The Hummus That Revitalized a Neighborhood

Is it the secret ingredient to bring us all together?

Majdi Wadi’s office above Holy Land deli and restaurant in Northeast Minneapolis is a bustling hub of activity. His brain moves quickly — and it needs to, with operation of a restaurant, grocery store, hummus factory and a smattering of satellite micro-restaurant locations all falling under Holy Land Brand, Inc.’s purview.

“We’re proud to serve our community, our Middle Eastern, Lebanese and Muslim community, but we’re prouder to serve our larger community, which is Minnesotan,” Wadi said. “We are committed to give the customer the true, authentic experience that if they travel to the Middle East, this what they find.”

As a first-generation immigrant, Wadi says he and his family feel totally welcomed by their community in Minneapolis. That was felt the strongest in the days following 9/11. When Holy Land started receiving death threats the day after the terrorist attacks, word got out.

Although the Wadis allowed any staff members who felt unsafe to stay home, the doors remained open — and Holy Land experienced one of its busiest days since opening.

Chickpeas, lemon juice and hard work

Opened in 1987 by Wajdi Wadi, Majdi’s brother, Holy Land functions as an extension of the Wadi family’s love of food and an invitation to know more about Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East.

“We started off as a small hole-in-the-wall; we begged people to eat hummus,” said Lianne Wadi, Majdi’s daughter and the restaurant and catering operations manager. “My grandma would chase people, and be like, ‘Please, just try it, it’s good for you!’ (At that time) people had no idea what it was.”

From that small start, Holy Land expanded their operations and helped revitalize a neighborhood in the process.

“I remember back then … we used to have houses full of prostitution, drugs, the bar where we have our factory now was one of the worst spots in town here,” Wadi said. “We converted this neighborhood from where it was to where it is now.

“Now, it became the most famous ethnic street, (most diverse) street in Minnesota. If you walk in Central (Minneapolis) now, you have restaurants from all over the world. You have Ecuadorian, Mexican, Hispanic, Chinese, Italian, Somalian, Afghani… It’s a fair of international food, and the reason for all this businesses, and the reason for this neighborhood being changed, is Holy Land.”

Wadi was the first Minnesotan to win the Keepers of the American Dream award, presented by the National Immigration Forum. Minneapolis City Council issued a proclamation declaring Holy Land Day. Congressman Keith Ellison has recognized the brothers. On the back of every hummus label, Holy Land shares community organizations to which customers can donate.

Family first

Owning a small business certainly has challenges, and Wadi is not shy about addressing those. Finding reliable employees can make or break a business. He estimates that 90 percent of the 180 Holy Land employees have been with the company for 10 years or more. And while Wadi considers each one of them family, only 15 of those trace their roots to the family tree.

“What (drives) me to wake up every day (at) 6 in the morning, be the first one here and the last to leave, is this 180 people, because I feel I’m responsible for their future,” Wadi said.

Now is a critical time for Holy Land. The cost of benefits — especially health insurance — for employees is significant and Wadi worries that deductibles are too high for employees who make between $12 and $13 per hour.

An even bigger challenge, though, is competition from corporations. With companies like Nestle and Pepsi Co. dabbling in the hummus market, Wadi acknowledges that the future of Holy Land is uncertain. Corporations have the buying power, staying power and human power to keep prices low.

“We can’t compete. My prices (are) going up, while corporate prices (are) going down,” Wadi said. “My dream (is) not to see Holy Land become… corporate, that’s for sure, because we’re a family business.”

But the Wadi family, especially members of the younger generation employed there, are optimistic that they’re on the brink of something great.

“My dad has a saying that, ‘People say the sky is your limit,’ he says, ‘Beyond the sky is your limit.’ And I always believe that, and I think it’s so true. You work hard, anything is possible,” Lianne Wadi said.

“We’re really excited about the future. Whenever we have our family meetings, or our employee meetings, all we talk about is the future. We can feel it, it’s our turn, and we’re really excited.”

This video is part of America’s Entrepreneurs: Making it Work, a Rewire initiative made possible by the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation and EIX, the Entrepreneur and Innovation Exchange.

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