The Hummussiah Interview

 Tom Levi

Tom Levi

The Hummussiah was a unique restaurant we heard about on the Ryerson campus. We had to go check it out when we learned they had great hummus. Their hummus was truly amazing, and a nice change of pace from the usual kind of hummus found in the GTA. Tom was kind enough to sit down with us for a short chat to tell us his story.

Sadi: How is business going here?

Tom: It’s going well. Around twelve, one, there’s a lunch rush, and then again around five there’s another rush, but obviously during the holiday season it’s a little slower, when Ryerson’s closed and all the students are at home.

Hummus with Falafel

Sadi: So why did you guys decide to open up a hummus shop and not burgers or something else?

Tom: Honestly, I know hummus places from back home, Israel. I know a lot of other Middle Eastern cultures do something similar, but ours is a little different. I was looking for that type of hummus here in Toronto and couldn’t find anything, but the biggest difference honestly, is that this type of hummus is served fresh. It’s coming out straight from the blender, and most of the places you go here, they make a big batch of hummus in the morning and refrigerate it and keep it there all day basically. And we wanted to bring a concept that was all fresh and just hummus, not a Middle Eastern restaurant but just hummus.

Andrew: What made you decide to open up restaurant in the first place? Walk us through that decision.

Tom: So I was a Business Management student. I graduated from UTM (University of Toronto Mississauga) from the business program there. And I was looking at the next part of my life and what I wanted to do with it and I knew I wanted to be independent. I didn’t really want to work for another company. So I started looking around at what I could use my degree for and food seemed like the easiest option. I know it’s funny to say out loud, food seemed like the easiest option. A lot of people say that the food industry is a very very tough industry, but in terms of applying the things that I’d learned in class, I thought food might be a good way to get a hands on experience on everything I’d learned in class.

S: Did anything surprise you?

T: Oh tons of stuff. 90% of the things we planned turned out to be completely different. Almost nothing happened the way we thought it would happen. Costs is a big thing, how much time things took is another thing. We were supposed to be up and running by mid-July, but we ended up being delayed by inspectors until the end of August.

A: What is it you want people to know about your restaurant?

T: I want them to know two things. We’re a hummus joint, and our values are important to us. We have three values. We have open communication, very open as you can see. Trying to keep a general sense of happiness here. Stay uplifting, positive, especially with staff, try and make sure that my staff is happy. A good example of that is during the first week here, we were serving all of our food here on porcelain plates, and two days after that, after doing dishes myself, I realized that this was going to take us an extra hour every day to do the dishes on these things, I changed to takeout. We’re not serving on plates anymore, everyone’s a lot happier. And our sense of generosity is our last value. If we have extra stuff we just offer it to people, or give back to the community, or try and stay generous with not just our customers.

A: What’s the most popular dish here that you have at The Hummussiah?

T: We’re so new, so we don’t exactly have a system that monitors the exact numbers here. That said we have two main items. The hummus bowl with the chicken, and then also our Sublafel wrap, with falafel inside, hardboiled egg, and deep fried salted eggplant and a bunch of sauces. Our sauces are a little different as well here I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but we didn’t have anything super garlicky here. We make our own hot sauce, jalapeno based sauce, pure sesame based tahini (tahini). And our other sauce is really special too, called Amba, which is a tangy, mango based sauce which is very different than most places would have it.

A: So tell us the story behind the name of the restaurant. How did you come up with it?

T: I was on vacation in Costa Rica with my family. My brother and I were sitting on the hotel balcony just sipping on beers, and we were talking about this hummus idea, about a hummus restaurant, and we were coming up with all these puns. And I don’t know what it was but one of us was like ‘I wish I could say like hummus and messiah together,’ and he was like ‘You mean like The Hummussiah?’ and I was like ‘That’s exactly what I mean!’ That was a really cool name. That was history.

S: How did you come to know how to make hummus and put it all together like this?

T: Honestly it was a lot of trial and error. I don’t claim to be a chef. I don’t have any special expertise in the food industry, but I approached this the way I approach other things, very systemic, business minded, listening to people who have expertise, listening to techniques, recipes, whatever. It was a lot of listening, a lot of tests. It took us around five, six months to get a place where we were like ‘Okay this is the food we’re going to do, we know our stuff.’ It took us ten months to serve our first meal. We even did one day in Israel, my business partner, he has a restaurant in Israel, and on the day his restaurant was closed, we invited people over in a private event to enjoy the food and hear what they thought.

A: So tell us the story behind getting this store front, it’s obviously very centrally located on campus.

