How This Condiment from North Philly Is Influencing Chefs Around the Country
At Mission Chinese in New York City, Danny Bowien adds the tahini to his hot sesame noodles and red cabbage salads. At Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans, you have the option to top soft serve with classic rainbow sprinkles, or a tahini and date molasses, and at popular Charleston restaurant Butcher & Bee, they’re using it in dishes all day, including the sausage, egg, and cheese with tahini mayo, French toast stuffed with chocolate tahini, and a tahini mocha drink, all on the breakfast menu. Chefs across the country are using Soom tahini in unexpected ways, injecting a roasted, nutty flavor into both savory and sweet dishes. While the sesame paste has historically been known as a staple ingredient in hummus, the Philadelphia-based company, run by a trio of sisters, is working hard to change that reputation.
For the Zitelman sisters—Jackie, Shelby, and Amy—inspiration for the business hit during the first meeting with Jackie’s now husband’s family in Israel. “Rachela, Omri’s mother, made a carrot cake,” says Amy. “It was so delicious and unique and nutty, and more complex than the carrot cake we were used to.” When Rachela revealed her recipe replaced some of the vegetable oil with tahini, it sparked an idea.
While in her senior year at the University of Delaware in 2011, Amy started some market research to find out what was available on grocery store shelves. “We found there weren't many options, and not only that, but people hardly even knew what it was,” she says. “If they did, they couldn't name the brand sitting in their refrigerator.” So the Zitelman sisters set out to change that. Their goal was to educate the consumer, and make tahini a staple in American pantries. To do it, they started with chefs.
The women approached Michael Solomonov, who they say has been instrumental to Soom’s success, to find out what tahini he was using at Zahav, how he was getting it, and if he liked it. The chef said he was using whatever his distributor had available, but that he wanted something better. So the Zitelmans bought 20,000 pounds—half a freight container—and brought samples to the restaurant so Solomonov, his business partner Steve Cook, and Yehuda Sichel (now the executive chef at Zahav’s sister restaurant, Abe Fisher) could do a taste test. All agreed Soom was superior. “They said, ‘When can you get it to us?’,” Amy recalls. “And I said, ‘I have four buckets in my car right now.’”
Solomonov and Cook’s restaurant group, CookNSolo, now uses more than 1,400 pounds of Soom each month—a staple ingredient in everything from falafel joint Goldie’s tahini-based milkshakes to Zahav’s legendary hummus.
“Soom is revolutionizing the tehina business in America,” says Solomonov. “The norm in the U.S. had been tahini that was bitter and brown, and made from too many ingredients. It was a product no one wanted to use. And then there was Soom—a family and women-owned business that started offering tehina made from single-sourced Ethiopian White Humera seeds. Their seeds were buttery and rich and complex, just killer.”
Soom tahini starts with a White Humera sesame seed from the northwest region of Ethiopia, and is then processed at a plant in Israel, where the seeds are mechanically hulled and roasted before being pressed, with no added salt or oil, into paste. The finished product gets shipped to Soom’s headquarters in North Philadelphia.
In the beginning, the sisters were hand delivering buckets of tahini to chefs who were buying them, from New York to Washington D.C. Amy, who handles the company’s sales and business development, was also hustling, traveling to cities to meet with chefs, sometimes without an appointment, just for an opportunity to pass on their product. (Shelby, who graduated with a business degree from the University of Pennsylvania, is Soom’s CEO, and Jackie is based in Israel and is the VP of international sourcing.)
“I was a traveling saleswoman,” she laughs at what she calls her totally shameless approach. “I pulled along a rolling backpack, filled with fifty pounds of tahini in the beginning of the day, and the goal was the hand out all the samples by the end of the day.” But they were confident that any chef who tasted Soom would immediately notice the difference.
Now, Soom is being used in restaurants in 18 major cities around the country. “It’s so exciting to us, that it’s not just on Israeli menus, not just places that have hummus on the menu are using tahini,” says Amy. “Mike’s a great example, with the tahini milkshake [at Goldie]. Spread Kitchen in Los Angeles uses tahini as a sundae topping. One of Sweetgreen’s salad dressings is a cucumber tahini yogurt. Abandoned Luncheonette in New Jersey, they do a movie night once a month, and they make popcorn and drizzle it with Soom. It’s actually really delicious.”
Bryan Lee Weaver, the chef at Butcher & Bee’s Nashville outpost, uses Soom in the restaurant’s hummus, but also mixed with harissa and coleslaw to top their I.F.C. (Israeli Fried Chicken) sandwich, and over charred eggplant with black garlic and pickled cherries. “I love the story of the sisters and the flavor is fantastic,” he says. Maura Kilpatrick agrees. The executive pastry chef of Boston-based Sofra Bakery and Oleana Restaurant uses Soom in her tahini shortbread and oatmeal sesame cookies. “I love their story, too, and that they come and travel and build relationships, but their product is also just so superior.” Kilpatrick has been adding tahini to her recipes for nearly a decade since Sofra opened, but the product she used in the beginning, from Turkey, always separated, and Soom’s, she notes, is consistent and perfectly emulsified.
Soom is also not just in major cities. The brand is being sold in about 230 retail stores, including in some 60 Whole Foods Markets, and has a robust online retail business, both via their own website and on Amazon. It’s through their online business that they’ve been able to reach customers in all fifty states. “Someone from Missouri recently emailed us and said, I’m a vegan, and I’m so excited to have a good tahini, and it’s expanded my diet so much,” says Amy. “It’s humbling and exciting. That’s what motivates us.”
After selling 20,000 pounds in the company’s first year in 2013, that number has ballooned to 500,000 in 2017, and the sisters are staying the course. While they’ve introduced Chocolate Sweet Tahini halva spread, and are working on a new silan date syrup, they plan to take things one step at a time.
“We love that our business has developed around restaurants, but our dream and mission is still to make tahini a pantry staple in American households,” says Amy. “And that extends so much further than people who are familiar with it as a base for hummus.”
Across America, chefs are underscoring her point.