Ten years ago, when our next guest entered the CPG industry, tahini was hard to come by. If you were lucky enough to have an international market or Middle Eastern section within your favorite grocery store, you might find a few options. But Amy Zitelman and her sisters believed this product deserved more of a presence here in the United States. On this episode of the Conception to Consumption (C to C) podcast, co-founder and CEO of Soom Foods explores her brand growth over the past decade through strategic partnerships, co-mans, and omnichannel sales.
With an established food service foundation, Zitelman and her team have turned their attention to at-home cooks in recent years. On their website and social media channels, you’ll find hundreds of recipes to build consumer awareness, but there are also more competitors in this space than ever before. So, what separates Soom’s products from the other tahinis in the market? Listen to the full episode to find out.
Amy Zitelman: When we started Soom, our mission was to get tahini into every grocery store shelf and into every home pantry possible, and we’re really still set on that mission. Even though a large part of our growth has been so foundational in our food service channel.
And so, we’re very focused on expanding our footprint into national retailers and, of course, regional chains as well. And facilitating the consumption and the adoption of tahini into more home kitchens.
Gary Nowacki: This is C to C where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business, from conception to consumption. Welcome to C to C, everyone. Today, my guest is Amy Zitelman, co-founder and CEO of a neat company called Soom.
Like Zoom, but the letter “s” like Sam instead. S-O-O-M, Soom. So welcome to the podcast, Amy.
Amy Zitelman: Thanks so much for having me!
Gary Nowacki: So, give us the backstory. It sounds like you and your sisters were fresh out of college and you got the idea for this company Soom. Tell us what happened.
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, I like to joke that we were young and dumb and decided, you know, how hard could it be to start a food company?
But I was a senior in college when my oldest sister Shelby, who studied entrepreneurial management in her undergrad was living in Israel for the year where my sister Jackie had been living for a couple years. Jackie at the time was dating her now husband, Omri. And Omri had been in the tahini or thina industry, as they call it in Israel, for nearly a decade at that point.
And we were really inspired by the high quality tahini available in Israel. By its versatility and the reverence for its health benefits and thought, why don’t we try to make tahini a more popular ingredient here in the States? And so that’s what we’ve set out to do over the past 10 years, believe it or not.
Continue reading the transcript:
Gary Nowacki: Wow, 10 years. I bet you that time has gone by rapidly.
Amy Zitelman: Uh, yes and no, I’d say. But yeah, I think as all entrepreneurs know it’s a rollercoaster, but wouldn’t have it any other way.
Gary Nowacki: So, for those of our listeners who are not really all that familiar with tahini, why don’t you give some background on that and also talk to us about your company’s mission and your business model?
What you know, what makes you different, and why does the world need another offering in this space?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, I appreciate the question. So tahini, for those of you not familiar, is an ingredient made from 100% roasted and pressed sesame seeds. It’s probably most familiar in the American market for its use in—to make hummus.
And tahini—to describe it—is thicker than olive oil and thinner than peanut butter, but can be used for both in savory and sweet recipes. So, it’s a fat component in recipes. It also provides a really sophisticated and unique, almost nutty, sesame flavor profile. And actually, when we evaluated the market 10 years ago, what we found was that there weren’t a lot of tahinis available in the States.
If you could find it, it was on the bottom shelf of the international aisle with dust on the lids. And those people that were purchasing it were really only using it to make hummus and likely throwing away the jar six months later when they found it in the back of their fridge.
And we realized or really believed that with high quality tahini, you know, an appreciation for where the sesame seeds grow and, of course, manufacturing processes that tahini could be experienced and appreciated for far more than just hummus. Given our efforts to educate the American market about what it is, the health benefits, and its versatility.
So, we’re really on a mission to stay passionate about tahini, to be, you know, proactive with our customers in terms of consumer education and, of course, to not only provide a high quality product, but also high quality business and relationships as it relates to infiltrating more kitchens with this ingredient.
Gary Nowacki: Mmhmm and what’s the feedback from your customers on your products versus other offerings in the segment?
