When a family farm and a family recipe tie the knot, Zacca Hummus is born
Janine Zacca Zenner knew her mother was passionate about hummus, but she didn’t expect this.
Her mom, who was visiting Boise from South Florida, stood in Janine’s kitchen yelling in her family’s native language of Arabic.
“She was really upset. ‘Why aren’t you using the garbanzo beans from the farm?!’” Janine recalls.
Janine’s mother knew something Janine didn’t. She knew that hummus tasted better when made with fresh garbanzo beans. And as it turns out, her mother had the perfect source for that: the farm owned by the family of her son-in-law — Janine’s husband Chris — in Genesee, Idaho.
“Evidently my mother-in-law had been sending my mom a care package of garbanzo beans each Christmas,” Janine says. “And now my mom refuses to make hummus with canned garbanzos. Fresh is so much better.”
It was this realization that would eventually lead to the birth of Zacca Hummus, a collaboration of sorts between Janine’s passion (and recipe!) for fresh hummus and her husband’s family farm.
Today, Zacca sells three flavors of hummus, a traditional Mediterranean condiment made from ground garbanzo beans (also known as chickpeas), tahini, lemon juice, garlic and other spices. The Boise Co-Op, Whole Foods Market, Albertsons and other retailers carry Zacca in Boise and other markets.
But it all started that day in Janine’s kitchen, with her mom telling Janine the fresh chickpeas would be better and Janine — eventually — giving in and trying it. And you know what? It was.
“I still used my own recipe with my level of ingredients,” Janine says. “My mom kept saying ‘more lemon, more tahini,’ but when I took it to my friends they all said it was perfect.”
Her mom’s response? “That’s ok, Janine. They don’t know what perfect is.”
Janine took her mother’s advice, added more lemon, and the results were spectacular. “She was right. It was far better.”
With her friends prodding her to start selling her hummus, Janine eventually decided to take the plunge. She enrolled in a one-day “everything you need to know to start a food business” course offered by the University of Idaho’s Food Technology Center in Caldwell.
“I thought, ‘Ok, I can do this,’” she says.
“I was so inexperienced I didn’t know all the things that I should be worried about. I put a small amount of money in a business account and decided to give it a shot.”
The first step was to set up a test booth at Boise’s Capital City Public Market, where she handed out free samples in exchange for feedback on a written survey.
“We had amazing results,” Janine says. “We got 250 survey results and the majority of people loved it. They couldn’t believe it was free.”
Armed with this feedback, Janine leaned on the food scientists and other professionals at the Food Technology Center to refine the recipe (shelf stability became a real issue early on), packaging, and a sales strategy.
Zacca’s first account was the Boise Co-Op. Within a few months, Janine had a friend at Albertsons offer an opportunity to enter their local stores. “They were so great. They really wanted to support local producers.”
Long story short: Zacca was accepted as a vendor, and within a couple of weeks, she was hauling coolers of hummus in the back of her SUV from the commercial kitchen of the Food Technology Center to the stores.
Zacca Hummus was off and running.
Then and now, the primary ingredient of garbanzo bean are sourced from her in-law’s fourth-generation farm in northern Idaho. Even though the family had grown garbanzos for decades, they had never really eaten them.
It wasn’t until their son Chris brought home this girl he had met while pursuing his master’s degree in Florida that they really learned much about it.
“I flew into the Spokane airport and Chris’ mom had to go straight to Nordy’s (Nordstrom) so I could by a coat,” Janine recalls, explaining that having grown up in Jamaica as the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who moved to Miami in the 1970s, she had never owned a winter coat before her Idaho visit.
The couple decided to move to Idaho — first to Coeur d’ Alene, where Janine pursued a career in accounting, then to Boise, where the couple started a family and, eventually, Zacca.
“For awhile I was a full-time mom, part-time accountant and part-time entrepreneur.” As Zacca gained momentum, Janine let go of her accounting job to focus on the business.
It’s a good thing. Hummus is a competitive category, with two-thirds of the market being owned by two national brands. And because Zacca is all-natural, with no artificial preservatives, Janine was not only challenged with introducing shoppers to a brand new hummus brand, but also making certain that it had the shelf-stability grocers demanded.
“I had to learn everything from scratch,” she says. The key, she found, was good partnerships. Even once she had refined the product, it was difficult to find the distribution she needed to grow.
“The biggest challenge I have is finding a local broker that is willing to work with us at this small level,” she explains.
The distribution she has gotten is a direct result of her hard work, including countless cold calls, weekend grocery store demonstrations and a whole lot of hustle.
“The more success you achieve, the more people want to talk with you.”
This hard work eventually paid off with great relationships with other Boise-based organizations and companies, including Idaho Preferred, distributor Grasmick Produce, and Stoltz Marketing Group, who redesigned Zacca’s packaging to give it a more authentic, farm-fresh look. She’s also just introduced a new single-serving, “snack pack” line to give the convenience-driven customer another option.
“It’s wonderful to find partners that believe in you, want to represent you, and want this product to succeed,” she says. “To think I probably wouldn’t have done all this if I’d known what we were up against. It’s almost good not to know.”
Note: Pickup Zacca Hummus at Boise Co-Op, Whole Foods Market, Albertsons or check out their website: zzfoods.us.
Photography by Chris Ennis