“No Relationship Is Closed; Respect People’s Decisions, And Trust That Things May Come Back Around”

Words of Wisdom with Amy, Shelby Zitelman, and Jackie Zitelman, Co-founders of Soom Foods
I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Zitelman and Shelby Zitelman, who along with their sister Jackie Zitelman, are co-founders of Soom Foods, the leading purveyor of premium tahini for celebrated chefs and home cooks alike. They also happen to be recent Forbes 30 Under 30 recipients.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

We joke that Shelby had a business degree, Jackie married a tahini expert, and I (Amy) needed a job upon graduation.

In reality, in 2011, Shelby met Jackie’s boyfriend (now husband) Omri, and tried the tahini (a paste made from roasted and pressed sesame seeds) he sold around Israel. She became obsessed with the creamy, nutty and delicious product that she found out could be used to make everything from hummus to carrot cake. She couldn’t believe this was the same product as the bitter, grainy, and unappetizing tahini often found in the “Ethnic Foods” aisle in American grocery stores.

This discovery sparked all sorts of entrepreneurial questions amongst us: “Why is this tahini so much better? Why isn’t tahini used more in America? What other brands exist?”

When we realized that no brand had a delicious tahini or spoke to the inspiring versatility of such a nutritious product, we asked ourselves, “Why don’t we bring great tahini to the United States?”

So we did! We combined our skills and passions and created a business founded on a love for food, family, and community. In 2013, Soom Foods, a certified women-owned, Philadelphia-based company, was born, and we have been talking tahini ever since.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?

Our grandmother could never remember what we do. “You sell what? “Why?”

One day, she called and exclaimed, “I heard on Dr. Oz that tahini is great for your skin and hair!” She’s been proud to tell her friends about Soom tahini ever since.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Soom Foods stands for five core values: transparency, family, discovery, connectivity and philanthropy.

When our customers purchase our products, they’re not just buying tahini, they’re buying into us.

We’ve found that we can stand out by taking the time to build authentic relationships and provide top-notch customer service.

One particular Amazon review really speaks to this: “Great product, great company. Has good texture and good taste. And great customer service. One jar arrived damaged and open, they promptly replaced it. Just made a really wonderful batch of hummus using this product, looking forward to trying it in more foods. Comes with recipe cards, to try in dishes I would not have thought of. Thank you for great tahini!”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Our parents have been instrumental in our entrepreneurial journey, but there’s has been no greater positive influence on our success than Mike Solomonov and his team at CookNSolo.

Chef Solomonov was kind of enough to meet with us before we even had product, encouraging us that the restaurant industry needed what we wanted to provide. Since then, he’s been our top customer and influential advocate. He and Steve Cook were beyond generous to mention Soom in their award-winning cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. To this day, it is our best referral source for new customers, both professional and at-home cooks.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Our business is a platform to be able to give back. Having inventory of a delicious, nutritious and versatile ingredient has inspired us to make our product available to those that need good food.

We donate to organizations like Emma’s Torch and Philabundance Community Kitchen, who provide culinary training for job placement and life skills. We believe our shelf-stable product makes a great relief ingredient; we donated over 100 cases to the Houston Food Bank after the devastation from Hurricane Harvey.

If you know of an organization that could benefit from in-kind donations, please reach out to us via our website, soomfoods.com.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. It always takes longer and costs more money.

This is our Dad’s line, so we can’t take credit. But it tends to be consistently true! When we changed our packaging to the second iteration (out of 4, to date), not only did the new label design take longer than expected, but there were some mishaps. First, the labels were printed too long and unusable. On the next run, the labels were printed in the wrong color which cost us additional time and money to fix. Then, we ended up updating the label design again.

2. Inventory Management & Logistics are the backbone of a products company.

Where to begin with this? Honestly, we had no concept of how much it takes to get the product from our Israeli manufacturer to our stateside warehouse to the customer. Our first product came in boxes with the manufacturer’s name instead of Soom Foods, so we had to buy new boxes and repack for each order. Amy was delivering orders out of the back of her Prius, we had no inventory count at the end of our first year in business, and the first time we packed a pallet with 48 buckets, it tipped in the back of the delivery truck. We made so many logistical mistakes, it has given us a deep appreciation for well-functioning logistics so that we can focus on selling, connecting with customers and growing the business.

3. Putting a product on-shelf is like renting real estate, and your label is your sign.

The grocery store is a competitive landscape. There is limited shelf space available, so we need to make a compelling case as to why Soom Foods should have a spot. And often there are “slotting” fees to pay in order to get the product in the store. Fortunately, Soom Foods has not yet paid slotting, but people need to keep buying our product in order for us to keep our spot. Most often, people come looking for our brand but sometimes a customer will notice our label and be curious enough to purchase it and try a new product. Once a customer bought our chocolate tahini because he was intrigued by a “nut-free, dairy-free, all-natural chocolate spread.” He is now a customer for life and has told all of his friends about Soom.

4. Pennies add up and profit margins diminish quickly.

There are many pieces that go into cost of goods — product, packaging, tolling, shipping and handling, etc. There are many parties that are paid to get the product into the hands of a customer: Soom Foods the distributor, and the retailer. So when any one of these factors change (increased COGS, or a price change) it can drastically affect the profit margin.

Take, for example, bubble wrap. We previously used to use a few pieces to ensure that any product shipped via FedEx would be protected. Instead, we found a box that fit the product more snugly. This not only kept the product safer, but also reduced cost (and waste)!

5. No relationship is closed; respect people’s decisions, and trust that things may come back around.

Early on we were determined to close a very large account. We worked diligently to connect with the correct decision maker and sent lots of samples. Finally, after months of trying, the purchaser wrote, “Your enthusiasm is great, but we do not need tahini.” We thanked him for the consideration and continued on our hustle. Fast forward a little more than two years, that purchaser had moved onto a new company and did need tahini. He reached out and we got the business!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Shelby: I just saw Warren Buffet speak at a conference, and I would love to have a private breakfast with him. He is so smart & accomplished, yet still so humble. I’d love to learn about how he identifies successful businesses, what he qualities he looks for in a leader and his perspective on philanthropy.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.