46] Our mission is to introduce America to its new favorite brand of hummus and we’ve got some proof points that we’re actually, really doing that. And I think that’s what gets us all excited on the team at Ithaca hummus is thinking about the success that we’ve been able to demonstrate on a mid-size scale, not full blown quite yet and dreaming about like, “Well, what happens when our distribution is four times the size that it is now?”
LinkedIn: Chris Kirby
Where to buy: ithacahummus.com/where-to-buy
Chris Kirby 0:02
We were at the farmers market but also in the morning, I would deliver hummus to natural food stores and coffee shops and things. I just remember going in and seeing that just one had been purchased. And that was so energizing for me to just think that like, wow, like, I put that here yesterday and now someone that I don’t even know like, picked that up and it’s in their refrigerator and they’re eating it right now. Like, wow, what a cool feeling that is and so there was a bunch of stuff like that, you know, that I’ve heard other people call entrepreneurial currency that I just latched on to and really use to energize.
Marc Gutman 0:44
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the baby got backstory Podcast, where we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs alike big back stories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and on today’s episode of Baby Got Backstory. We are talking hummus. Yep, that delicious snack inside dish made of chickpeas. And before we get deep into hummus, trust me, you’re gonna love this one. A gentle reminder. If you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at Apple podcasts or Spotify. Apple and Spotify use these ratings as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on their charts. Better yet, please recommend this show to at least one friend. Maybe while eating hummus. It’s time we bring the world together over the common love of the Baby Got Back story podcast and hummus. Which brings me to today’s guest, Chris Kirby.
Chris is a trained professional chef, and the founder and CEO of Ithaca Hummus, which is available in over 7500 stores nationwide. At the recording of this episode, back in 2013, Chris left his successful restaurant career as a chef to go back to college. And this is where it dawned on him. hummus needed his help. And he got to work perfecting a simple lemon garlic hummus recipe. and a month later he was selling it at the Ithaca farmers market on the weekends. And Chris’s story is one of the entrepreneurial dream of taking what you love and finding a way to make a living at it. As you’ll hear, I’m not sure if he found hummus or if hummus found him. But what Chris did find was a way to take something that already existed and make it better. And that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. He made it so much better, that he and the team if the gothamist are now shipping approximately 30,000 containers of hummus per week. That’s a lot of hummus. But Chris Kirby didn’t always know the hummus was in his future. And this is his story.
I am here with Chris Kirby, the founder and CEO of Ithaca Hummus, Chris, thank you for coming on the show. So appreciate it. And like let’s hop right into it. You know, I normally have a big dossier of questions for you. But as I was doing some pre show research I was on your website and most intriguing to me is your own bio on the website and a couple things that really stood out to me You say you’re a ping pong champion. I’d like to hear a little bit about that. Chef Pitbull lover, but more importantly, mustache. afficionado. Tell me a little bit about that. Like the word is becoming a mustache afficionado come from
Chris Kirby 4:02
Well, I luckily have my mustache on today. And you know, I wanted to be a little bit out there and embellish a little bit on the bio. But I’ve had a mustache since my son was born and went out to lunch with a friend. Like, right around the time my son was born had this mustache grown and he was like, You know what, I think you could be like one of those dads that just always has a mustache. And I had never thought about it that way and all of a sudden I just committed to it. Yeah, I’m really into it trimming with scissors. And you know, the whole nine yards is fun.
Marc Gutman 4:37
Hashtag mustache dad. I love that my father had a mustache I was like is like, like kind of his defining attribute was he always had a mustache. So that’s really, really great. And so let’s hop into it. You know, Chris, you’re the co founder of ethika hummus. We’re gonna talk a little bit or a lot a bit about hummus and that’s a baby got backstory first. We haven’t dove deep on chickpeas and hummus yet, so I’m excited to do that. But when you’re ready young boy, I mean, were you into hummus. Was that something that was even on your radar when you were? Let’s just say like eight, nine years old? No,
Chris Kirby 5:06
Not at all. I was really into food, and daytime TV cooking shows like Jacques papan. And Julia Child like, I would watch them daily. But Thomas didn’t enter my life until much later on.
