Meet the Sister Act Behind Soom Foods: The Premium Tahini Company America Didn’t Know It Needed

published Aug 7, 2019
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Credit: Soom Products: Jillian Guyette, Soom Sisters: Bonnie Sen, Dates & Sesame Seeds: Shutterstock

Like a lot of businesses, Soom Foods got its start when its founders noticed a gap in the marketplace: a seriously abysmal tahini selection on American grocery store shelves. They set out with a lofty goal: to make delicious tahini a pantry staple in the States.

Unlike most businesses, Soom Foods’ co-founders are three sisters-in-chief. The trio has managed to combine their unique skill sets to run their company and help Americans fall in love with the ingredients the sisters first learned to love in Israel. And if you hadn’t noticed by now, Kitchn editors are pretty obsessed with their products as well (hello, date syrup!).

We got a chance to chat with two out of the three Zitelman sisters, Amy and Shelby (Jackie lives in Israel), to learn how they manage to run an entire operation smoother than a jar of emulsified Ethiopian sesame seeds.

You each have very specific roles within the company. Can you talk about how you divided the responsibilities?

Amy: As “The Voice” I think I’m a very appropriate person to answer! We call Shelby “The Brains” and Jackie “The Heart.” Even if we may look like triplets to some people, we have distinguishable sets of qualities and interests when it comes to the company. It’s true that the roles of the company really naturally fit our personalities.

As my grandmother would tell you, I have an answer for everything. I feel really comfortable sharing and am passionate about healthy and direct communication. Shelby studied business and was the original impetus for Soom. She created our initial strategy. Jackie fell in love with sesame seeds after learning about them from her now husband Omri in Israel. She is our northern star in terms of our company values and since she lives in Israel, she is able to oversee our supply chain.

Credit: Soom Foods

To say that your company is a family affair is kind of an understatement. How did it all happen?

Shelby: I was working abroad in Israel when Jackie first started dating Omri. In classic older sister fashion, I wanted to meet her new boyfriend. I went to visit them in northern Israel (where their family lives now) and got to learn more about his job selling tahini. Having lived in Israel for six months, I knew what tahini was — it’s in and on everything — but being able to try it with Omri made me fall in love with the product.

I studied entrepreneurial management in school and was always trying to scheme up new business ideas. There were no tahini brands like this in the States. Amy was graduating from college and I told her to do some market research about tahini. She goes “what’s market research?” [Laughs.] But Amy’s eventual findings informed a business opportunity for us and we started to put together a business plan over the next year and a half.

And then you were up and running from there?

Shelby: We filed our our own corporation documents in November 2011 so we would be ready to run the business but we didn’t start selling our tahini until May of 2013. We’ve been operating for a little over six years now.

Credit: Soom Foods

What makes Soom tahini so different than the options already available in the U.S.?

Amy: When people want to make a recipe like baba ganoush or hummus that calls for tahini, most people go to the store and find it on the bottom shelf of the international aisle with an inch of oil on the top of a layer of chalk that’s super bitter and impossible to re-blend. We wanted Soom to incorporate everything that Omri and being in Israel taught us about what tahini should taste like.

The first step was sourcing the right seeds. The region of Ethiopia where our sesame seeds grow produce a different quality, flavor profile, and consistency. They’re called white humera and are the best type of seed for pressing into tahini. They have the perfect ratio of oil to what we call the “meat,” and the environment and altitude really produce a wonderful seed which is loved for its nuttiness and intricate bitterness.

The main thing to remember is that sesame seeds are an agricultural product. With Jackie being in Israel, we are able to have this layer of quality assurance to taste our product and make sure it’s up to our partner standards. There’s so much thoughtfulness that goes into it in terms of our entire operation.

What took so long for Americans to come around to tahini as an ingredient?

Amy: Our goal from the very beginning has been to make tahini a staple ingredient in the American market. We knew that would happen once we educated people a bit so we partnered with some amazing chefs and restaurants like Michael Solmonov, to put tahini on menus more often.

From there, home cooks can be inspired about all the ways tahini can be used. So our first strategy was getting Soom on restaurant menus and making it available to people online through e-commerce because we weren’t able to get into every store immediately. It’s been exciting to see it take off and get more attention in savory and sweet goods.

What has been the most difficult part of this process?

Shelby: I think one of the biggest challenges we had was also our biggest advantage and that’s that as young entrepreneurs, we didn’t have experience in the food industry. We don’t know what we don’t know. The list of mistakes we’ve made is so long that we joke every time we make another one that we will add it as a chapter in our book one day. We are up to 150 chapters at this point.

Amy: Another big problem we had was ingredient awareness. We started out having conversations with grocers about why people should care about tahini if it’s only in hummus. Starting out, tahini wasn’t given the same intentional thoughtfulness as, say, coffee or wine.

Credit: Soom Foods

Have you ever felt underestimated?

Amy: A phrase we used to say a lot is that we are dumb and young — in a positive way. Starting out, we didn’t know a lot which led us to people who wanted to help us. We used our lack of experience to our advantage in terms of asking a ton of questions. People didn’t see how far we could go, so we got a lot of information out of people.

And then you get the last laugh when you’re named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Food and Drink, I’m sure… Out of all of that information, what’s the best advice you’ve received?

Shelby: Our dad gave us this one: “It always takes longer and costs more than you think.” It’s a really important lesson in managing expectations and has been a really helpful guiding voice for us.

What are your favorite ways to use Soom?

Amy: My favorite way to use it is drizzling it on Greek yogurt or on oatmeal. It’s such a simple thing. Another hack I have is mixing tablespoons into a pre-made teriyaki sauce from the store. It seriously elevates the flavor. And I could eat the chocolate tahini with a spoon.

Me too, me too. What’s next for Team Soom?

Shelby: We are still figuring that out to be honest! So far we have tahini, chocolate tahini spread, and we recently introduced Silan date syrup to our product line. It’s an amazing complement to tahini, almost like PB&J even though it isn’t used that way in the Middle East.

Amy: What’s most important for us is that our products are delicious, nutritious, and versatile and so far the three products we have exemplify those pillars. We are going to keep those values at the core of any potential extension.

Thanks for sharing Amy and Shelby! Check out Soom’s products on their site, and follow them on Instagram!