Amy Zitelman: Most of the feedback is that the quality of the flavor and its consistency as well is superior to the tahinis that were available on the market, especially 10 years ago when we got started. The sesame seed that Soom currently makes our tahini from is from Ethiopia and it’s really revered internationally for its unique, nutty flavor profile.
It’s less bitter than other sesame seeds and also its creamy consistency. The ratio of the tahini oil to what we call, you know, sesame meat is far superior, so it might separate, but it’s easy to reblend and make homogenous again. So, chefs in particular, whether professional, you know, in terms of our food service partners across the country, or at-home cooks as well. They appreciate its unique flavor profile and its ease of use because of its creamy consistency.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm, excellent. And you mentioned chefs, so talk to our listeners about your distribution channels. You know, is it—is your business primarily in stores? Is it primarily food service? You know, where are you getting your product out to?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, great question. We’ve had an omnichannel sales approach really since day one, but a large majority of our sales comes from what we call our food service channel.
So, that’s selling to restaurants across the country. Of course, with a network of distributor partners in many regions. Small manufacturers, meal kits, fast-casual chains.
So, 50% of our revenue is coming from more bulk sales of our tahini. And actually about 30% of our revenue comes from online sales.
So, selling direct-to-consumer on our website. Or a large percentage of that is on Amazon. Since Soom didn’t have the resources to be in stores, we wanted to be able to reach at-home chefs, and where we found the best market for that was actually on Amazon pretty early on. And finally, of course, we’re distributed in retail stores, but we’re really just getting going in terms of our growth and distribution in that channel.
So, we’ve been distributed regionally for many years. I would say, you know, seven, eight years really since the start of Soom and, and are now just growing nationally. We launched with Whole Foods nationally in May (2022) as our first national retail partner.
Gary Nowacki: Congratulations.
Amy Zitelman: Thank you.
Gary Nowacki: It’s fantastic. You’re in Whole Foods. So, any words of advice to our listeners on, you know, after you’ve got your product out there, how you expand to retail store chefs, or shelves rather? Has it been a challenging process? Have you learned anything along the way?
Amy Zitelman: You know, it’s a great question. My prerogative as it relates to retail is the more you can drum up demand before reaching the shelves, the better.
As many people likely know, retail is such a resource-intensive channel. Through trade spend and merchandising and brokers, it really costs a lot in order to reach all of those people through the shelves that you need, through the doors that you need. And Velocity to warrant to stay on the shelves. So, the more you can create demand before hitting shelves, that’s been really valuable to Soom.
You know, being able to validate our brand with very accomplished and influential chefs across the country has contributed to that. That’s also contributed to more traditional food media about Soom, which has then, you know, allowed people to purchase our product via our online channels, in particular Amazon.
And so, having that omnichannel approach as it relates to strategy of both distribution for revenue, but also validation of the brand has been very beneficial to our growth strategy.
Gary Nowacki: Yeah, that’s an interesting piece of advice. So, sounds like you believe your product because it’s Ethiopian sourced, has a different/better flavor.
Sounds like you’ve sold chefs on that. You’ve been active on social media. You’ve also, with consumers—have you also been working, you know, on things like recipes and things like that to help get the word out?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, exactly. So, on our website you can find hundreds of recipes of how to use tahini and also our sweet spreads. We have a delicious, dark chocolate sea salt tahini that really is just an amazing treat. I’m excited for you to taste it.
Gary Nowacki: Oh, I’ve got to try that.
Amy Zitelman: And yes, that’s really important as it relates to consumer education. You know, of course we want somebody to feel inspired to purchase tahini once. But what we really believe in is giving them the tools to be able to use it again and again.
Because it is such a nutritious ingredient. It really does provide a lot of value into your cooking repertoire the more comfortable that you get with it. I even had the opportunity to write a cookbook. It’s called The Tahini Table, and it has over a hundred recipes. Really unique recipes of how to use tahini all throughout the day.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, desserts. It’s really amazing. Once you get comfortable with the qualities of tahini and how to use it for cooking, you really feel like you can put it in almost anything.
Gary Nowacki: The Tahini Table. And so, how does tahini and sesame seeds—how does this play into consumer trends these day?
