Tell us about Ithaca Hummus. Where did it all start for you?
Chris Kirby: Ithaca Hummus started at a Farmer’s Market in Ithaca, New York in 2013. I was at a transition point in my life. Out of high school, I went straight to culinary school. After training as a chef, I worked in restaurants around the country. It was a lot of hard work, but it was all fueled by my love for food, art, and creating things that would drive people to a reaction.
As a chef, I realized I had this ability to affect people through food, influence their eating habits and what they’re putting in their bodies. Usually, if somebody tells me that they don’t like a particular food, I take it as a challenge. “You don’t like beets? I’m going to make beets that you do like.”
On top of that, I’ve always had a very entrepreneurial spirit. I knew that eventually I would want to own my business, be my own boss, and write my own story. All of that kind of culminated in my decision to leave the restaurant business but still stay in the food business.
It was at that point that I asked myself, “Okay, what are the things I need to get serious about stepping out of the kitchen and getting into business for myself, given that I only had an associate’s degree in culinary?” The best decision for me was to go back to school, get a business education, and learn the accounting, finance, economics and all that good stuff. So, I moved back with my parents, lived in Baltimore with them for a year, then, went to community college. After I applied and got accepted to Cornell in 2013, I showed up in Ithaca ready to start school.
But at the same time, I was also looking for a business opportunity. So, I started at the Ithaca Farmers Market and tried to find out, “What’s the white space here? What can I do to participate in and add something to the food culture in Ithaca that’s not currently being done?” And back then, there was no hummus person at the Farmer’s Market. So, when I arrived, that was me. I quickly got started. I rented a small kitchen, got a booth at the Farmer’s Market and set up shop.
And where are you now?
Chris Kirby: So, from 2013 to now, we went from selling at a Farmers Market to selling at almost 7,000 stores today. For the first four years, we produced our hummus in Ithaca. But in 2017, we formed a relationship with a manufacturing company called Lidestri Foods Manufacturing in New York. They hadn’t been making hummus for anyone at the time, which opened a great window of opportunity for us. After partnering with Lidestri, we moved our business from Ithaca to Rochester, which is where we’re headquartered today. Since then, we’ve only continued to increase our volume year over year. And we’re planning to do it again next year.
Let’s talk about your strengths. Could you share what were the key decisions and organizational strengths that went into getting you guys to where you are now?
Chris Kirby: Ithaca Hummus has a very scrappy entrepreneurial culture. It is what allowed us to really hold ourselves accountable and uphold the highest standards, the best in class in everything that we do. Our biggest strength is our people and the culture that we have. It’s certainly something that was only highlighted by this year.
We do what we have to do to make Ithaca Hummus the best in class, and we try to keep those core strengths in-house. We try to do that ourselves. It’s easy to rush in things quickly, wanting to build yourself as big as fast as possible. Like, you don’t have a director of marketing and you want to own your own marketing process, but you’re only a couple of a million dollars-sized company.
But we’ve been able to avoid those mistakes, and have stayed very hands-on about what we outsource. That benefited us in being able to extend our internal scrappy entrepreneurial culture to the external vendors and teams that we work with. We look for people who are fans first, who get what we do and why we do it. If we’re on the same page there, there’s a much higher opportunity for alignment on values and decision making.
Building things this way has served us extremely well. We’ve been able to work with people and partners who share our values and our work ethics. They’ve also allowed us to stay flexible and to turn things on and off, as opposed to having everything in-house and obligated to figure out how to utilize them during times like this.
Is there anything about your history as a chef and working in the restaurant business that indirectly influences the way you run your business, aside from making delicious food?
Chris Kirby: A lot. I cut myself in the restaurant industry. Doing the hard work, being part of the grueling work environment, the can-do attitude, the willingness to stand up and fight as hard as you can in the face of adversity are all part of what it takes to be a good chef. By good fortune, those have been programmed into my DNA and that’s what drives me and what, I think, drives us at Ithaca Hummus today.
I know you’re proud of your company’s scrappy entrepreneurial culture. What enables that process? What makes you and your team work so well?
