Hummus is having its kale moment among local Cleveland foodies. It’s been trending for several months now on two Facebook groups, where members have been raving about the homemade hummus they’ve found not at local restaurants or specialty markets, but at gas stations. That’s right -- gas stations, like the Sunoco at the corner of Columbia and Sprague Roads in Olmsted Falls, where Rita DiCello gave the hummus sold there high marks.
“This is amazing. So creamy. Perfect salt. Good quality olive oil,” said DiCello, rolling her tongue over a spoonful of hummus. DiCello is a co-administrator of the Facebook group, Northeast Ohio Foodies. Like many self-described foodies, DiCello will make an extra effort to seek out the new, the interesting, the different. She traveled an hour from her home in Kirtland to sample this Sunoco’s hummus.
Social media is also filled with praise for the homemade hummus at a Sunoco at the corner of Lost Nation Road and Lakeshore Blvd. in Willoughby. Keith Bowes of Willoughby Hills shops there every other week, and often posts pictures of his purchases.
“My favorite is the garlic,” he said. “You can't eat it when you're going to be around people.”
Hummus is popular at the Ohio City Gas station at the intersection of Lorain Avenue and Fulton Road on Cleveland’s West Side.
“Hummus in a gas station? Yes. They want the healthy stuff,” said hummus maker Nazek Allan.
Across the country, convenience stores are in the midst of a transformation. They’re going beyond beef jerky and junk food and offering fresh produce, yogurt, even sushi. Consumers like it. Industry representatives say in-store sales reached a record, $233 billion, in 2016.
Healthy is one thing. Hip is another. The gas station hummus in Cleveland is blowing foodies’ minds and blowing up the business at these establishments.
“You guys are all eating hummus today, alright? Make sure you guys are hungry,” Khalil Dari called out from his post behind the deli counter at the Sunoco at Columbia and Sprague Roads in Olmsted Falls. He and his parents own the gas station. It’s the epicenter of the #gasstationhummus conversation.
“It was a question asked, like, 'Who has the best hummus in Cleveland, in Ohio,' or "where's the best hummus at?' ,” said Dari, who’s also a member of NEO Foodies. “People kept tagging' Sunoco, Sunoco, Sunoco.' So, I’m getting all these feeds. I’m like, what the heck is going on?”
DiCello said mention of the Daris’ hummus started trending last May.
“Everybody started to chime in and wanted to try it and then it became this phenomenon where everybody wanted their hummus,” she said.
“Sales definitely increased,” said Khalil Dari. “We’re getting a lot of outsiders. A lot of Indiana, Kentucky. It’s crazy.”
Dari's mom, Muntaha Dari, is the skilled cook who makes "Momma Mary's Hummus." She's reimagined the humble Middle Eastern staple, offering flavors like roasted garlic, pomegranate and cranberry.
“I'm the type of person that likes to experiment. That's why I don't have recipes. I just put a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” she said.
When she started, five years ago, Muntaha Dari says she was making 30 to 40 8-ounce containers of hummus a week. Now, she says, she makes at least that many a day. She works when the Sunoco is closed, at a small table near the deli counter. She blends chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon juice in a food processor, pours the hummus into containers, and pounds each one on the table to settle the contents.
“Like, I’m just so OCD about putting them in the containers and packing them up. And I love it, to be honest with you, I love it. I can’t have it any other way. And that’s why it’s hard for me to find somebody as passionate to help me. If there’s somebody out there, I’d appreciate their help!” she said.
She could turn to some of the members of her large, extended family. But several of them are her top competitors. Those other places earning gas station hummus praise on Facebook? Her brother owns the gas station in Ohio City. Her sister owns the one in Willoughby.
“Yeah, my sister, Nuha, before NEO foodies and before anything, she asked me, she’s like, could you please show me how you do your hummus. And, I’m like, okay” said Muntaha Dari.
Little sister Nuha Allan says she immediately saw results.
“So, like, in a month, the hummus, it's big,” she said. She said she knew how popular her sister’s hummus was, but she was still surprised at how quickly it took off.
Allan’s success has big sister Muntaha expressing regret that she gave away her secrets.
“If I knew NEO Foodies, and how it was going to get this big, I wouldn't have shown her how to do it,” she said with a giggle.
And there’s more family competition from sister-in-law Nazek Allan’s hummus at Ohio City Gas. Nazek Allan’s hummus recipe is her own, but there's still a strong family connection. She learned it from her mother-in-law.
“Yeah, she was the best cook. She taught us to be perfectionists, she taught us to make great food, to please your guests,” she said of her sisters-in-law, Nuha and Muntaha. “So, they do, they put their heart in it. We put our hearts in it.
The popularity of their hummus has fired the imaginations and drive of these women. Each has plans to offer other homemade foods or expand their reach. Foodies tend to gravitate toward the special and the hard-to-find, but NEO Foodie co-administrator Rita DiCello wouldn’t mind if gas station hummus outgrows the gas station.
“We’ve got a local family. Nice family. Hard-working. Making quality food from scratch. It’s perfect.,” she said. “I’m happy for them and I hope people take note and perhaps start something like this themselves who have a business.”