They had seven weeks.
Seven weeks to buy an Airstream trailer, transform it into a mobile kitchen, come up with a whole new menu and wait for a million people to show up at the window. (Oh, and get married and go on a honeymoon, too.)
Despite the short notice, busy schedule and daunting task of becoming Minnesota State Fair-ready in less than two months, Baba's Hummus made a big splash in its debut this summer.
Dreamily smooth hummus bowls with zippy mix-ins and playful toppings put Baba's at the top of practically every "best" list in Minnesota. The fair gave it a "2021 Best Award." And television personality Andrew Zimmern called their falafel and hummus bowl "the best version of modern fair food that I've had at a festival of any kind in a long time."
"We were just blown away" by the recognition, said Rana Kamal, who with her brother Khalid Ansari co-founded Baba's Hummus. (Ansari is the one who got married amid State Fair planning.)
It was a fair success story, said Nikki Hines, the State Fair's concessions supervisor. "Right after the gates opened, they became the new food not to be missed."
Though it came together in a flash, you could say the family behind Baba's had some time — about 40 years — to prepare.
A locally made supermarket brand before it was a fair vendor, Baba's is an ode to Kamal and Ansari's father, Jamal Ansari (whom they call "baba"), and his velvety hummus recipe, which hails from the restaurant he founded in 1979 after immigrating to Minnesota from Jerusalem. Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, first in Eagan and now in Burnsville, is one of the state's longest running Middle Eastern restaurants. And it only took four decades to tick two dreams off the checklist: launch a retail brand and land at the State Fair.
"It's always timing," Jamal Ansari said. "We're never in a hurry. We make sure we do it right."
For Jamal's kids, hummus has always contained more than just chickpeas and tahini. The Middle Eastern dip holds memories of their Palestinian-American household in Apple Valley, of times working in their father's restaurant and, especially, of trips back to Jerusalem to visit their grandparents.
"I have memories of going to these small cafes where the beans are boiling in the back and the hummus is fresh and actually warm, and it's always this creamy hummus that we never experienced anywhere other than here," Khalid Ansari said from the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe, which he now operates with his father, and where Baba's Hummus is made and packaged in a garlic-scented basement kitchen.
Their grandfather would take the kids to hummus stands in Jerusalem, where bowls of it would be served with fluffy, warm pita and condiments on the side: spicy chilis, za'atar, briny pickles. Or to falafel stands, where a cook would stand all day long behind the fryer. "Just a bite of that warm falafel with the spices, and then dipping it into the hummus, there's nothing like that," said Kamal, who worked in broadcast journalism before pivoting to hummus.
The flavors and the warmth of those trips — seen through millennial eyes — were what the siblings wanted to package up for Minnesotans when they founded the Baba's Hummus brand in 2018.
"It's really a taste of the Palestinian-American experience," said Kamal, who now lives in Texas. "It's a true mix of our Palestinian-American identity through food and culture. The hummus embodies our city of Jerusalem, and our spinoff flavors are a representation of our playful, rebellious and melting-pot American side."
Baba's is now carried in 130 stores in Minnesota and in parts of Wisconsin. In addition to several hummus flavors, they also make baba ganoush (eggplant spread), tzatziki (cucumber yogurt dip), pita and frozen falafel. Some new flavors of hummus might be rolling out soon, after the success of their experimentations at the fair. Dill pickle hummus is on the horizon.
When the 7,000-container-a-week operation eventually moves out of its tiny, windowless basement room in Burnsville into a bigger kitchen, the hope is to take it national and compete with mega-brands such as Sabra.
As for the Airstream, decked out with hot pink marquee letters spelling "Baba's," the siblings aren't planning to launch a food truck, exactly. But they are lining up pop-up dates, hoping to keep some of that State Fair magic alive until next year.
"We just want as many people to get access to what we think is the best hummus in the world, in a natural way," Khalid Ansari said. "The big guys, they forget about flavor and forget about natural products, and only think about expansion. We're trying to do it in a healthy way."
While they won't give away the secret to the smoothness — Kamal says it comes down to how the dried chickpeas are boiled — their grit-less, chunk-less hummus is a deep source of pride for the siblings and their father.
"When you achieve something good, and now it shows, you feel very proud," Jamal Ansari said. "This business is like a life journey. We love what we do."
Where to get Baba's
Baba's Hummus (lovebabas.com) is carried in major grocery stores, including co-ops, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee and Lunds & Byerlys.
For the next few weeks, the Mediterranean Cruise Cafe (12500 Nicollet Av., Burnsville, 952-641-6222, medcruiscafe.com) has put some of Baba's State Fair menu of hummus bowls on the menu, including the Chili Baba with garlic chili oil, kimchi, scallions and za'atar; Falafelicious with falafel, warm chickpeas, pickled cabbage and sumac; and the Bougie Baba with truffle hummus, roasted wild mushrooms and pine nuts.