Whether it be velvety hummus spread atop warm pita, flawlessly fried falafel, or baba ganoush bursting with flavor, a meal from Hummus Grill is truly a work of art.
14 years ago, Yaron Netz and his business partner Fabrice Saadoun cooked their first shawarma in Saadoun's garage in Philadelphia. The two met while working at a small tech company in Delaware, where Saadoun was Netz's boss.
“It was really hard for our small tech business to compete with the big guys, so we looked for alternatives," Netz says. "Both Fabrice and I are from Israel, and we had the idea of opening a restaurant that served Israeli cuisine."
The partners quit their former jobs and learned the ins and outs of the restaurant business through trial and error. They invited friends and family to taste their first shawarma in 2007, which received glowing reviews. That same shawarma, with some alterations, is served today at Hummus, the award–winning Mediterranean restaurant that has become an iconic and beloved hotspot at Penn.
Co–owners Netz and Saadoun had no culinary background when they opened the restaurant in 2008. However, what the partners lacked in business knowledge, they made up for in their Israeli background.
“Your taste buds have a good memory. That is the advantage that we have, as people who grew up in Israel," says Netz. "We knew how it was supposed to taste. When we weren’t sure if we were doing it right, our taste buds told us that we were."
He reflects that 2008 was a scary year to open a new restaurant. With the economy crashing, it wasn't easy for Hummus to stay afloat. However, the restaurant slowly found itself increasing in popularity within the Penn community. Eventually it prospered.
The majority of Hummus' clients are Penn students, many of whom Netz knows by name. “It’s nice to see them from [first year] or sophomore year through graduation, and see them growing up and moving on to the next chapter of their lives,” he says. Netz has two children himself—his son is a sophomore at an art school in Maryland, and his daughter is a senior at a high school in Philadelphia. She was accepted early decision to Penn and will be attending in the fall.
“We are very fortunate that she was accepted," Netz says. "I will be more involved in the Penn community now that I’m going to have a kid here in college. It is such a great school, and you can see that kids love being here."
Though the pandemic has presented new challenges to Netz, Saadoun, and their business, they are hopeful that Hummus will make it to the other side. They've decreased both their staff size and their hours, and they've increased takeout and delivery options. Netz and Saadoun come into the restaurant every day, staying from opening until closing to work behind the cash register and oversee operations.
Business at Hummus has dropped by around 60%, according to Netz. One of the most significant causes is a decrease in catering, which used to account for roughly 30% of their business. It now accounts for zero percent.
“It all happened in one day, I remember. The week of March 10 to March 16, we had cancellation after cancellation, every single day," says Netz. "I still have a couple of orders in my office from that time that were pre–paid that I’m holding onto for people to come back and get their credit."
"It was a strange situation, and things have been challenging since then, to say the least. But probably every restaurant in Philadelphia is facing the same challenges that we are right now."
He says that business has improved this semester as students have returned to campus. At the moment, Netz estimates that Hummus serves between 80 and 100 students a day. Though this is an increase from last semester, it's half the number of students that they are used to serving at this time of year.
Despite the challenges that Hummus is facing, Netz remains optimistic. “There are small moments that give us hope. Once in a while, we’ll see a flare of the good old days, when it’s a busy day," he says. "The past three Fridays have been much busier than previous weeks, and it’s a good feeling. It is still far from where we used to be, but things are getting better. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it gives us hope that one day, business will return to the level that it was at before."
Throughout everything, Netz’s love and appreciation for the Penn community endures. He appreciates its diversity and that students here truly value their education.
“I myself never went to college because I grew up in Israel, but I have kids in college, and I know what other colleges are like," he says. "Sure, kids here come for the college experience and to party too, but the bottom line is that they come here to get a degree to help them succeed. Especially when it is not coming at a small price, they want to get the most out of it. It is a great community, and I can’t wait for my daughter to be part of it as well.”
What truly separates Hummus from other Mediterranean restaurants is its authenticity. Everything is made fresh in house every day, and Netz states that the cuisine is very similar to what he and Saadoun grew up eating on the streets of Israel.
“You can feel and taste the difference. It’s not like some of those Halal carts sitting on the street, serving food that is premade. We take our time to make sure that everything is done right," Netz says. "We may not be super-chefs like Michael Solomonov, getting so much exposure, but after all these years—12 years—we’ve gotten it right."