Well, hello there.
This article is the first episode in a series I want to share with you – a collection of my experiences, thoughts and tidbits of information and wisdom I’ve picked up over the years.
Before we get too far though, my name is James Gardner and I’m the founder of The Hummus Company. I began the planning stages of the company back in October of 2010. The following months were filled with formulation, taste testing, re-formulation, re-tasting, planning, package and label designing and test marketing.
I didn’t have any huge capital investments to jump-start the process so everything was done as inexpensively as possible. The labels were actually cut by hand from photo paper, six per sheet, then applied to each package with craft glue, two labels per tub. This process continued on until 2013. I estimate that 30,000 packages were completed in this exact way.
My very first client was a small convenience store in Lee’s Summit, MO called “Grab-It”, owned by a man named Farzin. He called me in February of 2011 claiming he had come across my business card and heard I made the best hummus in town. To this day, I still don’t know how he came across my card. I printed them myself so I knew there weren’t many in circulation.
At the time of his call, I was still only making sample batches in my kitchen. I was apprehensive about skirting the rules regarding food manufacturing but he insisted on selling it anyway so I obliged and delivered the first order, 17 tubs, on the evening of February 28th. After leaving, I called my mom crying from the excitement and anxiety. The official debut was March 1st, 2011.
Soon after that, I met with the perishables manager at a HyVee store in Leawood, KS. He, having dealt with many food companies of all sizes, could sense my passion, but also my inexperience. He loved the hummus but immediately questioned my ability to produce it legitimately – in an actual commercial kitchen. He wanted to sell it but needed me to produce documentation showing that the hummus would come from a registered and inspected kitchen.
Within a month, I had built one in my basement: “The Hummus Lab”.
As you can see, it was pretty small – 201.65 sq/ft to be exact. The total cost to build it, including all the necessary equipment, permits and etc., tallied around $2,000. Yes, I was on the phone nearly every day irritating the county health department with question after question regarding how to build this.
It was finished on schedule then inspected (and approved) by the county and the state on April 26th and the first delivery to HyVee was on April 28th, 2011.
By the time the kitchen was complete, Farzin had closed “Grab-It” and moved to the United Kingdom. Although our partnership was brief, it was a great trial period to get me setup for larger clients.
In the months following, I proceeded to pick up more and more HyVee stores. I was quickly beginning to outgrow “The Hummus Lab” with just the retail product I was making. Then, in January of 2012, I began making 40 pound, 5 gallon buckets of hummus for the cafeteria at the Cerner World HQ in North Kansas City. This pushed my basement kitchen beyond its limit and in June 2012 I built another commercial kitchen just up the road, still in Belton.
The new kitchen, dubbed “The Hummus Company Midwest Headquarters” (can’t hate my hopefulness), was 1,200 sq/ft and included a front office, a kitchen and a warehouse. It was perfect but the overhead costs were much higher so I was pressured to pick up more and more stores.
Now keep in mind, this whole time I was working as a server on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. I didn’t draw any kind of salary from the company until April of 2013, just after my 30th birthday. All revenue was kept in the company to facilitate its growth, but mostly the covered overhead costs.
In mid-late 2014, I moved out of this second kitchen, sold most of my equipment and partnered with a small food manufacturing company in Kansas City. This lasted about 8 or 9 months until the partnership had failed in April of 2015 and I was forced to find a different accommodation for my manufacturing operations. I’ll tell you, it’s not easy to find another place to manufacture within a couple of weeks. It was even more difficult to re-acquire all the necessary equipment. I still had product on the store shelves but the expiration dates were drawing near and the future was looking grim.
I found a shared kitchen space in Independence, MO and by the middle of May had moved in but I was missing the biggest piece of the puzzle – a mixer. I did find one but it was in dire need of repair and it took nearly a month to get it in working order. A couple weeks before the repair was complete, all of the product I had on the store shelves had expired and I had no way to re-stock them. This was one of the most difficult times I had endured with my company. This was the “maybe it’s time to just let it go” moment. Money had run out, my electricity at home had been disconnected (thank you dad for the help) and my mind was reeling with the notion that even if I had been able to stock the stores, would my customers come back? I was terrified.
Then, on Sunday May 24th, 2015, I got the call that the mixer was fixed. With no time to waste I called my buddy Jeff, who had been listening to me complaining about the repair guy for weeks, and asked him to bring his truck to pick up the mixer with me. Within two hours, we picked up the mixer and delivered it to my new kitchen. Immediately after getting it there we plugged it in – it didn’t work and I was furious. The repair guy sent out an electrician the following morning, Memorial Day, who re-wired the control box and got it running. I didn’t waste a second before scrubbing and sanitizing the machine and diving into the first batch of hummus I was able to produce in over a month. I began making deliveries the very next day.
Over the next few weeks, I was excited to see that the sales had bounced right back and had even exceeded the previous numbers. I maintained contact with my retailers over the course of the down time and most of them had actually reserved my shelf space, which, in refrigerated grocery sections was something I, or anyone for that matter, could ever have expected.
I’ve been working out the same kitchen, the Ennovation Center in Independence, MO, ever since – or at least at the time of this writing.
I want to take the time right now to thank every single person who has ever bought a tub of hummus from me – you have truly made my dreams come true. I’d also like to thank every single person who has helped me along the way – you know who you are. To my customers, clients, family and friends – I am forever in debt to you and there are no words to precisely describe my gratitude.
In return, I will offer you all insight into my experiences and what I’ve learned through my tenure as an entrepreneur. The greatest attribute I’ve earned over the years is the will to inspire, educate and guide hopeful entrepreneurs on their path to achieve their goals.
Thank you for reading and please stay tuned for more – we’re just getting started.