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Elliot Sharifi’s parents will be the first to tell you that saying “my son, the hummus maker” has nowhere near the same ring to it as “my son, the doctor.”
Not unsurprisingly, Sharifi’s Persian Jewish parents were less than thrilled when he told them he was leaving the world of finance and a six-figure salary to start a hummus company. He was in his early 20s at the time.
“Starting a food brand and hoping it hits big was not something my dad could understand,” he said. “My mom thought I was insane. She thought this was an extension of me acting out as a child.”
Now, two years after founding Obour Foods, the 28-year-old San Francisco-based entrepreneur is selling his hummus at seven farmers markets and his tahini in upscale grocery stores around the Bay Area, overseeing 14 employees and making plans for expansion.
Even though he’s made his parents proud by now, Sharifi says it can sometimes be difficult to take an unconventional path in the upwardly mobile Persian Jewish Los Angeles community where he was raised. His parents immigrated to L.A. a decade after the Iranian Revolution; they tried to make it work, but the bombing of Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War forced them out for good. Sharifi is the only one in his immediate family to have been born in the U.S.
His parents divorced when he was 4; Sharifi said he acted out in all kinds of ways. One of the more interesting late-night projects he came up with was mixing a cake in his bedroom at his dad’s place using a Betty Crocker mix and then baking it at 3 a.m. He was about 8 at the time.
Raised on intricate Persian cuisine, as a teenager he would often look up recipes online and watch cooking videos for anything he wanted to learn to make. “The internet helped raise me,” he said.
Although Sharifi is the first to admit hummus isn’t part of the Persian culinary canon, he had always loved Middle Eastern food. Though he had tried several brands, he usually bought his hummus at Trader Joe’s, and after some time, he thought he could do better. He was working in finance then and began making hummus at home.
“The first batch I ever made was dry. It was chalky,” he said. “It didn’t taste like anything, but I kept going, and I started making these flavors with the spices and ingredients I had in my cupboard.”
Before long, he began bringing his hummus to work, where his coworkers enjoyed it so much that they began requesting it and offering to pay for it.
“That was my first aha moment,” he said, thinking, “If you’re willing to pay for it, why wouldn’t the rest of the city or world?”
Sharifi had dreamed about being an entrepreneur, and figured food would be an accessible entry point.
“I had no food industry experience or connections,” he said. “I Googled ‘how to start a food business,’ and that’s how I began.”
He started by emailing about 90 catering companies to ask about sharing their commercial kitchen; the one who answered him in Bernal Heights is still where he makes his product today.
It took him nine months to get into his first farmers market, and even then, he wondered whether people would pay $9 for a jarred product they could get much cheaper elsewhere. He learned that if it was good enough, they absolutely would.
Sharifi says his hummus is mostly organic and better than most because of its freshness. He believes that using canned beans will always yield an inferior product. His uses dried beans so he can cook them just as he likes them. He sells at farmers markets because he wants to get the hummus into the customer’s hands the day after it’s made.
In addition to regular, he offers spicy curry and garam masala versions, both of which are delicious contributions to the genre, though untraditional. But really, when stores are carrying flavors like blueberry and chocolate hummus, his aren’t really a stretch. He tops the curry one with fresh dill and sumac, “flavors that are straight up from my childhood.” He has a few more flavors in the pipeline, but they’re being kept a secret for now.
He also makes his tahini from scratch. He believes he is the first to bring flavored tahini to market; they are shelf-stable and sold in stores. In addition to plain, he makes tahini with date molasses, pomegranate molasses and grape molasses. Sharifi says his customers have been coming up with original ways to use it — one recommended the pomegranate variety as a marinade for chicken — and Sharifi pointed out that the tahini makes a good substitute for nut products at schools that ban nuts. But maybe the best way to eat it, he suggested, is “with a spoon.”
The word “Obour” is Farsi for “passage” or “crossing.” “I think of it as a transformation for me, personally, in crossing over from my previous livelihood into something more meaningful. And for the consumer, it’s crossing over to a better hummus,” he said. The lion and sun in the logo, which appeared on the flag of the Imperial State of Iran (which ended in 1979 with the overthrow of the Persian monarchy), represent his Persian heritage. It’s not a political statement, he said, but rather an expression of his origins.