Ori is the owner of Hummus Place, a chain of hummus restaurants that have opened in New York City since 2004. Hummus Place is an Israeli style hummus bar that serves a range of Middle Eastern style mezze and Israeli dishes like Shakshuka. Ori grew up in Israel and has brought his knowledge of Israeli hummus, recipes, tastes and flavours to his restaurants. Hummus Place on Bleeker and 7th Ave, in the West Village, is very popular with locals and tourists alike.
Hummus Place, New York - October, 2011
So Ori, tell me when you started the restaurant, what year it was, and why you decided to open a hummus business in New York?
I open Hummus Place seven years ago. The reason was, we were missing good hummus in New York. The rest was here. Israeli will, will, will travel to Israel to, to eat a good hummus. So that was a, a business opportunity, and opened very small restaurant, hummus restaurant, with five, five tables, and got crowded really fast, with Israeli in the beginning, and later with New Yorkers and, and everybody.
What was it about hummus that attracted you to open your own...?
Some restaurants make hummus in New York. But none of them really do it like it's supposed to, to be. Fresh, with, with the right taste. So when I opened the, the, the Hummus Place, I did only hummus. We had three different items on the menu. Three different hummus. And everybody was of course, working just on hummus. And, and we, we managed to get it right. Israeli love it, and that was the, the proof, as far as I concerned.
Is it true to say that your business has been successful? You've opened three more? Is that right? Tell me about how your business has taken off?
After we opened Hummus Place, first location of St Mark's, after a couple of months, I opened a second restaurant on, on MacDougal. And a year later, on the Upper West Side, on 74th in Amsterdam.
And it was good. It was...dinner w-was really busy. Lunch was, was okay. The...but we had to add more stuff into it. People wanted a little more...it, it was a little hard to maintain the restaurant just on hummus. We had to add some other stuff, to attract more people.
So we had shakshuka, and we had some falafel later on, and, and coffee, and, and Israeli salad, and other Mediterranean/Israeli food. But we were doing, we were doing very good. No complain. And then a year later, or two years later, we open another two. We had five location last year. We, we close one. But business is, is, is good.
Why do you think Americans have taken to hummus so much?
Over here, I think, first of all, they had some really good review as far as, as, as health food. But whoever step into Hummus Place, and, and try the hummus, I don't think, you know, he's coming back because of the health benefits. I think they like the taste. They like the atmosphere. They, they like the price.
And of course, they understand it's, it's good for them. And it, you got to do it right. You got to do a good food. You got to do it consistent. And, and, and, you know, if it's healthy, people that like health food, will come. But people that like f-, cheap food, will like hummus as well.
It's very good price. And, and it's something new to them, you know, and they like it.
Is hummus becoming very popular in New York?
It's...for me, you know, hummus is, is kind of my, my day to day approach. And, and I, I being seen everybody come to eat hummus seven years ago. I don't see huge difference now. They say they buy it in the supermarket, or all over United States. I, I don't see it. I don't know. I...the restaurant were, were good, maybe get a li-,...they been a little bit busier over the years. But for me, I'm a, I'm a small part of the, the big hummus thing. So it's hard for me to tell. In, in New York, they like it.
Do you see your restaurant as being an Israeli restaurant? Is that how you sell your hummus...as Israeli hummus?
I have Israelis employees. I have ingredients that I, I bring from Israel. I don't really have Israelis on any of my sign, on my menu, or...I never really say it's Israeli hummus. It's Hummus Place hummus. It's, it's a New York hummus. I bring some recipes and some dishes that I know, from Israel. This is what I, I grew up on...on the taste, on, on, on the texture, on...and this is what I bring to Hummus Place. But we never really put Israelis flags or anything, or Israeli music into it. It's, it's not about Israel. It's about the hummus.
Where do you think hummus comes from? Do you see it is an Israeli food, or a Lebanese food, or Palestinian food?
I think I'm, I'm too young to really go back and know where it's come from. Really, it's hard, you know. A lot of time, people ask me, and, and say, 'Oh, no, this is, this is Lebanon in style hummus', or 'This is Syrian on the, on the fava bean'. They say it's a Syrian style fava bean'...oh, okay, fine with me. No problem.
I, I have no, no big ideas about my hummus, as far as where it came from. I grew in Israel. This is the hummus I taste in Israel. And, and for me, it's Israeli hummus. But I have no problem with someone say it's, it's a Lebanese hummus or...
In Israel, it's a very passionate debate.
Yeah. You know, that is the thing, I don't really understand this argument, where it come from, or who take custody on, on hummus, because it's, it's everybody, you know. It's one of the thing you not supposed to argue about. Maybe eat together and, and enjoy, you know.
I think it's too many years back, to go and argue who owned the hummus. It's everybody now.
And I guess the fact that it's in New York is kind of proof of that?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like, maybe, like over here, nobody know about what that, what this all about. This fight or argument. You going to start argue about where the rice come from? [laughs] For me, I don't, I don't like this competition of the biggest hummus that they do.
They ask me to do it. I said no. I don't want to. It's, it's a waste of hummus, you know, to make a competition out of it.
