July 15, 2015

Student interns help stir growth at Ithaca Hummus

Ithaca Hummus factory
Lindsay France/University Photography
Chris Kirby, left, CEO and founder of Ithaca Hummus, talks with Cornell students Kelley McElfresh ’16, Devin Hegelein ’17 and Katie Kraft ’17 at the Ithaca Hummus facility in Groton, New York. The three students are interning at the company this summer.

From making their production line more efficient to creating attractive displays in grocery stores and refining employee job descriptions, a trio of Cornell student interns are contributing their talents – and learning lots about food preparation – this summer at Ithaca Hummus.

The company’s production facility is in a business park just outside of Groton, New York, where lines of gleaming stainless-steel kettles can hold more than 1,000 pounds of garbanzo beans, enough to fill the 4,000-5,000 containers Ithaca Hummus ships out weekly to retailers. It takes 8 to 10 hours to cook and cool the beans until they’re ready to mix with various fresh ingredients to create the three flavors that will make their way to stores in Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.

Kelley McElfresh ’16, Devin Hegelein ’17 and Katie Kraft ’17 joined the company for the summer, taking part in cooking, mixing, sales, operations and human resources.

“This morning we had a discussion that will change the way we make hummus,” said Kraft, explaining the new procedure she helped to develop that will improve efficiency and production capacity on the line. She is an operations major in the College of Engineering.

The students are having a large impact at the company, which employs five people but is gearing up to add 45-50 more employees in the next three years, said CEO and founder Chris Kirby.

A portion of the interns’ salary is paid by a New York State Centers for Advanced Technology grant managed by Entrepreneurship at Cornell.

“With the financial support of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, we were able to hire three full-time interns this summer,” Kirby said. “As a result, we've developed the infrastructure of our company to support our expansion plans for the immediate future."

Hegelein, a government major in the College of Arts and Sciences, helped to write job descriptions for production positions and an employee handbook.

“With Ithaca Hummus being such a new company, I have had a lot of opportunity to create policies that will be in place as the company continues to grow, which is a near impossibility if I were an intern within a larger corporation,” Hegelein said. “Since Ithaca Hummus is in such a high-growth period, there was a real need to create a seamless and straightforward training [materials] to make joining our team easy and fun. After the first round of interviews for our food production specialists, I have even been able to implement my on-boarding program with two new hires and see my work have real-world impacts.”

Ithaca Hummus is available in 70-80 outlets including some Wegmans and Whole Foods stores, but new contracts will soon bring the product into more Wegmans stores and institutional outlets, Kirby said.

Although some automation is possible, much of the process is still very hands-on, with employees using hand blenders to ensure the right consistency and hand-squeezing lemons. Newer equipment may soon accomplish some of these tasks to allow for ramped-up production, Kirby said.

“I’ve been working at the Ithaca Farmers Market on Saturdays and Sundays helping to develop a system that flows better,” McElfresh said. “This ties in perfectly with what I’ve been studying at the hotel school.”

Kirby said he wants to give the students the opportunity to experience every facet of a start-up business.

“I was an intern not so long ago, and I know in my internship I wanted to be sure that my work was valuable to the company,” he said. “It’s important to me that the interns are doing long-lasting work that will help shape the company as we grow.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.