Faced with the prospect of a job layoff, many people cry, yell, or drink away their fears of financial insecurity. But when Deena Kvasnik got the news last spring that Macy’s was eliminating her position as a children’s clothing buyer, she saw it as a good omen. Pregnant with her first child and already contemplating a more family-friendly career, Kvasnik knew her future wasn’t in corporate America — it was in hummus.
Though she hasn’t a drop of Middle Eastern blood and no culinary background (“When I got married, the joke was that my husband would lose weight because I couldn’t cook,” she recalls), hummus had become Kvasnik’s claim to fame among her circle of friends and family. A recipe she created for an afternoon barbecue one day, with (gasp!) no tahini on hand and roasted red peppers and feta in its place, was an instant hit with partygoers and became Kvasnik’s most-requested dish.
“People just loved it and started asking for it at every party. Every holiday, people would ask, ‘Could you bring that good hummus you make?’” she says.
Kvasnik was already thinking big about her hummus before the Macy’s layoff, but her sudden unemployment gave her the impetus to approach the St. Paul Farmers’ Market mere weeks before it opened for the 2008 season. With her husband David’s help, she quickly obtained a business license, reserved space in the St. Paul Incubator Kitchen to whip up her hummus, and printed her labels, designed by her sister-in-law, on sticker paper at a nearby Kinko’s.
“I stopped working at Macy’s in April and just three weeks later, I found myself standing behind a table at the St. Paul Farmers’ Market with a black tablecloth and a sign that said ‘Hummus,’” she says. “I didn’t know how much to make, and we sold out in 90 minutes on first day. Everyone just loved it. People were lining up to buy more as we were packing up the table. We showed up the next day with twice as much and sold out in two hours. I was shocked people wanted to give me money for this little snack dip I made up for a party!”
Since that first weekend at the market, Kvasnik has brought her three flavors of hummus (original, eggplant, and roasted red pepper and feta) to numerous local co-ops and specialty food stores, such as Linden Hills Co-op, Mississippi Market, and Golden Fig. She has also expanded her reach to the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Ave. and Nicollet Mall, often deploying her husband, mother-in-law, and friends to help man the tables.
“It is a family affair — it’s great. It draws us closer together as a family. And I have so much time with my son [8-month-old Davin] when I’m not in the kitchen,” Kvasnik says. “It has been the hugest blessing I could ever ask for. I’d much rather be standing with a little apron on at the farmers market talking to people who love my product than working for a big corporation nowhere near a window.”
A market customer as well as a vendor, Kvasnik buys many of her ingredients from the farmers she sees at neighboring tables every weekend. The hours pass by quickly as she listens to the creative ways her customers are consuming the hummus, such as mixed in with scrambled eggs or baked inside meatloaf.
Though thrilled by the reception her hummus has received locally, Kvasnik maintains a measured approach to expanding her business. New flavors are likely on the horizon, she says, but shoppers nationwide won’t be seeing Deena’s Gourmet on their grocery shelves anytime soon.
“Obviously, you want to see your business grow, but I don’t want to compromise the quality of the product – ever. At a certain point, you have to start adding preservatives to go to other states, and that’s not a bridge I’m up to crossing just yet. I think as long as I keep focusing on quality, it will be successful no matter what.”