Oasis co-owners Naftaly Stramer (left) and Ofer Sivan opened Oasis Falafel at 206 N. Linn St. in Iowa City in 2004. Since then, both the restaurant and the duo’s newly rebranded Oasis Street Food line of grocery items have taken off. CREDIT FREES FRAME PHOTOGRAPHY
By Katharine Carlon
In the race between the tortoise and the hare, it’s fair to say the owners of Iowa City’s Oasis Falafel restaurant would be Team Turtle.
That’s because slow and steady are winning the day for co-founders and entrepreneurs Naftaly Stramer and Ofer Sivan, who launched the popular 206 N. Linn St. eatery 17 years ago and have spent the better part of a decade painstakingly growing their sideline grocery store hummus business into a regional powerhouse, pitch by pitch and store by store.
That business started years ago with just one grocer, New Pioneer Co-op, agreeing to put a few tubs of Oasis Falafel brand hummus on store shelves. Today, the product is also available to consumers in Hy-Vees spanning seven Midwestern states, Fareway stores, John’s Grocery, Natural Grocers, the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, and dozens of other locations, including – beginning in April – its first Costco store, in Coralville.
Oasis has been deliberate about scaling up its grocery line, never compromising on quality, always careful to consistently deliver a product that is fresh, free of preservatives and added chemicals, and tasting better than its competitors. But last week the team took a major – and typically long considered — step, unveiling a new name and packaging design it hopes will expand its grocery store presence in the Midwest and capitalize on its growing popularity.
“We’re excited to announce our hummus, as well as any other future products we sell at grocery stores, will carry the name Oasis Street Food,” Mr. Stramer said in a release last week. “We did this to differentiate ourselves on the shelves and as a nod to our food cart origins and the simplicity of our products.”
The newly launched Oasis Street Food branded hummus will contain all the healthy, high-quality ingredients customers expect, according to Mr. Sivan, who said the product will continue to be made with no preservatives in small batches with the same “delicious, creamy texture” as always. The co-founders do hope, however, to capture more of the growing market for locally produced healthy foods – and to better define the product line.
“We are not also making falafel and kebabs for sale in grocery stores, so Oasis Falafel was confusing people,” Mr. Sivan said. “People actually sent us emails asking, ‘What is falafel hummus?’ So the falafel part had to go.”
The new branding, developed in partnership with the Entrepreneurial Development Center (EDC) in Cedar Rapids and Meld Marketing of Coralville, honors hummus’ history as a popular Israeli and Middle Eastern street food as well as the place the business began. The new logo features a streetscape that includes the original Oasis Falafel restaurant (a second Oasis restaurant opened in Omaha in 2018, run by two former Iowa City residents) – a wink of the eye to regular customers of the Linn Street location.
“EDC helped us think strategically about how to grow the grocery store side of our business,” Mr. Stramer said. “And Meld has worked with other grocery store brands and packaging. They are helping us share our story and stay true to who we are as we enter this new period of growth.”
Oasis Street Food will also package its pita bread under the new name and hopes to introduce more products to its store-based product line in the coming years.
“We may not be able to build more restaurants right now, but what we can do is find ways to help more customers enjoy our hummus at home any time,” Mr. Stramer said.
Mr. Sivan said the decision to rebrand and focus more heavily on grocery items was several years in the making and not the result of the pandemic, though he admits it provides a stable revenue stream with COVID-19 taking a heavy toll on the restaurant side of Oasis’ operations. The pandemic has also negatively impacted the grocery business in some ways, such as limiting the number of new stores wishing to carry the product with in-store tastings suspended until at least this summer.
In the end, the new spotlight on grocery items came down to quality of life for both owners.
“It’s just easier to scale up production of the grocery side than open a bunch of new restaurants,” Mr. Sivan said. “Restaurants are a lot of labor, just a lot of work. I have two kids, and this just makes more sense at this stage in our lives.”
The two Israeli-born co-owners – winners of the 2017 statewide Outstanding Immigrant Business Award – were unlikely restaurant operators and food entrepreneurs. Mr. Stramer walked away from a high-flying tech career and recent engineering grad Mr. Sivan abandoned a future in that industry after chatting on the Ped Mall about how a falafel place might play in Iowa City.
