Swipe a chip into Sound Bites hummus, and you're sweeping up more than a velvety mouthful of a party staple.
You’re eating beans, be they garbanzo, navy or rojo chiquito, grown in the good earth of Eastern Washington.
You’re tasting the richness of oils crushed in Prosser from the seeds of Chardonnay, merlot, Riesling or cabernet sauvignon grapes cultivated in the Yakima Valley.
You’re keeping dollars in the South Sound and Washington state.
“A whole acre produces 3,000 pounds of grapes,” explained Richard Hines, co-owner of Sound Bites Sauce & Spread Co. “From that, you get 300 gallons of grape juice. From that, you get 75 pounds of seeds. From that, you get a gallon of grape seed oil.”
It’s a story neither Hines nor his business partner Stephen McConkey tire of telling. The origins of their food ingredients are as vital as the end product at Sound Bites. The small business produces a variety of hummus, pestos, crackers and an Argentinian condiment called chimichurri in a leased kitchen near the Landmark Convention Center in Tacoma.
What sets them apart from the aisles of snack foods in chain grocery stores: Nearly all of their ingredients are produced in Washington.
Since they started selling their dips at the Meeker Days Festival in Puyallup in June 2008, they’ve expanded their product line and, at the height of this past summer, offered their foods at 20 farmers markets in Pierce and King counties. Now their dips are carried in 20 grocery stores in Puget Sound, including Whole Foods stores in King County and Tacoma Boys stores in Tacoma and Puyallup.
Though they won’t discuss specific revenue figures, they say they have enjoyed high sales – no small feat during recessionary times that have toppled more established businesses. They attribute their budding popularity to their chosen business niche, appealing to enthusiasts of the local food movement.
“They‘re not just supporting our food company and our employees, but they’re also supporting regional agriculture in the farms and special places that we all want to sustain,” Hines said. “That has helped offset some of the damage we would experience had we not had a focus on local foods.”
Starting at farmers markets helped, too. They kept overhead down and got immediate cash and feedback from customers. They could also talk about the sources of their ingredients.
“That’s what our company is about, being ambassadors to the local agriculture,” McConkey said. “What we’re trying to do here is to tell their stories so that you have a connection with your food.”
Sound Bites has raised the bar for all foodmakers striving to use local ingredients, said chef Seth Caswell. He’s president of the Seattle chapter of the national Chefs Collaborative, a group that promotes use of locally grown, seasonally fresh produce and connects restaurants and food producers with farmers.
Caswell said most of the local products he’s seen are jams or pickles that farmers produce from their own crops. That’s a much simpler proposition, he said, than Sound Bites’ rigorous efforts to hunt down local sources for everything from flour to oil.
“It’s unusual to have no shortcuts,” Caswell said. “It’s a completely unique product.”
Neither McConkey nor Hines has a culinary background, other than Hines’ propensity to experiment in the kitchen. But both have agricultural ties.
McConkey, 41, who previously worked in marketing and advertising, is the grandson of a dairy farmer. Hines, 35, was a grant writer and outreach coordinator for the state’s small farms program and a national organization dedicated to preserving farm land. He volunteered as president of the Tacoma Farmers Market from 2005 to 2008.
Last year, the friends resolved to start a business built on the interest in local foods. They planned to sell boxed lunches made of local ingredients. As they were about to launch, however, they decided the early hours and rigidness of such an operation didn’t appeal to them.
So they threw out the meat and bread from their lunch idea and concentrated on the angle that most excited them: the homemade dips and condiments that would have adorned the sandwiches and entrees.
“They were all things I had made in my Cuisinart at my home before we started the company,” Hines said. “We just went to the store, got ingredients and started playing around.”
They continue to tweak their products in their quest for local sourcing and profitability.
They haven’t yet found a substitute for lemon juice, an essential ingredient in hummus. Though Washington state produces 300 types of commercial crops – second in the nation only to California – lemons aren’t one of them, Hines said. They’ve tried to extract juice from rhubarb, but it takes too long to be commercially viable and passes its pink hue to the dip.
But they’ve replaced sesame, another hummus essential that’s not grown in the Northwest, with camolina, which is also known as German sesame. That’s a Washington-grown grain with a toasted, nutty flavor.
In some cases, Sound Bites versions are healthier than the originals. Grape seed oil, for instance, has half the saturated fat (a bad fat) and five times the polyunsaturated fat (a good fat) of olive oil, McConkey said. Camolina has one of the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids (a good fat) of any plant-based source.
The men are continually learning what works and what could work better. They found their chimichurri was successful at farmers markets, where people could try samples, but wasn’t moving fast enough at grocery stores to beat the packages’ expiration dates. As a result, they’re planning to build more buzz about the product, and convert its packaging from one that needs refrigeration to a bottled version with longer shelf life.
While they adjust product lines, McConkey and Hines say they’ll maintain the founding principal of their company.
“It would transform our food system and our communities in such positive ways if we had these tens of thousands of very small food companies as opposed to … ever-larger conglomerates sourcing products at the cheapest price from who only knows where,” Hines said. “Their threshold is it won’t kill you. Our threshold is it will enrich your life and it will enrich your community. You’re not just eating food, you’re eating stories. That’s what we love about this business.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694
Chardonnay White Bean Hummus Pizza
1 (10-ounce) can refrigerated pizza dough
1 cup Sound Bites Chardonnay White Bean Hummus
11/2 cups sliced bell peppers, any color
1/2 cup sliced onion
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
Optional toppings: chicken, cilantro and sliced tomatoes
Preheat oven to 475 F.
Roll out pizza crust and place on a pizza pan or baking sheet. Spread a thin layer of hummus over the crust. Arrange sliced peppers and onions over the hummus, and top with shredded cheese.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes until the crust is golden brown and cheese is melted in the center. Slice and serve.
Red Bean Hummus Wraps
Large flour tortillas
Sound Bites Merlot Red Bean Hummus
Uncooked spinach leaves
Sun-dried tomatoes (or sliced tomatoes)
Salt and pepper
For each wrap, spread about 2 tablespoons of the hummus on the tortilla, and add other ingredients.
Hummus, Lettuce & Tomato (HLT) Sandwich
Sound Bites Pepper Bacon-esque Hummus
Red or green leaf lettuce
Fresh tomato slices
Generously slather Bacon-esque Hummus on one slice of bread and place lettuce and tomato on the other slice. Bring the two halves together and insert into mouth. Revel in the HLT.
Source for all recipes: Sound Bites Sauce & Spread Co., submitted by a Sound Bites fan.