Marc Gutman 5:22
And so tell me a little bit about those shows and what life was like for young Chris. I mean, most people today take for granted that we can just go to YouTube or go to a chef’s page or a channel and catch up on all these shows. But like a Julia Child show that guy there was like, PBS, I was like some weird fringe kind of stuff. So kind of take me back there a little bit and tell me about what your childhood was like. And what turned you on to cooking at such a young age?
Chris Kirby 5:45
Yeah, well, I had a great childhood, I was really fortunate to come from a loving, supportive family. Both my parents were great role models. My dad was the first one in his family to graduate college. And my mom’s like, the most selfless person that I know. But I come from a family of four kids, which isn’t huge, but for us, it was a lot. And my parents had to be somewhat selective with limited time and money. And that seemed difficult at times. But looking back, you know, I had everything that I needed to thrive and really learn the value of hard work from them. Why did I love cooking shows so much? That’s such a good question. And it gets to like the core. And maybe it’s a combination of like something so tangible, and like process. And also, I’m a visual learner. So I loved being able to watch and hear and just learn and get explanations behind. Like, why you tie a chicken this way? and etc. So it’s a good question. I don’t know, really, what about me really turned me on to that. But I know it stuck
Marc Gutman 6:50
Yeah, and so were either of your parents in the restaurant space, or in the cooking or anything like that? Did you get that from them? Or was this something that was unique to Chris and just your thing?
Chris Kirby 7:01
No, my mom was a good cook. I’m from Maryland. So there are some like food, rituals. They’re like blue crabs and things like that, that really showed me how good food can be when it’s prepared the right way with fresh ingredients. But neither one of my parents were in the food industry now.
Marc Gutman 7:19
And so at that point, were you. So you’re looking at cooking shows, you’re enthralled by them? Are you actually kind of getting the ingredients together and trying to attempt some of these things. I mean, I always remember those shows were so interesting, because it took me forever. Like I just had this disconnect I could never understand like how they always had like these perfect bowls of ingredients, always measured out. Like for some reason, I just didn’t understand that. They pre measure the ingredients, you know, like I was like, Wow, it’s like, they’ve always got these perfect, like amounts of ingredients that they’re just dumping into the recipe. And it was always just like really hard for me to I was like, that’s so complicated and cool. But were you taking these and were you actually cooking? Or were you just like, was this a little bit of escapism? Were you just kind of thinking, wow, someday maybe
Chris Kirby 7:59
I was experimenting horribly, like I think most people when they first get involved in cooking and excited about it, they enter the like, empty out the spice cabinet phase, like as the first one. And so I spent a long time there making things like, Hey, I made this try and people would be very polite and kind of choke things down now and again, but I just like tinkering around and then this was like a creative expression way to do that. Yeah, I was definitely practicing what I was inspired by watching on TV. I wouldn’t say I was following verbatim though.
Marc Gutman 8:37
Yeah, how serious were you? I mean, Was this something you were doing after school? and on weekends? It was it like something that was personal or private to Chris or Was this something that was starting to take over was this showing up at school was this showing up as a bit of a this is called a healthy obsession, for lack of a better word,
Chris Kirby 8:54
I guess when it started to become real for me was I got my first job when I was 14 washing dishes at the local restaurant. And I remember looking at the cooks on the line and just idolizing them. I was like man, look at how fast and organized and efficient and just working so hard and doing such a good job and they just look badass to me. And at that time, my dream was to go to the Naval Academy, being from Maryland that’s like a something that’s in front of you right there. But I had this discussion about idolizing these line cooks at work with a guidance counselor in high school and she was like you know what, you sound really passionate about this, maybe you should think about culinary school. And that was kind of the direction and push that I needed to like really be confident about a path at that age and I just kind of geared towards that.
Marc Gutman 9:48
That’s crazy like at a young age like if someone you know I’ve talked about this before, but if someone just gives you permission tells you like hey, like you can do this I can influence it can have and really be pivotal and you’re like oh I can like that’s Really, really cool. And so when you talk about these line cooks and the chefs being badass, I mean, is that what you were really into? Was it the technical aspect? Was it almost like you saw them as like these great technicians or even craftspeople or artists, however you want to define it? Or were you enthralled with what was on the other end of the plate? You know what having a great meal man, like, Where were you following? on that spectrum? Was it more about like, kind of that technical skill? Or was it more like, hey, like, food is this like, amazing thing that brings people together or whatever it might be, I don’t want to put the words in your mouth.
