Habibi’s Secret is Love (and Top-Quality Ingredients)
By Matt Wilding (RVMS Marketing Committee volunteer)
The last ingredient listed for “kibbis” is sumac, which is qualified in parentheses as tasting like lemon on a paper sign. The eastern Mediterranean dish — a cracked wheat and pumpkin crust filled with onions, spinach, and chickpeas –resembles a samosa. It does not taste exactly like lemons; it does taste delicious. Turns out sumac, which many Bostonians might naturally partner with “poison,” contributes a potent, refreshing note to Habibi’s delightful take on this popular Levantine grab-and-go.
Watertown’s Habibi Gourmet Food has been working Boston-area farmers markets for about 18 months, when owner Ragab Hamdoun broke off his previous business partner. Roslindale regulars will recognize Hamdoun as the former proprietor of Samira’s Homemade. While the name is different, his variety of hummuses, Egyptian baby okra, blackeyed peas, and roasted cauliflower are the same as they ever were. Delectable sides like moujadara (lentil, rice, and caramelized onions) and muhammara (fire-roasted peppers, molasses, and walnuts) have droves of loyal fans returning to his Adams Park stand week after week. New additions to his all-vegetarian selection like spinach pie and a new artichoke-spinach hummus are proving big hits as well.
The secret to Hamdoun’s success is a combination of commitment to quality and personal relationships to his customers. “It’s very personal to me,” he says. “I use organic lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil. Nobody in the stores does that. It’s all top quality ingredients from Lebanon… It’s made from scratch.” Hamdoun speaks of his food with passion, but it’s surpassed by talk of his patrons. “The Roslindale Farmers Market is wonderful. So diverse! I love the diversity of the customers there. Such wonderful, friendly, outgoing people. They’re committed. They come and support us.”
That mutual respect and admiration seems to be paying off for all parties. Crediting the market organizers and the people of the neighborhood, Hamdoun has moved beyond a purely transactional relationship with his customers. “I have repeat customers,” he says. “I get to know their families. It’s a really wonderful experience for me.” That personal touch has prompted Hamdoun to focus almost exclusively on farmers’ markets, where he and his product are more than just different packaging on the shelf. By speaking to customers and handing out liberal amounts of free samples, he’s able to peel people away from Big Hummus. “People really enjoy the interaction and the food,” he says. “I have a lot of people who tell me when they buy my stuff, ‘I can’t go back’” to store brands.
As our conversation comes to a close, Hamdoun prepares to make a batch of baba ganush. “Oh, I have baba ganush too!” he exclaims. “It’s one of the best.” If the kibbis are any indication, that’s likely not a boast. He loves all of his foods, and loves that it makes people happy. Maybe that’s why when he named his new company, he named it “Habibi,” an Arabic word for “my love.”