You may not be able to pinpoint The Hummus & Pita Co.’s Mediterranean offerings to a specific country. But this was cofounder Dave Pesso’s intention, as he wants the brand’s menu to be a metaphorical place of true peace in the Middle East.
Pesso’s ambitious goal traces back to the influence of his mother, Janice Axelrod, who he credits as being the founder of The Hummus & Pita Co. Coming from a Greek and Israeli household, Pesso remembers taking a bus and two trains just to find the ingredients that they needed for home meals. But it wasn’t until 2010 when Pesso, mother Janice Axelrod, and brother Steven Pesso made the decision to enter the restaurant industry.
“We thought maybe we’d open up a Wendy’s or McDonald’s or Steak ’n’ Shake,” Pesso says. “But going to these [franchise] expos, we felt that it just wasn’t for us. We’re very creative people that just couldn’t have our hands tied and follow somebody else’s system.”
The family opened the Hummus & Pita Co.’s doors for the first time in 2012. At the time, self-identified Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fast casual was relatively nonexistent in New York City. These days, the Hummus & Pita Co. operates in a much different food scene. Rather than being a novel menu offering, hummus and pita have become ubiquitous throughout the country.
“Today, hummus and pita is like bread and butter, spaghetti and meatballs, bagels and cream cheese. It’s as American as anything else today,” Pesso says.
Founder: Janice Axelrod & Dave Pesso
Headquarters: New York City
Year Started: 2012
Annual Sales: $9.2 million
Total Units: 10
Franchised Units: 6
This combination of hummus and pita anchor the brand’s menu. The company makes its hummus in-house, undergoing a three-day process. One day is spent boiling chickpeas, another for soaking, and the final day is for cooking. The hummus then gets various ingredients added depending on flavor. There are eight flavors, including sun-dried tomato, roasted pepper, jalapeño, and spicy pepper.
The Hummus & Pita Co.’s customers can find staples from across the Middle Eastern region on its menu. The brand’s pita, laffa, and bowl offerings are customizable, which Pesso says is an effort to make the brand as inclusive as possible.
“What we wanted to do is have a restaurant that the only ethnic part of the brand would be the authenticity of the food and the flavors. But we wanted the name and the look and the decor and the feel to feel just like any other place,” he says.
The company has an especially large presence in the vegan community, with Pesso estimating that 75–80 percent of the menu is vegan. Indeed, it’s not just the Mediterranean flavors that bring customers in the door.
“They come because we’re healthy, delicious, and nutritious food,” Pesso says. “At the same time, we could have someone who’s born in Egypt and just came from Egypt and is eating a meal with us. The authenticity is there, but again, it’s inclusive for everybody.”
There’s also a sense of playfulness on the menu, which undergoes scrutiny every three months. One menu item in particular—the Hummus Shake—has become a viral sensation on the internet thanks to its odd name. The shake uses chickpea tahini, and is mixed with almond milk, bananas, and dates. The brand’s AvoGanoush is another modern twist on a traditional dish, fusing avocado and eggplant to create a baba ganoush.
Pesso adds that the brand’s inclusive attitude on the menu extends to the restaurant’s atmosphere. He describes the interior of the restaurant as a mixture of modern and classic, using accents of brick and reclaimed wood throughout the store. Tables made out of recycled bowling alleys and warm overhead lighting are used in an effort to make the space inviting for guests.
If there’s one silver lining of the pandemic, it’s that securing that kind of square footage is a much easier process. “Now, for $100,000, I could go take a location that was a restaurant already and convert it to a Hummus & Pita at almost half the price it was six months ago,” Pesso says. “There’s tremendous opportunity for growth.”
Seeing real estate open in New York City firsthand, the brand has been able to stake its corporate footprint in some of the city’s lucrative locations. However, The Hummus & Pita Co. plans to grow mainly through its franchisees. Pesso says the brand aims for its stores to be 75 percent franchised. For him, franchisee support is the company’s No. 1 priority. The fast casual has made an effort to make this support more efficient, such as a deal with learning management system Wisetail to create the Hummus Hub for its training software.
The Hummus & Pita Co. is also improving its digital footprint to get the brand to national prominence. During the pandemic, the brand partnered with national online retailer Goldbelly, which allows it to ship its menu items throughout the country.
Coming out of what is hopefully the worst of the coronavirus, Pesso is optimistic about the state of the industry once the dust settles. “I really believe that there will be a reenergizing of the restaurant business. The rents became so high and so unbearable that the margins in the restaurant business became almost non-existent,” Pesso says. “[We’re] coming out of COVID stronger than before. We’ll have some war wounds and some scars, but we think it will be like a badge of honor coming out of this.”