Chris Kirby 10:31
I think it was a little bit of both. I think at 14, I was more, I think intrigued by like the badass theory of it. And then as I developed into my own career and culinary school, I started to really appreciate the technical side and the processes and the ingredients and the importance and then ultimately, got into my career as a chef and really started to fall in love with my ability to influence people’s outlook on food and their diet. And I would get really motivated anytime someone said that they didn’t like an ingredient like beets or something and wanted to change that
Marc Gutman 11:11
Chip on your shoulder about beets or just to show people that they can be a good ingredient or something like that?
Chris Kirby 11:16
Anything. Yeah, any of the above like chicken breasts always dry? Like, okay, well, I will make one that that isn’t. And I think it was much about like having a little bit of an ego of like, trying to show that I can do something as it was about the ingredient, but healthy mix, like anything.
Marc Gutman 11:35
And so sounds like that you were getting into high school, you decide to go to culinary school. Any doubts there? I mean, were your parents totally cool with that? Did they have any reservations? Or like, what was going on there? Did they say maybe you should look at other things? Or were you just like, gung ho and plus? Sounds like you abandon your dream of Annapolis. And I don’t know how serious that was, like within your family or anything. But what’s going on there as far as culinary school and the general attitude of everyone around you?
Chris Kirby 12:01
Yeah, it was a big discussion at home. Because I was very serious about Annapolis, and the Naval Academy, I had an uncle who went to the Naval Academy, and I was really inspired by him early on. And I think my parents just felt like, Wow, what a drastic difference this would be. And how would that impact your life and his parents do? You know, they’re just trying to look around corners and want to see their kids make the best decisions? And they were definitely concerned about the lifestyle that would come with being a chef, in the worst case, you know, that’s where their mind went as normal, I guess, you know, is that going to be sustainable for the life that I may want to live one day, and ultimately, I ended up confronting all those things later in life, but they were totally concerned about it.
Marc Gutman 12:50
And as he went to culinary school, where’d you end up going to culinary school?
Chris Kirby 12:54
Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Marc Gutman 12:57
I don’t know much about culinary school. So was that something that you had set your sights on? Like, you’re like, Hey, this is like where I really want to go? And if so why?
Chris Kirby 13:03
I wouldn’t say so. It was like, I knew that. I wanted to move south, a little warmer. And so I think that was probably in all honesty, the biggest draw the CIA is in Hyde Park in upstate New York, which was like colder than Maryland. And Johnson and Wales had just built this brand new campus in Charlotte. And they’re also renowned culinary school. And I think that was ultimately what drove that decision, was it it was in North Carolina?
Marc Gutman 13:32
And did you have any sense like of what kind of food you were drawn to what kind of cuisine what you wanted to do? Or at that point? Was it all exploration?
Chris Kirby 13:40
It was very exploratory. I didn’t have like a passion for any one specific cuisine or culture. In fact, kind of the opposite. I think at that stage, what was fascinating to me, it was like, there’s a noodle in every single culture ever. There’s some kind of grain dish, and it’s just variation from one part of the planet to another based on abundance of other ingredients. And so I just wanted to learn more. I think from a cuisine perspective about how that all comes together and how everyone seemed to make it work.
Marc Gutman 14:14
Did anything develop at Connor school? Did you start to see a path or a light? Or how did that shape up for you?
Chris Kirby 14:20
I would say, Oh, really evolved at the beginning of culinary school. I also, I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial mindset. And so I would listen to some classmates talk about like wanting to work in fine dining, and it would make me think like, well, that’s kind of like, stupid, because that’s only 4% of the industry and really difficult to make money at and how is that going to actually work for you? Didn’t seem like very good odds. And so in coronary school, I was definitely more like, how do I make really great food for the masses, and kind of like, focus on that, that actually evolved, you know? When I got into restaurants, I did become really passionate about fine dining, French cuisine and just the classic, you know, European techniques and recipes.
Marc Gutman 15:10
And so when you left culinary school, it sounds like you had a bit of a worldview where you’re like, Look, I’m going to make food for the masses. I mean, what was the plan? What did you think you were gonna do? When you left culinary school,
Chris Kirby 15:22
I never really had ambition to be like a chef on TV, or I think I was what seemed most attainable and realistic. And the biggest goal that I could set for myself at the time was owning a restaurant group, like a bunch of restaurants with different concepts. And that didn’t last very long. But I think if I did have a clear thought, at that time period, that was probably it.