T: So a couple months after I came up with the idea for my restaurant I realized later that someone had just opened a restaurant like it. But, it was in North York, and more for the Jewish community, and was catered more for them. So I realized you know what, all is not lost, I can still pursue this there’s a huge market for this in Toronto, there’s a lot of vegetarians, a lot of vegans. So I figured downtown Toronto is a pretty good place to be, you want to be centrally located, that sort of thing. My friend who’s a real estate agent and he had three locations for us to go check out. I told him, ‘Only take me to places that already have a kitchen in them’, because I didn’t want to do a renovation. So the first place we went to was a second floor of an office building and it wasn’t ideal for a kitchen anyways. The second place we couldn’t even find the key to get into it, it was some old bakery that was locked down and I was getting frustrated at that point. And he brought me to the third location which was here and I was like ‘Dude there’s no kitchen in here’, and he was like ‘Yeah but I had to bring you here, the location is amazing’. And as we talked about it a little more, I was like ‘Okay I’ll think about this place, but find me more places!’ So I thought about it some more, but I don’t even think he found me any more places so we stayed here. But I saw the vision for it. It took us above budget for sure to install and renovate everything, but once he brought me into the space, I saw the potential. I love it now.

A: When you’re not eating hummus, what’s your favourite spot to eat in Toronto?

...I think bad reviews are honestly the most important reviews.
— Tom Levi

T: I’ll give it to them man, Burrito Boyz. I’m a fan of them specifically, Fat Bastard Burrito I like a lot, and actually, part of this whole space is from looking at Burrito Boyz and their business model and I noticed there was something missing like that from the Middle Eastern perspective. There’s Ali Baba’s and stuff like that but they’re considered more Shawarma places, so I wanted to see if I could bring the Burrito Boyz environment with slightly better décor here.

A: Assuming it was your last day on earth and you had one last meal, what would you eat?

T: I don’t know if I can say this…

S: Say it.

T: Spaghetti and ketchup bro. Spaghetti and ketchup.

S: I take that back.

T: From my mom. Since I was a young young kid I’ve been eating that.

A: Do you pay attention to online reviews or your online presence at all?

T: Actually yes. Yesterday we had like our first or second bad review. And obviously it hurts your ego a little bit because you’re managing this place, you’re trying to make sure every meal comes out in tip top shape and then someone has a bad experience. For me, it was a little heart breaking at first. But I think bad reviews are honestly the most important reviews. The good reviews are great, they’re fun to look at and someone is clearly happy, but the bad reviews are the ones you learn from. I’m about to actually post a reply to this bad review and I’ll thank them for the review and let them know I’d love for them to come down and we would love to compensate them for their experience. Customer’s complaining, that means we have some work to do right?

A: What’s the best part about this job?

T: I love the location, having the Ryerson students in the area. We’ve made tons of good connections, the person doing our social media is actually a first year Photography student at Ryerson, we also have a third year Finance student that’s helping us in an advisory, internship capacity. Meeting new people is fun, we get to know people on a first name basis. The human interaction.

S: And what’s the worst part about this job?

T: Waking up in the morning.

S: Are you getting enough sleep?

T: Now I am, in the beginning I was not at all. I was working sixteen or seventeen hours a day, now I’m down to twelve, thirteen and I get my seven hours of sleep. First few months was rough. Every morning I would wake up and pick up vegetables so they were fresh for the day and I would do it myself. I would close myself, being here till 8:30, and then I’d drive my workers home, dropping them off. And then I’d go see my supplier for the pitas, so I’d have fresh pitas for the morning. I’d be up till eleven just on my way home. Now I have a bit more time, the staff is also a lot more trained, but it is tasking.

A: What was the best piece of advice you got from someone when you were starting out?

T: Um…probably something from my mom. ‘Just breathe’. Whenever you’re getting a little bit stressed, it’s important to breathe. Take one breath, take ten breaths, chill out, relax. Just know that everything’s going to be okay. Another piece of advice I got is ‘Be patient’. Everything takes time. Those two things combined I would also give to anyone else. If you’re involved in your business, time is really all that it takes. Sometimes you’re wondering ‘where are the sales, where are the people’, and then all of a sudden you get a rush. Maybe it takes a month or longer, but if you’re sticking to your original strategy, promoting yourself, and don’t get sucked into becoming an employee at your own workplace, things are going to work out.

S: What’s the most important ingredient in your hummus here?

T: Tahina (Tahini). When I say Tahina I don’t mean the sauce you get at a restaurant here. I’m talking about 100% purely ground sesame. That’s what the base really is for hummus.

S: Is there any product here that was particularly difficult for you to source?

T: Yeah absolutely. You can get chickpeas anywhere, but it took me a long time to find a place where the taste of the chickpea was consistent. Where each batch wasn’t a little different. It was the same with the Tahina actually. It’s basically the most expensive Tahina on the market, but we just had to get it. It’s the most important ingredient in our food.

S: Is there another hummus in Toronto that you love? I know it’s a loaded question.

T: At the end of the day, our hummus is just different. It’s not the same kind of thing. Find me another hummus that doesn’t have garlic in it. We purposely don’t put garlic in our hummus. That bothers a lot of people! But a lot of people come back because it’s what they’re looking for. The Hummus Factory’s not bad. That’s the only other place I might go to have some hummus. It’s not really comparable. There’s a lot of other places that serve great hummus as a dip, but not any places that have it as a meal like here.


 

The Hummussiah
113 Bond St.
(647) 505-4777
www.thehummussiah.com