Hummus is pretty simple stuff — usually some combination of garbanzo beans, garlic, tahini and maybe some salt and lemon thrown into a blender.
Janine Zacca Zenner did not try to re-create hummus when she founded ZZ Foods in Boise in 2011. Her twist was using fresh garbanzo beans grown by her father-in-law, Russ Zenner, at his farm in Genesee in North Idaho’s Latah County.
Zenner does not disclose sales but says revenues have increased 60 percent since she opened, with more stores buying the creamy dip. Zacca’s flavors — traditional hummus, roasted red pepper and poblano pepper — are sold in 50 Albertsons stores in the chain’s five-state Intermountain Division, as well as in Whole Foods Markets in Boise and Utah, the Boise Co-op and elsewhere.
Zenner owns the company with her husband. They have six part-time employees who work two days a week processing hummus at the University of Idaho Food Tech Center in Caldwell. Zenner’s sons Zaccary, 15, and Nicklaus, 13, pack boxes as a summer job.
Q: Every business has an origin story. What’s yours?
A: A Mediterranean girl from Miami meets a farm boy from Idaho. My husband, Chris, and I met in Miami while he was attending grad school. He’s from the fourth-generation Zenner family farm in Genesee. His family farm was the first in Idaho to gain Food Alliance Certification in sustainable farming. My mom insisted I make hummus with the Zenner garbanzos, and we quickly realized we had an amazing product. At the time, there were no hummus products on the market that compared to our taste and texture, so with family support and encouragement, we decided to start the company and test the market.
Q: Why hummus?
A: We wanted people to know what hummus was supposed to taste like. The hummus market was exploding in the U.S. We had only two national competitors at the time in our local markets. We were also the only one offering an all-natural alternative that was fresh, local and could be traced directly back to the farm.
Q: What’s your setup at the Food Tech Center?
We rent space. They have a 75-gallon kettle that we used to boil our beans, along with a commercial food processor and filler. We own our own sealing machine and store our ingredients and inventories at the facility. Because this is a shared facility, we are responsible for all levels of production, management, cleanup and storage. I have an awesome part-time crew and the management at U of I are very proficient in quality assurance and food safety.
Q: What did it take financially to get the company off of the ground?
A: We started with a small amount of personal financing and, because our main ingredient is sourced from the Zenner family farm, we have an unlimited inventory of beans. As an accountant not knowing anything about food production, I took a class from the U of I Food Tech Center on how to start a food business. We tested our product at the local Capital City [Public] Market during the summer and got our first retail account at the end of year one. We spent the first two years on product development and improvements within the local markets. We are now looking for partnerships and growth within the Pacific Northwest.
Q: Companies often tell me their first account was their hardest to get. What was your first account, and what do you remember about the process of securing it?
A: It’s one of my most memorable experiences. In November of 2011, I called the Boise Co-op and spoke to [Grocery Manager] Dave Brown. He met with me for 10 minutes at the front counter of the Boise store and accepted our products. We’ve come a long way since, but the Boise Co-op is still one of our top store accounts.
Q: How do you expect 2015 sales and production to change from 2014, and what type of growth is realistic for the next few years?
A: With the acceptance into Albertsons’ Intermountain Division and new accounts in the Spokane area, we expect our sales and production in 2015 to double from 2014. We hope to branch into the Washington and Portland-area markets in the next few years.
Q: What factors limit growth?
A: Cold distribution outside of our local market is very limited and very expensive. This is our biggest challenge and limitation for growth. We are in the process of finding a broker/distributor relationship that will assist us.
Q: I’ve talked to sushi chefs who don’t eat sushi and candy makers who don’t eat candy, because they’ve had so much of it. How often do you eat hummus, and how has that changed since you started the company?
A: That actually makes me laugh. I’ll admit that when we were perfecting the recipe, I got sick of tasting hummus, so I had my best friend help me until she stopped answering my calls. I actually eat our hummus almost on a daily basis as a snack or with my lunch wraps.
Q: What’s a tip for making hummus at home?
A: Do it! It’s simple and delicious. Do not add oils. Use the water from the beans instead. Drizzle olive oil on top when serving. If you have time, cook your own beans. If not, you can make it in five minutes with canned beans and a food processor.