Marc Gutman 15:45
Done. So what happened, what changed your you know, we all come out of school and training we like with big vision and idealistic. And then I think the world shows us kind of how it’s going to react as well. And we got to make some changes. So what happened for you?
Chris Kirby 15:57
Well, I just kind of got burnt out on the lifestyle, and I was in it big time, just working like crazy. And alcohol fueled, and you know, that ended up kind of being something that I had to come to terms with later in life as well. And I can just feel it, this isn’t gonna lead where I think I ultimately want to go. And it just something inside of me just felt like, I’ve got to do something different and maybe take a different path. I don’t know what that is. But after about seven years, I felt like I needed to make a change.
Marc Gutman 16:31
That’s what that point like, where are we like, what restaurant? Are you working at? What’s your title? What’s your role? What’s going on for you?
Chris Kirby 16:38
So I went from working in Baltimore, where I grew up to Washington, DC, fine dining, French restaurant, then out to Las Vegas, then to Austin, Texas, which is where I ultimately stayed the longest. That’s where I made the decision. After about three or four years of living in Austin, I was the chef at a wine bar in downtown Austin called mulberry. And yeah, I was just ready to ready to move on.
Marc Gutman 17:04
That must have been hard. I mean, you know, you’ve spent a good chunk of your life at this point. As a chef, that’s your identity, you declared it that’s your training. I mean, how to be hard to make that decision was?
Chris Kirby 17:20
It was I mean, I think I knew that I needed to make it long before I actually mustered up the courage. It’s almost like admitting failure, you know, kind of like, Oh, I thought one thing, and now, I don’t think that anymore. And it’s not failure, it feels like it in the moment. But it definitely took a lot for me to leave my life in Austin, and all my friends. And what I ended up doing was moving back to Baltimore and going back to community college for a year to figure things out, really, and then apply and think about the next step.
Marc Gutman 17:54
And what did you study and figure out?
Chris Kirby 17:56
I took some basic courses, basic business, accounting, finance, things that I could really tap into that entrepreneurial spirit that I knew I had. So I did a year at community college, and ended up applying to a handful of schools to finish my bachelor’s degree. And Community College was really just like, let’s be smart about this, like, let’s take the courses that I can transfer and like, into whatever the next school would be
Marc Gutman 18:28
Yeah, and where was that?
Chris Kirby 18:29
Shockingly, I ended up getting into the hotel school at Cornell, which sounds like very fancy Ivy League, and it is, but I was like, shocked when I got in. And I was out of place there, for sure. I was 26. And all my classmates were 18. And I’m convinced to this day that the way that I got in was my essay, you know, how you write the letter and everything and as part of the application and I told them exactly what I was going to do. I said, I’m going to come to Cornell, and I’m going to start a business as soon as I get there. And I’m going to use all the professors as consultants, and I’m going to take everything that I’m learning and apply it in real time to the business that I build. I don’t know what that’s gonna be I’ll figure it out when I get there. But yeah, I think that’s what sparked their interest.
Marc Gutman 19:22
Did you know when you went to Cornell, I mean that this business that you’re gonna start that you didn’t know what it was, but you knew what you wanted it to be? Did you know it was gonna be in the hospitality space? Because Cornell I mean, as you know, and but most of our listeners might not know, I mean, that’s one of the best, if not the best hospitality programs in the country. I mean, it’s renowned for that. And so thinking that were you like, hey, like, I’m gonna do something in this food slash hospitality space. Are you just not sure?
Chris Kirby 19:51
Yeah, I totally did. I wanted to figure something out that I can parlay like all the experience and knowledge of food that I had built. And definitely stay in that lane for my own business. But yeah, my girlfriend at the time, and now what I think I told her that maybe what I’ll do is I’ll go to Africa, and I’ll work at a McDonald’s and learn the like processes of how they make that work on such a huge scale, and then apply like just better food to that down the road. That was one of many, many ideas. And I’m shocked that she listened to that was like, Okay, yeah, it sounds good. It’s a little far fetched. But…
Marc Gutman 20:32
So did you work at McDonald’s?