What do you like about making hummus?
What do I like about it? It's, it's very traditional. It's very...they have...hummus have a big history, and, and it's something that part of my culture and my history. I feel close to it. Feel that I'm doing something I grew up on, and, and it's feel [sic] comfortable doing it. And, and I like it, you know. People like it. And they eat it with their hands, with the pita, and it's very down to earth, and traditional.
And that thing of eating with your hands, which is very important in the Middle East, how does that go down in New York?
That...in the beginning, for, for new customers...you know, as you see, we put just forks on the table. We don't put the whole set. And in the beginning, we didn't put a fork. We'd just bring the pita, and everybody was like...'Okay, okay we'll bring you a fork'. But we had to teach customer how to eat in the beginning, to advise them, or they will eat it with the fork, and put it on the pita, and tell them, 'Go and dip...dip your hands inside'. And It's fun. People like dipping. And now you see, everybody's...is dipping in...their hands into the bowl.
I think it's giving something a little bit different than regular food.
Can you talk about who your customers are?
Okay. That's a little hard.
Who comes to eat hummus?
Who come to eat hummus? I think, everybody. It depend where your restaurant located. Then you got...over here, on 7th Avenue, we'll get people from Wall Street, off-office people, ties and suits. We get tourist that never heard about hummus. Here, walking down Bleecker, we get a lot of people with the tourist books, with Lonely Planet and all those...they, they come...and really having no idea what they coming into.
So you, you have to explain them, really deep into the menu, what is each dish made of, and the ingredient, and what is sesame, and, and chickpea and...but then you get students and, and everybodys that work here and live here. So, it's everybody. It's not only Israelis or Lebanonese , or Middle Eastern People. It's, it's, everybody. All New Yorkers.
Who is it that works in your kitchen? What is their nationality?
Mexicans, mostly. South Americans and Mexicans, yeah.
They're sort of, like the Palestinians of New York, aren't they?
Yeah. I-In Israel, I think it's already changed that Israeli work in the kitchen, Palestinians, or...but, but yeah, Mexicans are the, the force behind the kitchen, yeah.
And who taught the Mexicans to make hummus?
We did. Yeah, yeah. We did. They're very good learners, and it's...hummus is very simple, you know. We try to teach them to do it from their heart, 'cause hummus is chan-,...you got to taste it, you got to feel it, you got to really be there. You can't just do it and forget about it.
So, you know, once you tell them that, when they understand this concept, the rest is easy.
You know how the Arabs talk about Nafas, the spirit, is that something that you...it sounds like you believe in that, and you pass that on? Is that...?
Yeah, yeah. This is very important, yeah. When, when I...before I open Hummus Place, we had to, to learn a little bit about it. And this is what 'I' learn from people in Israel, that do hummus for their life, and have a hummus restaurant.And, you know, we passing it through.
What do you think is going to happen with hummus in America, and it's future?
I, I think, you know, over here, the...it's mostly...I think they see it mostly as, as a little dip. It's not like in Israel...people go to eat hummus. Over here, they buy it in the supermarket, and s-, put it over bread. They put some turkey, and cheese, and some other stuff.
I think this is mostly how 'they' eat hummus, or, or with a little...but it's, it's...I think of...it's more like a supermarket food. Yet, I hope it will change, because the, the, the taste is, is different.
But, you know, we, we educate our customer a little bit at a time. And, and it's people that step into the restaurant, understanding the different [sic] of, of what is hummus restaurant, and what is supermarket restaurant...and there's more and more hummus restaurant in New York.
Seven years ago, there were one. Now, maybe, I don't know, 10 or 15. So it's changing. It's take time, people to, to learn something new. But, it's started.
And the recipe...have you got a secret recipe?
Of course. I got...first, is the, the recipe, which is secret; and second, is, is the tahini, which is secret, and...where I buy it, and who's making it. This is the two very important items in, in making hummus.
You're not going to share it with us?
Maybe after you shut it off, I'll give you half.
Do you put a lot of garlic in your hummus?
Not a lot, no. In Israel, they put much more garlic in everything. I think, over here, the taste is a little different. People don't expect to have so much garlic in their food.So the two things I, I took down, is garlic and olive oil. In the Middle East, you can see that hummus is, is swimming inside olive oil. And sometimes, they'll put some garlic on top...fresh garlic. I'm, I'm, I'm very careful with it.
So you 'do' try and cater to American taste?
Yes. Yes. It's, it's...yeah, American, New Yorkers. When you out from the Middle East, which...I've seen people take it a little bit easier on it, especially for lunch.
What do you think about this big fight, and the claims...in Israel, I've heard Israelis tell me that it's definitely an Israeli food, 'cause it's mentioned in the Bible. And then I've heard Lebanese say, 'No, it's Lebanese food'. And the Palestinians like to think it's theirs as well. Just wondering what do you think about those sorts of claims?
You know, I, I think it's too much thought into that. I don't, I don't think none, none of them can really take, take responsibility on, on inventing the hummus. It's, it's way back.I don't know. I think it's, it's, it's everybody. It's everybody, we should share it, not fight over it.