Massachusetts based Cedar’s Mediterranean Foods was founded in 1981 and produces a variety of Mediterranean foods for American consumers. Cedar’s has grown steadily over its 34 year history to become a leading brand, private label, and co-manufacturer in the Mediterranean food sector. Business in Focus spoke with Chief Financial Officer Chris Gaudette to find out more.
The Mediterranean diet, famed for its health benefits, is based on the traditional foods of southern Italy, Greece, Spain, and the other countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. These areas characteristically consume high levels of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fish, olive oil with lower levels of dairy products and red meat. Nutrient-dense hummus with its combination of dietary fiber, protein, essential minerals, vitamins and healthy fats is one of the wonderfully healthy snacks of the region.
As a Lebanese family, hummus (or hommus, the traditional spelling used for the Cedar’s brand product) was a staple in the Hanna family diet. In 1981, Cedar’s founder Abe Hanna’s passion for Mediterranean foods became a business. With his wife Layla making hummus in their kitchen, he began delivering the ethnic specialty under the Cedar’s label to local supermarkets in the Merrimack Valley. An early customer was Demoulas/Market Basket. The Cedar’s product line quickly expanded to include complementing products such as taboule. Soon Cedar’s DSD (direct store delivery routes) was serving independent stores and small chains throughout New England.
“By the early 1990s, Cedar’s was the number one branded hummus in the New England area before it became a national brand,” says Gaudette. “Today, the hummus category includes labels fielded by the biggest food companies in the world including Pepsi (Sabra) and Nestle (Tribe). Pepsi’s Sabra is the market leader.” Cedar’s, however, is the acknowledged hummus national brand leader in the Natural Grocery category. From coast to coast Cedar’s DSD network sells its full line of Mediterranean products to Whole Foods and the fast growing natural chain, Sprouts. In addition to wide distribution of Cedar’s products in major regional grocery chains across the U.S., Cedar’s products are now stocked in several hundred Kroger stores. Kroger is the largest conventional grocer in the U.S.
Cedar’s brand identity is based on its “clean” label. Unlike the other leading national brands, Cedar’s products do not contain preservatives. Cedar’s continues to ride the wave of consumer demand for better-for-you products without chemical additives.
Hummus begins with dry chickpeas. During Cedar’s proprietary cooking process the chickpeas’ nutrients and fresh nutty flavor are preserved. Once cooked, the chickpea is blended with tahini (crushed sesame seed kernels), oil, water, and a wide range of other ingredients depending on the flavor of the product that is being produced.
Cedar’s manufacturing facility is a model of state-of-the-art sanitary food processing. The proprietary processes are not limited to cooking the chickpeas. The entire manufacturing process is tightly controlled and engineered to ensure that the products’ flavor and consistency profiles are uniform. This same discipline is the key to Cedar’s ability to produce long shelf-life products without chemical preservatives.
The process is complex. A key to Cedar’s manufacturing success has been its strong team of employees, many of whom came to Cedar’s with years of experience in the dairy industry. They have applied many of the time-tested techniques that are used to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of pure, unadulterated dairy products to the production of hummus at Cedar’s.
In addition to its best-selling signature hummus product line, Cedar’s also operates a dairy processing operation in which it makes yogurt. The yogurt is the base for its popular Tzatziki – a traditional Greek yogurt/cucumber/dill/garlic dip, a condiment most widely experienced by Americans in gyro restaurants. The yogurt is also the base for other products like Spinach Dip, where the yogurt is a healthier and delicious alternative to the mayonnaise and sour cream that are often the base for such products. Cedar’s also makes a line of fresh salads that includes the traditional Taboule in addition to vegetable and bean salads including Chickpea, Black Bean, Lentil, and Edamame. Another popular product line from the Cedar’s salad operation is its line of refrigerated fresh salsas that includes seasonal favorites like Cranberry Salsa.
“An interesting offshoot of the Cedar’s hummus, dip, and salad operations is its bakery. Cedar’s manufactures the traditional flatbread ‘wrap.’ Cedar’s product is unique in its durability and has become a favorite of foodservice operators. The company values its durability in holding up without tearing during sandwich production. In the Natural Grocery category, Cedar’s has attracted a following for its clean label wrap products. Some of the larger wrap companies are squeezing pennies to produce the cheapest product. We provide the highest quality product that commands a premium price.”
