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Grocery-to-Table Is a Challenge for Restaurants in the Pandemic

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By last summer, Nick Wiseman, a founder of Little Sesame, a small chain of hummus shops in Washington, D.C., had made all the expected “pivots” to save his business. He’d offered delivery, meal kits and pantry items, and worked with local nonprofits to feed the hungry.

But with both of his shops in downtown business districts — and no signs that office workers would be returning — he needed something else to keep the business afloat. The obvious solution: selling his hummus in grocery stores. “We have a great brand and a great product,” Mr. Wiseman remembered thinking. “How hard can this be?”

As it turns out, it took almost a year for three chefs at Little Sesame, each with experience cooking at Michelin-starred restaurants, to make a hummus that looked and tasted the way they wanted it to, with the necessary shelf life and food safety certifications. Along the way, they created a mini-food laboratory, equipped with a magnetic stirrer (to draw uniform hummus samples) and a pH probe, and became experts at the art of high-pressure pasteurization, which kills bacteria by applying isostatic pressure at levels six times those found at the bottom of the ocean. This month, their hummus finally arrived on the shelves at Whole Foods Market.

The bumpy path from restaurant dishes to retail products — often paved with trial, error and some compromise — is one that many chefs and food entrepreneurs have traveled over the past year as they searched for ways to diversify their businesses or reinvent themselves in the pandemic.

Carbone Fine Food, a retail division of the New York City restaurant company Major Food Group, debuted a line of pasta sauces. Another New York business, Levain Bakery, is selling versions of its famously gooey chocolate chip cookies in the freezer aisle of Whole Foods. Independent restaurateurs across the country are hawking everything from jars of hoisin sauce to salty snacks on their websites.

“If you are a proud chef and your soul is dedicated to making food that smells and looks and tastes wonderful, it’s a tricky transition to the world of food manufacturing, where taste doesn’t always come first,” said Bob Del Grosso, a chef and former professor at the Culinary Institute of America who has consulted with a wide array of food manufacturers. “The hope is that new higher-quality and unconventional products they bring to market could bring a new set of values to the business.”

If Mr. Wiseman was surprised by the challenges involved in making retail-ready hummus, another of Little Sesame’s chefs, Ron Even, was not. A double major in biochemistry and food science, Mr. Even first thought that he would have to employ powdered stabilizers and acidifiers that increase shelf life and, more important, help to stave off dangerous bacteria like salmonella or Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism. The risks are real, and recalls are not uncommon. The big hummus producer Sabra issued one for possible salmonella contamination as recently as March.

But the Little Sesame team disliked the sharp, sometimes sour aftertaste that such additives produced. Mr. Even began to search for ways to increase acidity without affecting the flavor. Over a period of weeks, he used a Bluetooth probe, which sent data to his iPhone, to test the acidity of every ingredient, including chickpeas, tahini and lemon juice. He even compared the pH of tap water with purified water. (Tap water was less acidic.)

Surprisingly, the solution was found not in the ingredients, but in the process of making the hummus. In its restaurants, Little Sesame cooks its chickpeas with baking soda, which helps to break them down and results in a creamy spread. But baking soda is naturally alkaline, and this added to the challenge of bringing the overall pH to a safe level. After hundreds of iterations, the chefs found that using a pressure cooker sufficiently broke down the chickpeas and allowed them to use fresh lemon juice rather than commercial acidifiers.

Some things did have to change, though. Grocery-store hummus must be pasteurized. Little Sesame chose high-pressure pasteurization, which employs intensity, rather than heat, to preserve fresh flavors. (It is often used in cold-pressed juices.) But the extreme pressure squished Little Sesame’s containers, pressing its toppings against the lids and leaving an unappealing slick. The company now places its jammy tomatoes or caramelized onions under the hummus. The chefs hope that this has the added benefit of ensuring the toppings (bottomings?) last beyond the first serving.

The realities of selling retail also forced the founders of Levain Bakery, Pam Weekes and Connie McDonald, to adjust their plans drastically.

Originally, they envisioned their brand in the cookie aisle. But the qualities that define a Levain Bakery cookie — a buttery mound that is crusty on the outside and moist and chewy inside — were impossible to recreate in a cookie that could sit on the shelf for months.

“The moisture levels in our cookies are really high,” Ms. McDonald said. “After not a very long time, even two weeks, it all sort of reverses and becomes wet and mushy on the outside and hard on the inside. So that was really unpleasant.”

Consultants whom the women had hired recommended that they make a thin, crisp cookie instead. A series of very awkward phone calls followed, Ms. Weekes recalled: “They were the experts, and we didn’t know what we were doing. But we knew we didn’t want to do what they said we had to do.”

Last fall, some two years after they began, Levain delivered a retail cookie that is smaller but otherwise identical to what they sell in their eight bakeries. They are prebaked and frozen.

The freezer aisle is not where many people look for cookies, but Ms. Weekes and Ms. McDonald are thrilled. “When people would come to the bakery and ask how they could save cookies for later, we’d always tell them to freeze them,” Ms. McDonald said. “The solution was right under our nose.”

This was not the case for Emshika Alberini, who wanted to radically remake the Thai iced teas and coffees she sold at her restaurant, the Chang Thai Cafe, in Littleton, N.H. The drinks were incredibly popular, and profitable. But like many Thai teas and coffees, they contained artificial coloring and plenty of sugar from the condensed milk.

“You have to know the Thai tea at the restaurant has coloring. How else would it be super bright orange?” Ms. Alberini said. “Somehow people don’t think about that in a restaurant. But they do when they’re shopping in a store.”

She was fortunate to find a New Hampshire company that made canned iced coffee, and had a chemist on staff. Together, they experimented with plant-based milks (to make the product vegan) and with various sugar substitutes (to get a zero-sugar nutrition label). It took three months before Ms. Alberini settled on oat milk for the lattes and 32.5 grams of monk fruit per can for sweetness. The final products are sold at independent retailers and online.

For every chef who has made the jump to retail, there are many still trying. Ash Fulk, culinary director at Hill Country Barbecue Market, in New York and Washington, has been at work for nearly a year on a line of sausages, though he is also exploring barbecue sauces and rubs. Carbone Fine Food’s line of pasta sauces does not yet include its signature spicy vodka because, its new chief executive Eric Skae explained, “as soon as you introduce cream and cheese, it gets that much harder.”

As the demand for restaurant-quality food at home has soared during the pandemic, restaurateurs like Little Sesame’s Mr. Wiseman hope the hard work will pay off.

But on the culinary side, solving the riddles of retail products is its own kind of reward. Even after the months of toil on its hummus, the Little Sesame team is already back in the food lab, at work on new retail products.


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