Chris Kirby 20:34
No, I didn’t end up doing that. No, no, no, no, I didn’t, you know, the hotel school there as I knew it was right for me, because everything was tailored toward the hospitality industry. So I got it, you know, it wasn’t totally outside of my purview of what I understood. And so they say that instead of ball bearings, they talk about biscuits, and you know, and like economics and finance, which is true. So just tailored to what I already know.
Marc Gutman 21:01
So you show up at Cornell, you’re all fresh face, you have big dreams, you’re an old freshmen. What was the first business idea? was it? Was it like a hummus? Or was it something else
Chris Kirby 21:10
It was, I knew within a week of being an Ithaca, that this was a product that was missing in the local food economy and food scene. There’s a an amazing farmers market, the Ithaca farmers market, that it didn’t take very long, you know, I spent a weekend at the farmers market, and hit up greenstar Co Op, which is the local natural food store. And I was looking for what I could do locally that would be successful, but also on a national level, like, what’s a category or type of food that’s available in grocery stores that needs the most help from someone like me. And I just felt like that’s where I could add the most value. And hummus just happened to check both of those boxes.
Marc Gutman 21:59
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Why hummus? Like why did it Need help? Like what don’t we get? Because I go to the market and ton of hummus. There’s other competitors out there like what did you see?
Chris Kirby 23:10
So hummus is you know, I think most people would agree if you eat a lot of hummus that the best time is comes from like a local restaurant or a local producer. It’s made fresh and some of the nationally available stuff and brands like it’s just kind of a little bland, and not really all that exciting, certainly not as good as it can be when it’s fresh. And so I saw first of all the opportunity to be that local hummus in Ithaca. And on a longer view, the opportunity for someone like me to figure out how to replicate that quality on a national level through the commercialization process. How do we commercialize something that’s as high quality as a local product without totally ruining and destroying all the things that make that local product good in the first place?
Marc Gutman 24:00
And I’m so just intrigued and amazed by this because I mean hummus, like you probably know better than I have done our research on this. It’s been around for 1000s of years, right? Like This isn’t like, like hummus has been around for you know, much longer than just about everything. And we’ve had it and it’s so it’s not like also, I mean, this isn’t like the 60s and like the advent of like natural foods. I mean, I find it just so interesting that there was this opportunity. And so prior to all this, like were you sitting around, were you kind of like this, like hummus snob or hummus kind of sewer where you’re like thinking like, Oh, this isn’t good, or they, but it was purely looking at it more from a business perspective.
Chris Kirby 24:37
Yeah, it was trying to recognize an opportunity that I could take advantage of now and in the future. And that’s how I would describe for me at least when I say I haven’t this entrepreneurial mindset, it’s just looking at things and thinking like, I could do that better. You know, maybe there’s a way What if we change this or did this better did this different and you know, yeah, they’re brilliant. 1000s of ideas that spark out of that way of thinking, and this just happened to be one that was like, Man, this really clicks, I don’t need to reinvent Thomas, I just need to make really good, authentic commerce available to the mass market.
Marc Gutman 25:17
And as you went, and you told your girlfriend at the time, now your wife, or you told your professors, hey, I am going to be the hummus king of Africa, then I’m going to be the hummus king of the nation. Where did they say
Chris Kirby 25:30
Mixed reactions? You know, I mean, it seems so simple on its face, and it really is at the end of the day. But you know, sometimes those simple ideas are the ones that really have the most impact.
Marc Gutman 25:44
So maybe walk us through a little bit like what happened. So you’re at Cornell, and you’re going to use your professors as your unofficial board and your consultants and you have this idea for hummus, like, what happens? Do you just start blending in your kitchen? Like, how do you how to kind of get this thing going?
Chris Kirby 25:59
Yeah, so first of all, food safety is something that I was very well trained on as a chef and I had never produced a product made for resale. That plus like, how do I start a business? How do I form an LLC? Or now what do I is an S corp or a C Corp? Or what? So those two questions like forming the business and figuring out how to operate and make this product safely so that it could be distributed to people and they weren’t going to get sick? were the first two things that I tackled, and then it became about where am I going to make it and where am I going to sell it. And I was very lucky to find a summer camp in Ithaca that had a food safe kitchen and you know, everything that I needed, basically to get started. For $200 a month, I rented this place and would go and make test batches and eventually, like batches for sale at night. And I would take it to the farmers market on the weekend and sell it there.