Being methodical, systematic types, and both engineers, that conversation was just the spark. Both men took time to think about it, and Mr. Stramer even accepted another high-tech job as they mulled it over. But in 2004, the two men pulled the trigger, testing the concept at a pair of Iowa City festivals and promptly selling out of food. Oasis Falafel’s brick and mortar restaurant was born soon thereafter.
“We feel so grateful that so many people love our hummus,” Mr. Stramer said. “We started all of this in 2004, with a conversation in the Ped Mall in Iowa City about wanting to have the authentic taste of hummus here in Iowa. To see it connect with so many people and to see it grow the way it has is amazing to us.”
Mr. Sivan said the move into grocery items happened organically and by customer request.
“It started with people coming to us and saying, why not sell your hummus at the co-op?” he recalled. “So we talked to them and they said, ‘Put it in a container and let’s see how it moves.’”
Oasis’ first placement at an Iowa City-area Hy-Vee store played out much the same way.
“At first it was one by one, and then it really started moving fast,” he said.
But selling grocers on the product was not always easy. One early adopter, Iowa City’s Waterfront Hy-Vee location, was initially reluctant to stock it alongside other hummuses, eventually sticking it in the deli department where its 8-ounce and 16-ounce sizes quickly became the department’s number one and number two-selling items. Similar success followed at other Hy-Vee stores across Iowa, although convincing managers the product’s stellar sales numbers were real was a challenge.
“They thought we were lying or mistaken,” Mr. Sivan said. “Our Iowa City sales were so good, we almost couldn’t use them because they seemed made up … but eventually word got around, and stores started calling us.”
While some dream of taking a hot product national as quickly as possible, that has never been Oasis Falafel’s style.
“We’ve always been slow and measured,” Mr. Sivan said. “We’ve been told to grow fast by others and watched them go bankrupt. We’re not greedy, we’re not in a hurry, we want to go step-by-step.”
What’s more, the ownership team is unwilling to compromise on quality. Expanding nationally would require making changes to drastically increase the life of the product, such as adding preservatives.
“We’d love to be all over the country, but we’re limited by shelf life,” Mr. Sivan said. “We could make a hummus that lasts 50 days, but then it would taste like really bad. Even if we could do it, we wouldn’t.”
Mr. Sivan said he is also not keen on traveling around the country to supervise operations at manufacturing facilities if the company went that route: “I want to be home with my kids. Maybe in 11 years.”
“Their mission has always been sincere, honest, quality food, and they’ve never compromised on that,” San Wong, director of the Iowa Department of Human Resources, told the CBJ in 2017 when Oasis won its statewide award. “People want them to go bigger, but they want to go at their own pace and keep the attention on quality.”
Locally, Oasis has recently shifted from making its hummus in the kitchen of the Linn Street restaurant to dedicated production space at the Kalona Supernatural facility, which has made the process cleaner and more efficient without changing the quality ingredients, production methods and taste Oasis customers expect. Mr. Sivan said the ingredient list has remained the same with no sorbates, no preservatives, and benefits not available at the restaurant, including advanced equipment, a lab that tests the quality of every batch and an environment that naturally extends the life of the product, one so clean “you could do surgery in there.”
“The way sales over the years have been growing, growing, growing, to continue making it in the restaurant became untenable,” he said, adding that in-restaurant production interfered with regular operations. At one point, the restaurant was making hummus eight hours a day, seven days a week.
“The great thing about [Kalona Supernatural] is they are also a no bullshit, no preservatives concept as well – short shelf life, no garbage, they get it,” he said. “That’s important because the reason the product is so popular is because it tastes good, way better than other brands.”
Mr. Sivan said he has been amazed by the way the community has embraced Oasis products, recalling the time he watched an elderly man in coveralls put nine pounds of Oasis hummus into his cart at the Oakland Road Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids and the many requests he has received – and sadly denied, for quality reasons – to ship hummus across the country.
“We’ve always felt if we take care of the chickpeas and the needs of people here in Iowa, they’ll take care of us,” he said. “And they have.” CBJ