Chris Kirby: It definitely goes back to what I said earlier: fans first. If we can align on nothing else but “man, I love this product”, we see it as a starting point, and then we go from there.
When we consider people to work with, we look at it as, “Is this someone who is experienced, set in their ways, and has an ego? Or is this a person who is looking to push towards the next thing in their career or their life, and wants to be part of something, willing to work hard and willing to admit when they don’t know something?”
And when I see that it’s the latter, I go above and beyond to reward it. We’re lucky to have this positive feedback loop of people in our organization who are driven and fueled and hellbent on finding success as a little company in a big category. We have measures in place at Ithaca Hummus to reward and keep that behavior alive and well.
You’ve got a campaign on your website called Feed by Example. What do you mean by that?
Chris Kirby: Feed by Example is our mission statement and we try to incorporate it in everything that we do at Ithaca Hummus. It’s obviously a play on lead by example. We’re passionate about meeting people. If you look at who we’re up against as an emerging company, it’s these big food companies. They’re great in their own right, but they are big corporate entities, and they’ve got a certain way of doing things.
As smaller, emerging brands, we have the latitude to operate differently than that. We have this opportunity to say to ourselves, if we could do it in any way we wanted to, how would we do it? To make sure that every decision that we make as we’re building the company is something that we would be proud to talk about. We want to live by example. We want to feed more people. But we want to do it in a way that you could consider it as an example for other companies to want to replicate.
Throughout COVID-19, one of the pain points for companies trying to adapt to remote work is organizational cohesion. Have you figured out how to communicate and operate over distances. How has the year worked out for you?
Chris Kirby: It has definitely been a different experience this year. Personally, I’ve always been a remote CEO. I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Ithaca Hummus headquarters is in Rochester. We work together remotely very well. That was true before COVID. Going into the office used to be a daily thing for everyone in Rochester. Now, it’s more of every Thursday everybody-goes-in-and-has-a-socially-distanced work day. We do it to keep everyone feeling connected with other people. We’re just doing it now in a different way than we normally do.
Another new thing we instituted at Ithaca Hummus this year is a daily 15-minute morning meeting. We call it our gratitude meeting. From 8:15 to 8:30 every single morning, it’s optional but pretty much everyone joins. We don’t talk about work. Instead, everyone goes around and shares one thing that they’re grateful for, and that’s how we start our day. It’s been a really great way to stay connected at a human level with everyone in the team.
Compare how you engaged and reached out to your customers before and during COVID-19. Were there any dramatic changes for you guys strategy-wise?
Chris Kirby: Reaching and engaging customers is the ongoing quest of every emerging CPG company. For us, it starts with taste. This is a product that you have to try in order to understand what’s special and what’s different about it. Pre-COVID 19, I mean, that was certainly much easier to get across to our audiences. We could set up in a grocery store, start sampling, tell our story and give people directly the Ithaca experience. That’s how we knew how to do it, because that’s how you would do it in a farmers market. You give out samples and convince people to buy it.
The biggest difference now is that we’ve gotten more active and more engaged through social media and through our email list. We’ve been calling and writing letters to customers to stay connected. Still, we have to contend with the puzzle of figuring out through it all, “How do we take someone who likes us for our products and turn them into someone who loves us for our brand?”
People like to talk about social media like it’s the answer to everything. It’s really not. For us, the success that we’ve had with it comes down to how we use it. It’s not a place where we go and advertise. We don’t go there to force ads on people. It’s about having meaningful conversations, and that’s what we try to do. We go there to bond, not brand.
It’s great that you mentioned that. A lot of companies are certainly doubling down on their e-commerce to adapt to the marketplace. Do you have an e-commerce strategy that works for you?