Marc Gutman 27:00
And so prior to this, how would you rank your level of hummus chef or had you shut up any hummus prior to this? Or like, are you just kind of figuring this out at this point?
Chris Kirby 27:11
Yeah, so I had had some hummus training, you could say, throughout my voluntary career, I was really close with one of my friends in DC at the restaurant I told you about who was Lebanese and he would make on Sundays when it was his turn family meal. And hummus was always a big part of that. And what I loved about his hummus compared to like the stuff you could buy at the grocery store was the fresh lemony, like garlicky, it was just tasted fresh, very intense flavor wasn’t bland or boring at all. So yeah, I learned how to make comments from my buddy fi’s all. And that’s basically the recipe that I used when I started at the comments and still use today.
Marc Gutman 27:52
Yeah, in addition to it being fresh, like what makes a great hummus, like what’s everyone else getting wrong? And what’s it good doing right with what you can share? Obviously,
Chris Kirby 28:01
I can be totally open about what we do. I think I’ve got to be very careful because hummus is one of those like regionally funny things like Israeli hummus is very different than Lebanese hummus. Lebanese hummus is what we make it’s lemony, a lot more fresh lemon, less tahini, Israeli hummus has a lot more tahini in it, and it doesn’t really have the fresh zing like the product that we make. So to me, what makes it great is very fresh ingredients. From a package perspective. I think where it goes wrong for a lot of brands is they actually heat the product after it’s blended and everything is you know, mixed in. When you think about what that does to food when you heat it up fresh lemon juice or even garlic, for example, like it really changes the flavor profile. And for me, I think it’s just really important to capture that fresh, raw flavor of the ingredient.
Marc Gutman 28:54
Before I forget, what’s your favorite dipping apparatus into the hummus? What do you think’s the best Dipper?
Chris Kirby 29:01
Also not like historically culturally accepted? I wouldn’t say but I’m a big raw broccoli. I like raw broccoli and cauliflower. For my homies Personally,
Marc Gutman 29:12
I love that. So here we are. I imagine you’re at this summer camp, you’re renting out this kitchen you’re if you’ve got like hummus everywhere. You’re like trying to figure it out. What’s going on? Are you just like, and you’re going to school, by the way if I got this right, so like are you like, enthralled with this? Are you like just no one can take the wind out of your sails or any given point. Are you like, what did I get myself into? Like I’m putting a big bet on hummus right now. Like Like what was going on for you right there.
Chris Kirby 29:38
It’s funny, and I don’t know why I felt so strongly about it. But I can’t remember a moment where I had any hesitation that I was going to throw myself full fledged at this. I think in the beginning like what was so just fueling me was like having something of my own for the first time. And just being able to experience like these little success points along the way, like, we were at the farmers market, but also in the morning, I would deliver hummus to natural food stores and coffee shops and things. I just remember going in and seeing that just one had been purchased. And that was so energizing for me to just think that like, wow, like, I put that here yesterday, and now someone that I don’t even know, like, pick that up, and it’s in their refrigerator. And they’re eating it right now. Like, wow, what a cool feeling that is. And so there was a bunch of stuff like that, you know, that I’ve heard other people call entrepreneurial currency that I just latched on to and really use to, to to energize me.
Marc Gutman 30:44
And so that’s all like, good and gets you going. But imagine like, you’re selling at some coffee shops and some natural grocers, your your local, you’re at the farmers market. At what point do you look at this thing and go like, it could be bigger than that, you know, this could actually be a business not like, a bit of a hobby, like when do you like really start to get the sense that maybe I’m onto something and I have to think to that, at some point, you’re starting to gain maybe a little bit of tension from your competitors and other people in the space. So that’s sometimes a good thing, because it means you’re becoming relevant. But it also has to be a little scary. So like as you’re growing like, what’s going on? Are you thinking like, how do I take this to the next level or just kind of enjoying the ride?
Chris Kirby 31:28
I’m always thinking about what’s the next step? What’s the next step? For sure. I think what really keyed me on to thinking that this really could be big was the reaction that I would get from people at the farmers market. I mean, anyone that I speak with now about how do I start a food or beverage, you know, business, I always recommend starting out in a channel where you are standing face to face with people who are potentially going to be your customers, and just sampling them and getting their reaction to getting their feedback. And in some cases, because if you do that enough, and you’ve got the right product, and you’re getting the right reaction from people, and that alone will tell you like, wow, if I could just make this bigger, how could it not be successful? If I could do that the right way? I just felt like I was onto something for sure. And you know, also, I think it didn’t hurt that I was in Ithaca, New York, which is a very granola kind of town. It’s like the old saying, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere Well, in the hummus, business and ethic in New York. I think that’s definitely true.
