Local Hero Profile: Holyoke Hummus Company
By Noah Baustin, CISA Program Coordinator
Published in CISA’s September 2018 E-Newsletter – Sign Up Here!
Not a single food truck showed up for the 2013 Great Holyoke Brick Race. John Grossman was horrified to see crowds of Holyokers missing lunch because food vendors had decided to skip the event. That was the moment that John decided it was time for him to start his own food business. “I said, ‘next year I’m going to be here serving falafel.’” With his goal set, John was off to the races.
I sat down with John on a recent sweltering afternoon in the cool oasis of the Holyoke Hummus restaurant on High Street in Holyoke. John explained that back in 2013, a brick and mortar restaurant felt impossibly far away. He had seen first hand that falafel carts can be a centerpiece of food culture in the Northeast – his regular business trips reminded him that New York City had a halal cart on practically every block. John had a gut feeling that the Pioneer Valley community was lacking a bonafide falafel cart, but it’s one thing to see a gap and quite another to fill it. 2013 was a whirlwind of tracking down equipment, obtaining food safety certifications, and, most importantly, perfecting the Holyoke Hummus falafel sandwich recipe. John and his family pushed through and sure enough, when the summer of 2014 rolled around, John proudly set up a falafel stand at the Great Holyoke Brick Race. Holyoke Hummus was born.
John’s falafel stand was a huge hit in Holyoke and it quickly became clear that it was time to scale up. John bought a food truck and with their newfound mobility, Holyoke Hummus began popping up at events throughout the Valley. By their second year, the team felt ready to take on one of the biggest events in Western MA – the Green River Festival. Holyoke Hummus was a huge draw at the festival but the crowds of falafel loving concert goers put the young food business to the test. “I love the interaction of being in the window and taking people’s orders but sometimes I would look out at that line of 100 people and think ‘oh god – how are we going to feed all of them?!’ I just had to go over to the fryer and let people who didn’t internalize the pressure so much get in the window.”
Holyoke Hummus has come a long way from tents, tables, and frayed nerves. The team just recently served at their third Green River festival and these days John doesn’t sweat it to take on a major event. In bigger news, Holyoke Hummus can now call their brick and mortar restaurant home base. Along with the new storefront has come a lot of curiosity from customers who have never been introduced to falafel. “A fun byproduct of running Holyoke Hummus is that every day people walk in here asking ‘What’s falafel?’ and ‘What’s hummus?’ I explain that falafel is a chickpea fritter and hummus is a spread made from chickpeas and then I give them a taste. That’s the best thing we can do and it’s my favorite thing to do. People are often really excited about the way it tastes and it’s a welcome addition to the other food that’s here on the street.” For John, it’s thrilling to see a customer who’s never tried falafel be transformed into a Middle Eastern food lover in just a few visits. “It happens all the time… Once you get into someone’s routine, they keep coming back. I look at every customer that way – I want to see them coming back over and over again.”
It’s no surprise that customers keep coming back with all the different options on the Holyoke Hummus menu. Of course there’s the classic falafel sandwich, featuring falafel balls, hummus, tomato-cucumber salad, pickled turnips, and a creamy tahini sauce – all rolled up in a Lebanese style pita. But don’t stop there, there’s also the falafel burger (served on a bun, of course) and the falafsicle (falafel skewered with pickled turnips and drizzled with tahini sauce.) Switch it up and try the shakshuka, featuring poached eggs over a tomato sauce. Or maybe you’re in the mood for the roasted eggplant dip babaganoush, or stuffed grape leaves with fried cauliflower. August is the perfect time of year to make your way through the Holyoke Hummus menu as the fresh local vegetables are rolling in from local farms including Red Fire Farm and Kitchen Garden Farm. (Also, the tasty turnips that John pickles in-house come from Winter Moon Roots and Crabapple Farm!) You can sample it all at the Holyoke Hummus restaurant on High Street in Holyoke. You can also catch Holyoke Hummus at the Northampton Tuesday market or other events including the Dream Picnic at Gateway City Arts on September 8th, The Taste of South Holyoke on September 22nd, and the Garlic and Arts Festival on September 29th and 30th.
It’s been a pleasure for John to see his dream of a falafel stand grow into a full scale restaurant and gathering place for the downtown Holyoke community. “I love it when people are getting together here at the restaurant and seeing each other. Lunchtime becomes this amazing bustle where you’ve got people from so many businesses and organizations coming in here and saying hi to each other and catching up on their lives and friendships. It’s becoming a place where people can hang out and see their friends and colleagues and fellow townsfolk – I really enjoy the connections that people can make here.” But at the end of the day, the bottom line for John is the food that they’re serving up. “I take all the food that we’re sharing with people very personally. I think of everyone who comes into the restaurant as if I’m welcoming them into my home. I’m so happy that they’re here and it’s amazing to me that people want to come and eat my food. I love to share it with them and I want them to feel good about what they’re eating and what they paid for it.” Swing by and meet John. He’ll be there behind the counter, as he says, “Just taking it one sandwich at a time.”