Beyond the Hummus Horizon: Three Sisters Seek to Make Tahini a Pantry Staple

Soom Foods products | Photo provided

You dip plenty of snacks in peanut butter — apples, crackers, celery, pretzels, and on and on.

But what if you substituted that peanut butter for tahini?

In 2013 with her two older sisters, Shelby and Jackie, Amy Zitelman started Soom Foods, a Philadelphia-based and Israel-manufactured tahini company with a goal: making tahini a pantry staple.

The beginning of the company was part luck, part beshert said Amy Zitelman.

From left (seated): Shelby, Amy and Jackie | Photo provided

After her oldest sister, Shelby, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in entrepreneurial management, she visited their middle sister, Jackie, in Israel. While there, Shelby met Jackie’s now-husband, who worked in the tahina industry.

At the time, Zitelman said, the Ethiopian White Humera sesame seed was becoming the standard in Israel for high-quality tahini, which is made from roasted and pressed sesame seeds.

“Shelby tasted the tahini and was blown away because that tahini really did taste better than any other tahini we had ever tasted,” her sister recalled.  

With the help of Jackie’s husband, Shelby was “really the one that challenged Jackie and I to say, ‘Why don’t we be the ones to bring good tahini to the United States?’”

Enter Soom: a gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, kosher and vegan tahini product. Its name also means “sesame” in Hebrew. “Originally we thought that everything we put out would be sesame-related and it is so far,” Zitelman said, “but our next product actually is not a sesame product” — they will get started in 2018 with silan, an Israeli molasses made with steamed and pressed dates — “but it’s really stuck with us.”

With their products, which are supplied to the restaurant industry as well as online, they strive to show that tahini has a use beyond a hummus ingredient.

For instance, their second product was a chocolate sweet tahini spread, which they call a halva spread.

“[It’s] a really special representation of what tahini can be, which is it’s really not just for hummus,” Zitelman said.  

For her, working with her sisters has been a way to grow closer together. She and Shelby work together in Philadelphia, though they grew up in Rockville, Md. From Israel, Jackie helps with the manufacturing side.

With their different skillsets — Amy studied interpersonal communications at the University of Delaware, and Jackie studied conflict management at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel — they work well together in various sides of the business.

On Soom’s website, the co-founders are listed by traits: “Shelby (aka the Brains), Amy (aka the Voice) and Jackie (aka the Heart).”

“It’s really a testament to our skills and what differentiates us as founders and as sisters,” Zitelman said.

“The original joke about us starting the business is that Shelby had a business degree, Jackie married a sesame expert and I needed a job,” she laughed.

But the job has worked out pretty smoothly. Last month, she and Jackie, 28 and 29 respectively, were named as co-founders in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 class of 2018 in the food and drink category.

The blurb also mentioned Shelby, which was important to Zitelman to show it’s a “full team effort,” and included impressive stats like how “in 2017, the company sold more than 500,000 pounds of tahini, up from 20,000 in its first year.”

As the company has grown, it’s attracted big names, like one of their first big clients, Michael Solomonov, and has given people across the country a chance to see tahini as more than a hummus ingredient.

“The fact that tahini is becoming a category and conversation in its own was a dream of ours when we decided to start this business,” Zitelman said. “We wanted tahini to become a pantry staple as much as almond butter and peanut butter.”

For the future, Zitelman hopes to continue providing restaurants with high-quality ingredients and expand more into the retail market.

“It was a dream of ours originally to see tahini on every shelf,” she said.

They sell from Seattle to San Diego and Maine to Miami, she noted, and through Amazon and their website, they can reach people everywhere else.

“It’s always so fun when we see people ordering from Arkansas and places we’d never imagined they’d care about tahini,” she said.

[email protected]215-832-0740


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