Marc Gutman 32:40
And so what did you do? I mean, how did you make that leap? Like, how did you take it from farmers market to something bigger, like regional and then national?
Chris Kirby 32:49
Yeah, very, very incremental steps. When I started, we had a seven day shelf life on the product. So it was like, how do we get it to 14 and then 20, and then 25 and 35? And same thing with distribution? It was what can I physically deliver out of the back of my car? And how many farmers markets can we go to in a weekend with more people to grow the business, which was all we could figure out how to do it the time, especially with a very, very short shelf life, it was really the only thing that we could do. But over time as awareness of what we were doing, and the brand and the product grew, so did the shelf life and so did the size of our business and revenue and profit and just was a great way to just fuel from within, you know, kind of take the scrappy, not go out and raise a ton of money like way too early route, and I’m so glad I did it that way.
Marc Gutman 33:47
And is it self funded? Or do you end up going out and raising money to fuel the growth?
Chris Kirby 33:52
We eventually did raise money from our manufacturer Actually, I moved on from the summer camp kitchen into a factory of my own which was like the dream like I built out this 10,000 square feet of like, it was insane. I felt like Willy Wonka. But after I like got into that and started managing it, it was insane and just way more than I could handle at the same time as everything else. So ultimately, I ended up partnering with le Desiree foods in Rochester, New York not far from us and Ithaca and after a year of just manufacturing the product they wanted in and couldn’t think of a better more strategic partner than not
Marc Gutman 34:31
so incredible. And so you started this business with nothing more than an idea started $200 a month rental in a summer camp kitchen. didn’t really even know too much about hummus other than having experience from Sunday dinners. And here you are on the website it says you’re the fastest growing hummus company in the nation which is an incredible accolade. So what does going from nothing to today? What does it go look like in terms of sighs and how much hummus Are you pumping out?
Chris Kirby 35:04
Well, we’re still very, very small and scrappy. We’re a team of eight people, which is incredible to me. And I mean, to a degree, I think you could look at all of us very experienced and knowledgeable and smart, hard working all that stuff. But in one way or another, I think anybody on our team would admit, like, I have no business doing what I do every day sometimes, which is, I think, a healthy thing. So we very much have that like small, scrappy mentality, which I love. And we went from that farmers market stand and a couple stores in Africa to today, we’re at 7500. stores nationwide, and how much how much do we produce? It’s a really good question, I would say, of the containers that you buy in the store, 10 ounces, you know, 25 to 30,000 of those a week at this point, and growing.
Marc Gutman 35:56
So does that like blow your mind? Like, would you say that number that is?
Chris Kirby 35:59
Like crazy. It’s it’s not? It’s not? I used to, you know, well, we used to apply every label by hand. And actually, when we started, we didn’t buy labels, because we couldn’t afford them. We just put paprika oil on the top for a little bit of like branding, and to think of going from there to where we are now is definitely mind blowing, in hindsight,
Marc Gutman 36:21
In terms of that volume of actual packages, like how do you purchase chickpeas? Like is it by the bushel is it by the crazy by the ton,
Chris Kirby 36:32
It’s by the train load, actually, our facility has a rail that comes in to the back of it. And it’s awesome, because when I first started buying chickpeas, I would like go to restaurant depot and like get a sack of chickpeas. And then eventually I got hooked up with some growers out in Washington State in Pullman, Washington, actually. And they would put it on a rail car from Pullman to this depot in Chicago, and then we would buy it, buy the pallet from there. And yeah, we’ve moved up in the food chain. And now we just get the rail car strength sent straight into the factory, which is really cool.
Marc Gutman 37:11
How many rail cars of chickpeas are coming your way? on a regular basis?
Chris Kirby 37:16
I’d have to check on that. So don’t quote me. But I think we’re definitely moving through multiple rail cars a month at this point.
Marc Gutman 37:23
That’s so cool. And what’s hard about this like, like you said, it’s simple sounds like it’s all gone pretty much to plan but like What don’t we know, like what’s really hard about doing what you’re doing and maintaining ethika Hama spray and ethika hummus brand?