The Cedar’s creative team is constantly watching blogs and following trends in the market to find what customers want and which flavor profiles are trending. Many new flavor profiles come from customer requests. Gaudette explains that creating and evaluating new product variations is a regular process and has become part of the daily routine.
“Over the last quarter we just launched seven new hummus flavors: Beet Scallion, Garlic Kale, Adobe, Balsamic Caramelized Onion, Sriracha, Pineapple Jalapeno, and Everything. In our traditional hummus line we feature 24 flavors of hummus. This season the company is encoring its popular Pumpkin Spice flavor which will be available throughout the holiday season,” shares Gaudette.
“You name a flavor profile and we either produce it under the Cedar’s brand or for one of our many leading private label customers. Cedar’s now produces private label products for over a dozen of the nation’s leading supermarket banners. Yes, our brand is most important, but if you came to me and said that you wanted a sriracha flavor under your own label, we would sit down and develop a variation that would be uniquely yours,” explains Gaudette. “This follows with any flavor request; we will develop it with you.” Cedar’s sees the opportunity to support its own brand while also producing high quality products for others.
While Cedar’s branded hummus is a key facet of its business, so is the co-manufacturing work Cedar’s is doing for the some of the largest food companies in the U.S. and globally under those companies’ labels. Gaudette explains that once the technical experts from those companies see the Cedar’s facilities and evaluate the processes, food safety standards, and levels of certification, most sign with Cedar’s.
Gaudette speaks of the importance of the Cedar’s brand image as clean label product. Cedar’s has created its own internal definition of what that means on the basis of 30+ years getting to know its customers. It is something the company takes seriously. The company believes that its Mediterranean foods should be made with simple, whole and fresh ingredients – just as they would be if homemade in a Mediterranean village. Cedar’s participates with third party certifiers like the Non-GMO Project Verification process, CERTIFIED GLUTEN FREE, and CERTIFIED VEGAN. Gaudette says, “Those independent organizations give great credibility to our products.”
The market to which Cedar’s caters is not slowing down, but quite the opposite. Gaudette predicts that hummus has yet to hit 40 percent of U.S. households. Ten years ago, Greek yogurt was in the same position, but these days is selling briskly and Cedar’s sees itself in the same situation.
With Cedar’s growth, it is expanding its operation. “We have an 86,000 square foot manufacturing facility and just took on another 86,000 square foot facility within 200 yards of the existing building. We are building a little campus. The new facility will create efficiencies in the long term, and those efficiencies will allow us to better serve our customers. It will also improve our net profit and bottom line.”
With the new building Cedar’s will be able to optimize both its manufacturing and distribution functions. “We will move all warehousing to the new facility. This will free up space to continue to expand processing at the original location. One of the main reasons that we are in demand as a co-manufacturing [facility] is our ability to manage complex processes and ingredients. A challenge of that complexity is that it can tie up capacity. A big plus of our next wave of capital expansion in the plant will be to streamline operations to increase that capacity. We will also be increasing the level of material handling automation to greatly improve our downstream throughput capacity. In the new facility we will have a highly efficient refrigerated distribution center and will be able to employ the best of contemporary automated warehouse management technology. Another big win for us with the new warehouse is that it will allow us to eliminate the complex and expensive off-site storage of ingredients and packaging,” explains Gaudette.
“Fundamentally the new facility gives us the capacity to continue to grow our business. With the proliferation of our own product line and the numerous products we make to co-packer and co-manufacturers’ specs we need to be able to add dedicated lines and build in more flexibility to keep pace with the growth. From start to finish this expansion project brings great new efficiencies to Cedar’s. We are really excited!”
All of Cedar’s short-term goals are designed with long-term growth in mind. Its planning is geared to managing production to enable it to continue to expand its production of high quality Cedar’s brand products. With the continued growth of hummus in the American diet, Cedar’s will be positioned for product diversification and the expansion of its co-packing and co-manufacturing relationships.