From stirred pot to 49-acre campus

Chesterfield’s Sabra campus offers window on world of food

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Print this page by Martha Steger

For the past 2½ years, the hummus that New York Rabbi Yehuda Pearl created and stirred for hours in the late 1980s has been made exclusively at a Chesterfield County manufacturing plant. Pearl’s sales were wildly successful with ethnic-neighborhood and health-food stores in the New York metropolitan area and, later, in Boston. 

But it was Sabra Dipping Co.’s expansion through an international joint venture that changed the world of hummus forever — and brought the company’s manufacturing headquarters to Chesterfield in 2010. Strauss Group, Israel’s second-largest food and beverage company — with net revenue in 2011 of $2.2 billion — purchased Sabra in 2005. Two years later, another global food and beverage leader, PepsiCo. bought a stake in the company.

The two companies each own 50 percent of Sabra, unusual in the business world where one company nearly always owns a controlling 51 percent. Both companies bring experience and marketing savvy in making a food popular with consumers.

Strauss, which operates in 18 countries and employs 14,000 people globally, knows a lot about producing fresh dips. Pearl had believed that his traditional hummus could become a uniquely American food. Sabra has taken his idea to a new level with flavors as diverse as spinach and artichoke, Asian fusion and buffalo and chipotle.

PepsiCo, with a product portfolio including 22 brands that generate more than $1 billion each in annual retail sales, brought still more focus, through its Frito-Lay North America operation. Frito-Lay is the $13 billion snack-foods business unit of PepsiCo with expertise in distribution and flavors that appeal to Americans.
Today, customers can find Sabra’s wide range of vegetable-based dips and spreads nationwide in club stores, supermarkets, specialty retailers and through food services.

Ken Kunze, Sabra’s chief marketing officer, says there’s plenty of room for growth. “Our company is still pretty early in terms of understanding the opportunity for hummus. Most of America is just discovering hummus.” He adds that Sabra is continually discovering previously unknown uses for hummus. “Besides being a rich, creamy dip, it’s a tasty spread when used the way you apply mayonnaise, and it’s very satiating so it makes a good component at a meal.”

Distribution accelerated after the joint venture between Strauss and PepsiCo. According to Kunze, the company has hit a high 20 percent growth rate since opening what is now the world’s largest hummus factory in Chesterfield. “It’s distributed nationwide, though volume skews toward New England, New York, the East Coast. Our corporate mission is to share the world, getting people to experience different cultures through foods.”

While distribution was ramping up, so was innovation with other foods as versatile as hummus, such as guacamole, salsa and Greek-yogurt-based dips. The expansive distribution and innovation continues, with Sabra products marketed under the brand “Obela” in Mexico beginning in August and in parts of Europe this fall.

Virginia’s proximity to the East Coast market played a role in Sabra’s location of its manufacturing headquarters in Chesterfield.  Growth in demand for Sabra food products has enabled the company to begin a $28 million expansion on its 49-acre Chesterfield campus. This will bring a 50 percent increase in its hummus-production capacity and includes the addition of two new lines, a packaging automation system, water-waste systems and related plant improvements. 

Sabra also has committed to a 20,000-square-foot Center of Excellence on the campus to establish best practices in culinary, food science, production, engineering, packaging, supply chain and product delivery.  It also plans to lead agricultural initiatives with local universities — including research on chickpeas, fruits and vegetables — to increase the use of local resources. 

Construction on the facility began in July, and it is set to open in spring 2013. The investments associated with Sabra’s expansion are estimated to create 90 new jobs in Chesterfield over the next few years. About 300 people work at the plant now.

Pearl, whom Kunze credits with “having a great taste palate,” still works for Sabra on a consulting basis. Though Sabra’s manufacturing headquarters is in Chesterfield, its administrative headquarters is in White Plains, N.Y. 

THE ECONOMY: Despite unsettled financial conditions across the globe, Israel has recovered better than most nations from the 2007-09 recession. It has a technologically advanced market economy, with high-tech equipment a leading export. Computer-chip giant Intel has a very large research and development facility in Haifa.  Cut diamonds and agriculture are other leading exports. 

TRAVEL: First-time travelers to Israel are often surprised that the country is more than a history lesson. It also is more than what one travel guide calls “a contested hotbed for the world’s monotheistic faiths.”  While it is a compelling mix of past and present, Israel offers natural and historic sites, such as Mount Masada and the Negev Desert. There also are many activities for tourists such as snorkeling or boating in the Red Sea, becoming unsinkable in the briny Dead Sea and taking in the Tel-Aviv club scene. 

THE ECONOMY:  A strong industrial base and a diversified structure characterize Chesterfield County’s economy. Forty internationally known companies representing 12 nations have operations in Chesterfield. The county has the largest school system in the Richmond metropolitan area, with about 58,000 students.  With easy access to interstate highways 64, 85, 95 and 295, and U.S. highways 1, 301, 60 and 460, Chesterfield counts transportation as a big plus in its development.

TRAVEL: Early English settlers established the 1611 Citie of Henricus along the James River in what is now Chesterfield County just four years after founding Jamestown, making Henricus the second-oldest English-speaking settlement in the New World. Here they established the first hospital and the first iron furnace in the New World.  At many recreational sites, such as Point of Rocks at the county’s southeastern tip, Civil War heritage intersects with activities such as hiking and birding. Travelers with a golfing interest find more than a half-dozen courses to play, and those with an interest in historic homes check out significant ones such as Magnolia Grange, Castlewood and Eppington.

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