Little Sesame offers an education in hummus for the Washington set
The restaurant ushered in a hummus boom in D.C. A pandemic pivot to a packaged version upended the business model
Good hummus doesn’t need many ingredients: chickpeas, fresh lemon juice, tahini, some garlic and salt.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make. Washingtonians would know: Until a few years ago, it was nearly impossible for residents of the nation’s capital to find a restaurant serving the fresh dip like those that line the streets of some Middle Eastern cities. So, when the Israeli-inspired restaurant, Little Sesame, first showed up in downtown Washington as a basement pop-up in 2015, it quickly became a local favorite.
After the coronavirus pandemic sent sales at Little Sesame’s two downtown locations into a tailspin, the company’s chefs figured it would be easy to create a packaged version of its popular hummus to sell in local grocery stores. It’s just a few ingredients, they thought. Right?
“It’s a whole new business. There’s a lot of learning we had to do,” Little Sesame co-founder Nick Wiseman told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. After nearly a year of experimenting with acidity levels and pasteurization, Little Sesame’s hummus hit shelves at 13 Whole Foods locations in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia over the summer.
Little Sesame’s two storefronts are in Chinatown and Farragut Square, two business districts that have yet to see a mass return of office workers. But, Wiseman said, the team “couldn’t be happier” with sales at Whole Foods.
Wiseman created Little Sesame with his cousin, Dave Wiseman — a lawyer, not a chef — and Ronen Tenne, an Israeli chef with whom Wiseman worked as a line cook at a restaurant run by Michelin-starred chef Michael White in New York. “We always dreamed of opening our own place one day,” said Wiseman.
Little Sesame wasn’t the trio’s first project. Washington foodies will recall their previous restaurant, DGS Delicatessen, a Jewish-style deli that paid homage to the region’s Jewish food heritage. It was named for District Grocery Stores, a 20th-century grocery cooperative that at its peak comprised 300 stores, most of which were owned by Jewish immigrants from Europe.
“We wanted to launch something that’s very authentic to us and our family, honoring those traditions,” said Wiseman, a third-generation Washingtonian. “Dave and I grew up eating Sunday brunch with smoked fish and bagels together. And so our first project was the Jewish deli. And the antidote to the deli was the vegetable-centric food that became Little Sesame.”
When the Little Sesame pop-up first appeared in 2015, it did not have much Israeli hummus competition in Washington. That has since changed. In 2016, the kosher-certified and vegan Shouk — a fast-casual Israeli street food restaurant — opened in Mount Vernon Square. Taim, a popular New York hummus and falafel chain from chef Einat Admony, opened in Georgetown in 2019. And Sababa, a sit-down Israeli restaurant that has earned a Bib Gourmand distinction from Michelin, opened in Cleveland Park in early 2018.
Wiseman’s DGS Delicatessen shuttered in 2018, but it was in DGS’s basement that Little Sesame debuted in 2015. The restaurant’s brand of Israeli-tinged Middle Eastern cuisine was in growing demand at the time, but that food also offered a better business model than DGS. “Sourcing the quality of beef we wanted and serving it at that price point that’s demanded in a Jewish deli, the economics just didn’t pencil,” Wiseman reflected. “The delicatessen is a hard model, and that’s why I think you’ve seen it wane over time.” (Wiseman also owns Hill Prince, a cocktail bar in D.C.’s H Street neighborhood.)
The high-quality beef that DGS served had become cost-prohibitive, while most of Little Sesame’s products are plant-based, and the only meat served at the restaurants is chicken. (The restaurants are not kosher, and Little Sesame’s grocery-brand hummus — while vegan — is also not certified kosher.)
The partners’ journey from a deli to an Israeli hummus restaurant could be seen as a broader trend in American Jewish food culture playing out in miniature: a move beyond Ashkenazi foods like smoked salmon and bagels to include Sephardic and Mizrahi cuisines. But Wiseman is quick to note that Little Sesame’s influences go beyond Israel. “It is inspired by Israel, but it’s reflective of the food of the entire region,” he said.
From the beginning, the goal of Little Sesame was to “shift American perception on hummus a bit and move it into the center of the table,” Wiseman explained. The first Little Sesame brick-and-mortar restaurant opened in 2018.
Wiseman pointed out that Washington, home to many immigrant communities, has always had plenty of food from the Middle East, with Lebanese and Persian restaurants across the District, Maryland and Virginia. And he urged consumers hungry for Israeli food not to compare Washington’s Israeli food scene to anywhere else, and especially not to New York.
“It certainly doesn’t have the riches of New York, but it doesn’t have the number of people of New York,” Wiseman explained. “It’s always a hard comparison to make.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit in early 2020, Little Sesame was doing its part in teaching Washingtonians that hummus could be a meal, and not just a dip. They had a host of competitors to help with that education. And after their in-store sales plummeted, Little Sesame is reaching a whole new audience through Whole Foods.
But Little Sesame has one more plan that will cement the lessons of the pandemic and its new remote workforce, a next step for many Washington restaurants growing out of their infancy — a new location in suburban Bethesda, set to open early next year.
“It’s just clear people are working from home a lot more, and a neighborhood like Bethesda is, like, ‘Live, work, play.’ It’s kind of got everything,” Wiseman said. “It’s a more certain bet in this market at this time.”
But when Little Sesame arrives in Bethesda, it’ll have competition. Shouk plans to open two Maryland locations, one also in Bethesda and the other in Rockville, this fall.