Chris Kirby 37:39
Yeah, if I portrayed it as overly simplified, I can guarantee you that it has not been just so many challenges that I never thought in the moment, sometimes I would be able to overcome that just, you know, end up ended up working out, I would say, what’s been hard for me consistently throughout the business is learning how to grow myself professionally and as a leader, as fast as the business has grown. And as fast as my team that I rely on needs me to grow and really step into that role the best that I can.
Marc Gutman 38:15
So how are you doing that? What kind of things are you doing to fuel your own growth and to become a better leader? Because I think that’s something that a lot of entrepreneurs, look, none of us are born entrepreneurs number is born with this knowledge, we learn it, we educate ourselves, we come up a lot of times out of need, rather than you know, being ahead of time. It’s like we’re catching up or something of that nature. But like so what are you doing to stay up to speed and make sure that you’re developing as a leader,
Chris Kirby 38:40
I spend more time now just not just thinking and not feeling like I’ve got to make decisions and do things like so quickly. And so just off the cuff sometimes. So I’ve definitely slowed down a little bit. And I’ve really tried to not react to things or overreact to things as much as I am naturally inclined to do. I’ve also surrounded myself with some great people, and I could name names, but everyone on my team and even some people outside of the team that I’m more open with in terms of weaknesses now so that they can understand that and they can help backfill and I don’t know, this is a long winded, probably more complex answer a complicated answer than I wish I could give. But I don’t know, I just if I can sum it up, I’ve just tried to be more self aware and transparent about what that actually looks like.
Marc Gutman 39:35
And as it relates to the business, like what are you most excited about right now? Is there something happening with Ithaca or something that you see in the future that is keeping you going and keeping you excited?
Chris Kirby 39:46
Well, our mission is to introduce America to its new favorite brand of hummus and we’ve got some proof points that we’re actually like really doing that and I think that’s what gets us all all excited on the team at ethika. hummus is thinking about like, the success that we’ve been able to demonstrate on a mid size scale not full blown quite yet and dreaming about like, well, what happens when our distribution is four times the size that it is now. And we’ve had that much more time in market to generate that much more awareness and that much more trial? What kind of impact is that going to have on the category and on the diets of Americans in the grander scheme?
Marc Gutman 40:34
Is that the metric? Like Is that how you will know that you’re America’s favorite brand of hummus?
Chris Kirby 40:40
Well, I would say, share of category would be that metric. But how will we know that we’ve accomplished that goal? I don’t know. I think we just day by day focused on what can we do today, to grow a little bit more and keep pushing the ball down the field.
Marc Gutman 40:56
And as we come to a close here, Chris, like, I want you to think back to that young boy who is watching Julia Child is watching those cooking shows and just thinking, being intrigued by cooking. And what if he ran into you today? What do you think he’d say, if he saw what you were doing?
Chris Kirby 41:14
I don’t think he would fully understand it. And probably just think it’s like boring. Start cutting up some chickens or something so that I could this is more exciting, you know, but at the same time, I think if he would probably think it’s pretty cool. You know, if he really understood it, and could think about it the way I think about it now, I certainly do. And I’m having a lot of fun and very fulfilling and rewarding a lot of hard work, but I feel grateful and blessed every day.
Marc Gutman 41:44
In that is Chris Kirby, founder and CEO of Ithaca hummus. As I reflect on our conversation, so much of what Chris shared resonated with me. But if I were to highlight one thought, it was his comment about making the switch from being a chef from declaring that his dream had changed. And he wanted to do something different. And while it could be labeled as a failure, it wasn’t. It was merely a change in what he wanted in his evolving world view. And as I think back on my own pivots, my own changes that I’ve at times labeled as failures. This is a resonant reminder that they weren’t failures at all. Just a change in what I wanted.
A big thank you to Chris Kirby and Ithaca Hummus team. We can’t wait to see you become the number one hummus brand in America and then the world. We will link to all things Chris Kirby and Ithaca Hummus in the shownotes. And if you know of a guest who should appear on our show, please drop me a line at email@example.com our best guests like Chris come from referrals from past guests and our listeners. Well that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS so you’ll never miss an episode a lot big stories and I cannot lie. You other storytellers can’t deny.