Whether it’s for healthy eating or trying out, you know, new flavors and new experiences. How, how does that all leverage for you?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, that’s been one of the most compelling reasons that we’ve stayed so dedicated to the ingredient. You know, even in our market research a decade ago, tahini was consistent with several dietary trends and preferences like nut-free, of course Paleo it fits into, and today within the rise of plant-based cooking and, and vegan alternatives.
Tahini is a great substitute for dairy and even eggs in recipes. And so, it’s amazing how the composition of tahini in its unique qualities makes it a great substitution for several trends. Continuing of course with the nut-free trend, paleo, vegan eating.
I think something that was really compelling, especially around COVID when people started cooking more, is that they were looking for familiar and comforting foods, but also new foods. And tahini fit really nicely into that pocket of consumer behavior, especially in the early days of COVID.
And we saw demand for tahini as it relates to both in-store velocity and our sales on Amazon rise exponentially. And I think it’s because, as an ingredient, it really does hit a lot of preferences of people’s, you know, cooking interests.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm, hmm. The Tahini Table sounds like a neat book. Check it out, listeners.
And let me ask you this, Amy, how did you come up with the name for the company and the product?
Amy Zitelman: Sure. So, soom-soom means sesame in Hebrew. So, we came up with the name Soom Foods really inspired by the sesame seed itself.
Gary Nowacki: Terrific. And last year you went through a rebranding exercise and introduced some new SKUs. So, talk to us about what that process was like. I assume that was difficult and challenging, but did it work out in the end?
Amy Zitelman: It did. It was an important time and transition for Soom, you know, being so heavily based on our food service side. The reality is that the brand(ing) just doesn’t matter as much. Chefs don’t care what your bucket looks like. They need a reliable product, and it was really a kick in the butt from COVID and our rise in consumer sales, both the velocity and on shelves and online, that made us realize that it was now or never to address our opportunity as a CPG brand, right? To really reach more consumers.
And the brand that we had created that was primarily focused on food service, just wasn’t fitting the quality or look that we wanted to present as we approached a more national distribution opportunity. So, we use the validation and, you know, shift from COVID to accelerate our plans and to bring on the right people, of course.
You know, hiring the right marketing person on our team really helped us to facilitate that rebranding project. Choosing the right rebranding partner. We worked with Pulp and Wire, an amazing firm out of Maine, actually for the rebranding project because we really wanted to position Soom as more of a consumer-looking brand. Which was not being reflected in the way that we looked before embarking on this project.
So, it’s been great for us. It’s really exciting to go into a grocery store and see your product on the shelf and feel proud about how it looks. You know, in the past we’ve always been proud of the quality of our product, and of course its performance and culinary needs. But to like the way you look and, you know, your website, it’s just an even more rewarding, I think, opportunity in this stage of Soom.
Gary Nowacki: Well, that’s excellent. So, you talk about how certain tailwinds from the pandemic helped you. Did you have some challenges though on the restaurant or food service side of your business?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it really speaks to the importance of an omnichannel sales approach. Of course, in March of 2020, we had purchase orders canceled. We had restaurants not ordering for us, from us, you know. Inventory that we’re projecting to last us a couple months, we’re now projecting to last us over a year.
It’s one of the benefits of having a shelf-stable product. It really alleviates that risk of disruption to your supply chain like that. But the omnichannel nature of our strategy is what saved us. So, even as restaurants shut, our Amazon orders increased, our in-store orders increased.
And so, the needs of the team shifted a lot during COVID as well. You know, we went from one warehouse employee to four warehouse employees at the peak of our opportunity for selling, you know, direct-to-consumer via our online channels. And so—exactly like you said—there were challenges in some channels and opportunities in others. And it really validated the need to have that stability as it relates to a diversification of your distribution opportunities.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm. So, let’s talk about another hot topic these days: supply chain issues. Lots of folks throughout food and CPG have had disruptive issues come up with the global supply chain. Since you have focused so exclusively on Ethiopia, have you ever had supply chain issues there?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, so our supply chain, it actually goes, the sesame seeds are from Ethiopia, but our tahini is manufactured in Israel, and so all of our importing is coming directly from Israel. And so, whether there were delays at the port in Israel, or delays in the port in New York, which is where we import to, we were experiencing holdups.