Chris Kirby: The most direct answer to that is we took our Instacart business from non-existent last year to doing well over 2 million dollars in Insta-Cart this year. That’s the biggest direct tactical shift that we’ve made. In a more altruistic high-level qualitative, non-quantifiable way, what I said earlier about trying to build relationships instead of trying to sell online, I think, if you can quantify that, you could see similar success stories as Insta-Cart. It’s basically inciting word-of-mouth marketing, and people trust nobody more than friends and family who tell them, “Hey, I love this brand”. So, to me, it’s just as important to give people something to talk about, a story to tell about you. It could be as simple as your product. But if you can make it deeper than that, the better it is.
Did you face any other challenges this year as a business, if not on the demand side, then the supply side?
Chris Kirby: In operations, we’ve been lucky to have our incredible partnership with Lidestri Foods. Our COO who manages that relationship for our company, Frank Cavallero, was a 25 year employee at Lidestri. The combination of our team and the Lidestri team has been through it all and seen it all. They’ve been able to stay nimble and react quickly.
Honestly, for us, despite the volatile environment as far as demand goes and orders volume changing drastically week over week, we’ve fared well. We’ve maintained a 100% in-full and on-time delivery for all of our customers at a time when most of our competitors, many of whom are much larger than us, have struggled with that process.
I attribute it to three things. One is having Frank and the partnership with Lidestri in our corner. Two is the fact that we high-pressure process our products. It gives us a slightly longer shelf-life. It’s also a more expensive process. But being able to have inventory and being able to be flexible with our inventory is one of the benefits that comes along with that investment. And we’ve been able to cash in on some of that investment this year. Third is just having our manufacturing outsourced than doing it ourselves. It’s a huge benefit to just manage it than own it.
In actuality, we’re having a record year. It’s a challenge because you have one foot in the current year and most of the other foot in next year. Next year is going to be another breakout year for us, so I can’t complain. We’re very fortunate and grateful for the success that we’ve had. It’s a little hard to say when you think about the fact that so many people are struggling right now. We do try to help when we can.
Are there any specific projects or advocacies that you’re doing in order to help out?
Chris Kirby: Definitely. We started at Ithaca Farmers Market. When COVID-19 hit, their attendance went way down. In order to survive, they needed to raise a lot of money. So, we saw that and immediately contacted them. We told them we would match donations as long as it took to get them to meet their goal. We were able to do that in a three-day period.
Another area we advocated for was the elections this year. We figured out how to get involved in encouraging people to exercise their right to vote, and to do that in a non-political, non-divisive kind of way. We partnered with Ithaca murals in Ithaca New York to set up a grant for street artists right before the election. They created murals and street art that spoke to people and brought awareness to how critical it was to participate in the election this year.
We’ve also reached out to my connections and network in the restaurant business. Food service, hospitality and restaurant workers have been hit arguably as hard as anyone else by COVID-19. I started a Restaurant Revival Tour on our Instagram page where I would go live and cook with a chef, do a recipe, and raise awareness about what’s going on in their restaurant and what people in the local community can do in support. We drove engagement for that by telling our audience that for everyone who joined the live, we would donate to the restaurant employee fund.
The things that we’ve done this year is everything we mean by Feed by Example. They’re all very intentional decisions and campaigns. There’s nothing wrong with simply writing a check and donating to someone. But if you can do it in a way that speaks to who you are, that tells your story a little bit and maximizes the impact, that’s best in class. And that’s what we’re all about.
If you could do it all over again, is there anything you would personally do differently?
Chris Kirby: The biggest regret that I’ll always have is not taking pictures and documenting things from the very beginning. For so many years, it was about barely making it by, brute-force and white-knuckling it through every single day. It wasn’t the kind of environment where you would stop and go, “Let me take a picture.” But looking back, we did have a lot of great moments that I wish we had more documentation of.
After everything that happened this year, do you have one advice or rule that you are going to be living by in the next year or so?
Chris Kirby: There’s one piece of advice that my grandfather gave me before he died that I think is really relevant. Actually, two. The first thing he said was “Make your life work.” That’s open to a lot of interpretation. But I think the message is, do what you need to do to get what you want out of life. That coupled with, “Don’t do anything you’re not prepared to accept the worst possible outcome of.” Personally, I think, if you follow these two things, you’ll be in pretty good shape.
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