Hummus was a staple on the menu at the Desert Cafe in Mount Washington for years before the owner, Blake Wollman, started wondering how wild a chick pea could be. Bloody Mary flavor? Blueberrry? Birthday cake? All that, and others.
Wollman has since sold the restaurant and is now the owner/operator of The Wild Pea, a 4-year-old hummus company. He reckons he's made 360 flavors of hummus, and settled on a standing lineup of eight. He's selling 8.5-ounce containers of hummus in 60 stores now in Maryland, Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, including Wegmans, Whole Foods, Graul's Market and Eddie's Market.
He moves 22,000 containers a month, projecting $500,000 in gross sales in 2014 and looking toward bigger things.
He and McCormick & Co. are closing an agreement that would make the Wild Pea a licensee for Old Bay seasoning, meaning Wild Pea can use the Old Bay logo and can be included in an array of McCormick promotions and media.
As he tells it, it all started with a question: Why not?
How do you decide to branch out from Desert Cafe to Wild Pea?
Back in 2002, I was making these unusual [hummus] flavors. While I was making traditional I said 'Why can't I do that, why can't I do this? Why can't I do chocolate, why can't I do Bloody Mary? Why can't I make any flavor you can imagine, cotton candy?' ... Everybody always told me to get this product in stores. So I thought instead of doing that let me start at the farmers' market. [I] bought my first pop-up tent. My father told me to keep the receipt because he didn't know what was going to happen. And we went to the first market that day. And, overwhelming success.
What have you found to be the most challenging?
Distribution is extremely challenging — how to get a product from point A to point B, how to get it on the shelves once it's there, how to keep it rotated and stocked, how to ensure that [the stores are] correctly ordering. … Just because you get it into a store doesn't mean it's going to sell. That's the key, which costs an exorbitant amount of money — to have people go out and demonstrate the product at the stores. Finding the right people to do that can be very expensive. It's a very hard job to manage that, so you can either keep it within the company and try to have people who work for you or you can have a third-party company do it. I do both ways at this point.
What sort of growth do you envision for the company?
I'd like to grow in the next year, at least three times where I am now. I think the key to this product and the success of the company is to grow it wisely now, slowly, and get demand out there for it and what happens after that, hopefully something bigger. We have room to grow and we're looking to grow. Good PR, new customers, more demonstrations, more people wanting this product. Old Bay, the partnership we're working on with Old Bay McCormick, I think would help tremendously. We're talking with a couple pretty large companies that may pick us up. It could be easily done. Three times, it could be easily done. Ten times is what I'd like to be but that would be pretty difficult.
How did you settle on the flavors for the standing lineup?
These were trying to stay mainstream with being a little different. I could be different but still within the mainstream. People love black truffle. People love curry. People love spicy. The sweeter flavors, the cinnamon raisin is a tough sell, but when people sample it and taste it, it sells like wild. It's just a great alternative to cream cheese, it's great salad dressing, it's great on vegetables. It is my favorite flavor, just great. The sweetness and the garlic, the salt, it's amazing. The honey sesame, the cinnamon raisin, really are what set us apart.
Aside from hummus, what is your favorite snack?
I am a health-conscious kind of guy. I try not to snack too much. I don't even know how to answer that question, honestly. If you say what do I like to indulge in — who doesn't like a good slice of pizza? Who doesn't like birthday cake? But my diet's pretty strict. Right before you got here I had a protein bar. That to me was my snack. A soy chip, just a chippy kind of thing. But I try not to snack too much.