But because of the nature of both the shelf stability of the product and also cash projections and, you know, payment terms with our manufacturer, we were able to overcome those potential threats by ordering more product at once in order to make sure that we stayed in stock when there could be a disruption to the importing or to the supply chain.
So, we were really able to mitigate the risks, and were able to get through COVID with very few out of stocks actually. None on our core SKUs of tahini in terms of our size of buckets or retail jars. Our challenge was actually in the growth of our secondary product, our dark chocolate sea salt.
There were times when we sold much more dark chocolate sea salt than we were anticipating. And so those were the SKUs where we ended up with slight out-of-stocks and challenges in our supply chain.
Gary Nowacki: But generally, you came through pretty well, it sounds like, with the disruptions. And I assume you’re using a co-manufacturer in Israel?
Amy Zitelman: Correct. Yep. We work with a contracted manufacturer in Israel and have worked with them over the years to develop these quality and quantitative standards for our tahini. In order to provide the tahini to our chef partners, and, of course, the expectations of consumers now as well.
Gary Nowacki: So, many folks in the industry, you know, have to rely on co-mans. It’s critical, but there’s also a lot of challenges that go along with that. So, what can you share in terms of the challenges and how you’ve addressed those in that co-man partnership?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, working with a co-manufacturer—the opportunities are that you can reserve your resources for sales and marketing. Which was a big part of our decision to go this route, right?
In order to validate the opportunity for tahini as a category in the States, we didn’t want to tie up too much capital, especially as it relates to the manufacturing of the product itself. The challenges like you’ve been referring to is then you give up a little bit of control.
But as long as you’re able to articulate and to manage expectations of what you need and what they should be providing, I think you’re able to eliminate some of those control risks. Just based off of good communication and relationships. Just like anything in life, clear expectations as well.
But being able to validate, especially a newer or emerging product with a co-manufacturer, as opposed to investing in it yourself, has been a big strategic win for Soom as it relates to our efforts in making tahini a more popular ingredient in the States. So, at this point, I still even wouldn’t do it another way.
Gary Nowacki: Mmhmm, mmhmm. So, you’ve been doing this for 10 years. What can you share in terms of your growth curve? Has it been pretty linear? Did you have an inflection point at some point? And what were the factors that impacted your growth throughout the years?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, that’s a great question. It was really exciting. I mean, for the first six years, Soom grew a hundred percent year-on-year. We were really hit(ting) our stride as it related to the adoption of Israeli Middle Eastern cooking and ingredients. The rise of tahini as it relates to nut butter alternatives and, you know, this plant-based movement as well, and that was very exciting.
What ended up disrupting that growth pattern was actually a really challenging voluntary recall that we had to participate in. It was with a previous contracted manufacturer that we worked with. And I can go into details for a long time about how Soom’s product was tested and safe, but because of the decisions of other people in our supply chain, we had to participate in that recall.
And that was really debilitating. That was at the end of 2018 and really hindered our growth through 2019. And what’s interesting then is that even after recovering from that challenge in 2019, then COVID came, right? Early, you know—or the end of the first quarter of 2020.
So, Soom has been working really hard to continue to grow, and we’re really proud of the fact that we have the past couple years. Soom has grown about 40% year-over-year and it’s really been a testament to our omnichannel sales approach, the adoption of tahini in terms of American consumer preferences. And also our resiliency, I think, and management decisions. So even with that initial organic growth, or not just organic growth, really hardworking growth and the challenges that came through 2019 and 2020, we’re back on track and growing at a really great pace again.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm. Congratulations on all your success. And you know, of course the larger you get, it’s the law of large numbers, right? So, percentagewise it’s hard to keep up a hundred percent growth, but a lot of people would kill for 40% growth. So, congratulations on that.
So, let’s pivot to the future, Amy. You know, if you’ve done a lot of studying of consumers and connected to them through recipes and so on, trends in Middle Eastern cooking. What do you see as some of the emerging trends as we look forward?
Amy Zitelman: One of the things that’s been most eye-opening to me, especially over the [past] six months, is that trends are one thing. But the most important aspect of consumer behavior is that a product provides value to them, and that value matches their expectations of what they’re getting out of it. And ultimately, right? It’s still affordable. So, the product has to be good and good enough to deserve whatever you’re charging for it, and that consumer needs to be able to afford your product, right?
