Being in a grocery store, inundated with brands and flavors as far as the eye can see is daunting. I mean, dessert hummus. WTF. However, these two brands are starting small, but poised for grocery aisle takeover. Baba’s and Phoenician Mediterranean Foods are two Twin Cities hummus makers run by SWANA/MENA (Southwest Asian and North African/Middle Eastern and North African) families.
Baba’s is the brainchild of founders Khalid Ansari and Rana Kamal, the adult children of “Baba” Jamal Ansari, the owner/operator of Mediterranean Cruise Cafe in Burnsville. Jamal originally started the business with his brothers, and now runs it with his three sons. Baba’s began when Ansari offered the appetizer on the menu at Mediterranean Cruise, which has been serving up traditional SWANA/MENA fare for over an astonishing 41 years. “Baba has always had a passion for food and sharing our food with others. Many of the dishes, especially our beloved hummus, were created in the early days of the restaurant with his mother by his side.”
When customers expressed dismayed with the hummus wares that grocery stores pushed, Khalid and Rana hatched a plan, and begged Jamal jump into the retail market with his hummus. They already had the perfect name. “The name Baba’s is a way to pay homage to our father who has given us the most wonderful foundation, and taught us what hard work and success looks like.”
Phoenician Mediterranean Foods started in 2008 when Khalil “Charlie” Aboukhalil and his wife Cathleen were working for supermarkets pushing SWANA/MENA wares, such as pita bread and hummus, to grocers in the Midwest. Realizing most store-bought hummus bore little resemblance to what would be offered inside someone’s home, Phoenician was born. Lebanese hummus is made with a bit less oil, so it’s thicker, a little less creamy. “Where I come from in Lebanon, that’s the hummus you were served,” said Khalil. Phoenician Mediterranean Foods has had plenty of testing and development, as the sole supplier of hummus for the Lebanese Festival at St. Maron’s in Northeast, Minneapolis six years running.
That importance of their heritage is not lost since Jamal and Khalil grew up in Palestine and Lebanon respectively, so they know hummus more intimately than a brand like Sabra, Boar’s Head, or worse, Delighted by Dessert hummus. Jamal and Khalil grew up in locales and environments during their childhood where they would see the matriarchs of the family making hummus from scratch, which inspired them to deliver quality artisanal hummus to wanting patrons.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on hummus production facilities and distributors that kept grocery store shelves stocked. It was companies and local brands like Baba’s and Phoenician not only filled that void and shelf space, they did so in a marketplace that seeks to count SWANA/MENA brands out of the equation. Especially when grocers’ reliance on bigger manufacturers/distributors like PepsiCo/Strauss, Nestle, and Kraft were largely absent in helping fill that same shelf space. Baba’s and Phoenician’s presence holds the key to delivering quality hummus to not only a local audience, but the public at large.
In the early years of Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, educating diners was trying. “Their food was foreign and new to their American patrons. Many had never tried or even heard of foods such as hummus, falafel and kabobs, but as the years went by, the food and the concept caught on,” Rana said. “Baba’s is not only a food brand, it’s a taste of the Palestinian-American experience.” Baba’s traditional hummus for example, directly represents the recipe brought by Jamal’s mother from Jerusalem. Spin off flavors like Mediterranean Salsalita and Zesty Za’atar are a playful rebellion. “We are equally proud to be both Palestinian and American.”
Khalil of Phoenician echoes that sentiment, “We call ourselves Phoenician Mediterranean Foods because of the Levant area that houses Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, where hummus originated from, connected by the Mediterranean Sea. The logo for Phoenician begins with the boat, which represents the main mode of transportation, and the people on the boat represent myself, my family, and the customer. When I make hummus, these are the people I keep in mind.”
Both Phoenician Mediterranean Foods and Baba’s offer a multitude of different flavors. Baba’s is careful to cite “Jerusalem Style” on their label, which makes their hummus smooth, bursting with flavor, and creamy, while Phoenician Mediterranean Foods is an ode to Lebanon in hummus: rustic, and filled to the brim with charm and character in every bite, but a dash of olive oil on either one unlocks a whole new potential of flavor. Olive oil tends to be treated more as a garnish than an emulsifier, so adding some good extra virgin olive oil on some Five Pepper hummus from Phoenician, or the Spicylicious Sriracha from Baba’s, can heighten the intensity of spice offered in both varieties.
In a current world context when so much is being brought up regarding representation and appropriation, and not to mention a pandemic that left the bigger brands of hummus largely absent from supermarket shelves as the pandemic roared in, Baba’s and Phoenician Mediterranean Foods are filling that space on grocery shelves, and shining a light on those disparities on grocery shelves, one container of hummus at a time. The future of hummus lies in good local hands with Baba’s and Phoenician Mediterranean Foods.