Even though people might have values as it relates to sustainability or animal welfare. At the end of the day, most consumers are buying the products that they and their families like to eat and they can afford. And having that perspective has really given me a new appreciation for what products, you know, I care about putting out into the market at the end of the day.
I’ve not—tahini will maintain itself as a product that adds value to people’s cooking and fits within their budget. And as long as that’s the case, then I really see a bright future for tahini. As opposed to some of the more trendy products that we see come and go over the past couple years, 10 years, and might even try it themselves in the next few years to come.
Gary Nowacki: Mmhmm, mmhmm. I’m here with Amy Zitelman, who’s co-founder and CEO of Soom [Foods]. So Amy, what can you tell us about the future for Soom? What things are you working on, or, you know, what projects do you hope come to fruition in the future?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, thanks. So, you know, when we started Soom, our mission was to get tahini into every grocery store shelves, into every home pantry possible. And we’re really still set on that mission, even though a large part of our growth has been so foundational in our food service channel.
And so, we’re very focused on expanding our footprint into national retailers and, of course, regional chains as well. And facilitating the consumption and the adoption of tahini into more home kitchens as opposed to the strong foundation that we have in in food.
So, we’ve got a great team working on our retail sales distribution strategy. And, of course, the consumer adoption of tahini into more and more of their cooking. So, with that rebrand that we did—and at this point almost a year ago, which is hard to believe—we’re really excited to keep growing our consumer channels as it relates to getting into more grocery stores.
Having more people buying Tahini, buying Soom, and bringing us into their homes and their culinary preferences. And also, of course, having the opportunity to purchase us online if that’s where people continue to shop.
Gary Nowacki: Right. Sounds like you’ve got a lot of runway in the coming years. And so, for food and CPG professionals who would like to get in touch with you to exchange ideas or for other reasons, what’s the best way to get in touch? Your website or LinkedIn? How should people ping you?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah, I think the best way is through LinkedIn. My name’s Amy Zitelman there. Or our website has a direct access to my email as well. But I do have to put the caveat that I’m expecting my third baby. So, this is what, the end of August, early September that we’re connecting Gary, and I’ll be on a maternity leave for a couple months.
So, if you don’t hear back from me, please of course, reach out to anybody else in the organization or just wait patiently as I dig myself out of diapers yet again.
Gary Nowacki: Well, congratulations. And good wishes for the third baby. So, before we go into close, is there anything else—words of wisdom, advice—you’d like to share with our listeners and, in particular, advice you would give to your peers in the food and beverage industry?
Amy Zitelman: Yeah. Oh, so much has changed over the past six months. I feel like I’ve just been, you know, listening to podcasts like C to C and others for other people’s words of wisdom.
But I think keeping in mind that, as our father always says, it always takes longer and costs more. And making sure that if you plan for that with your management teams or in your strategy that, at the end of the day in this crazy world of food/CPG, it’s the long game we all have to be thinking about. Not these short wins that can be a little bit less stable.
Everybody, stay true to our missions and expect that things won’t go as we plan. And as long as we can get through all these fires and hardships, I think, you know, may we all come out prosperous as it relates to these great endeavors that we have in food/CPG.
Gary Nowacki: That’s good advice. You know, we see companies these days who just want to get on a bunch of store shelves and then sell out to a big CPG company three years later. And the long game seems to generally be the smarter play these days, so good advice there.
I want to thank my guest today, Amy Zitelman, co-founder and CEO of Soom. Check out their products, check out their website. Amy, thanks so much for being on C to C today.
Amy Zitelman: Thank you, Gary, for having me.
Gary Nowacki: Thanks for listening to C to C where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business from conception to consumption. Just type the letters C-T-O-C, no spaces, to find us on iTunes, Stitcher, Podbean, and Google Play.
This podcast is produced for informational purposes and does not constitute any scientific, legal, or medical advice.
The views and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are those of the guest alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the host or any other entity or organization. Listeners are encouraged to listen with an open mind and form opinions of their own.
This podcast originally aired on December 15, 2022.