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Jax Daily Record Friday, Jun. 1, 201805:34 PM EST

Former Jerome Brown barbecue sauce plant being set up to make hummus

Moongate Kitchen renovating factory in Northwest Jacksonville.

The former Jerome Brown barbecue sauce plant in Northwest Jacksonville has been under new ownership for almost a year and has a new purpose and a new product.

Jacksonville investor David Hicks Jr. bought the property in July and is converting it for his Moongate Kitchen venture to manufacture and sell hummus to natural-foods grocers.

He had expected to start manufacturing by now, but said permitting took four months. He expects construction to start soon and take five months for completion.

There’s hummus being made in the former barbecue sauce room, but it’s not for sale.

“Plant trials have been hugely helpful,” Hicks said Thursday. “That involves making lots of trial product, making sure the equipment works and then getting formulae right.”

Hicks, a Jacksonville native who lived and traveled internationally, spent years creating a premier hummus recipe and wants to make the product commercially.

Through 5638 Commonwealth LLC, Hicks bought the building at auction. He paid $1.3 million for the property and the sauce equipment.

He took title to it as BizCapital BidCo I LLC foreclosed on Cowealth LLC and Basic Products LLC, the entities that operated Jerome Brown Products. 

Hicks said in February he expects to invest at least $300,000 more into the 33-year-old structure at 5638 Commonwealth Ave., but he still is developing the final plan and budget. The 35,000-square-foot structure sits on 3.8 acres.

Hicks bought it out of foreclosure. He also bought the unused barbecue sauce equipment that he likely will use to co-pack sauces for other companies after the hummus business is established.

Moongate Kitchen applied for a permit to build-out 10,500 square feet of interior space and 1,200 square feet of exterior space at a cost of $280,000.

That work primarily is connected to flooding from Hurricane Irma five weeks after he bought the structure. The building is being remediated as well as renovated.

The new floor plan shows shipping and receiving, dry storage, a mix and cook room, a filling room, space for vegetable prep, an open work area, five offices and an employee area.

He is negotiating with a local builder on the project.

Hicks said he needs about 5,000 square feet of the building and three to five employees to start. He said about 20,000 square feet of warehouse and offices could be leased to another tenant.

He expects to focus on North Florida customers for the first six months to ensure the manufacturing and distribution processes are operating smoothly. 

Over time, he expects to distribute beyond the area with the limitation that the product is delivered in a timely manner for freshness.

Having lived in London, he thought of his former England beach house called Moongate when it was time to name his venture.

Hicks moved to London in 1997 with Security Capital Corp. and then formed his own self-storage group, which pioneered the concept across Britain. He sold it in 2007.

Hummus is a natural plant-based food made from cooked and mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic.

He then traveled around Europe and Africa to immerse himself into international culinary cultures, and discovered the healthy attributes of hummus.

The product is a natural plant-based food made from cooked and mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. 

Hicks decided to master it and refined his recipe.

Hicks, his wife and three children returned to Jacksonville in 2013. Upon his return, “I had a lot of people interested in my hummus.”

He experimented and perfected his hummus recipe in his kitchen, adding flavorings inspired by his travels to enhance the creamy, nutty flavor.

He calls his product a “nice, clean, premium hummus” made with “curated flavors from around the world.”

To produce the hummus on an industrial scale, he assembled a team that includes a process engineer, a research and development chef and a food-safety expert.

They created the protocols, including identifying the proper equipment and processes to produce his hummus recipe in a commercial quantity.

That’s what the team is testing now.

“Shifting from a big pot in a kitchen to a steam cooker is a big change,” Hicks said.

The Commonwealth Avenue building was the site of a plant for the Jerome Brown brand of barbecue sauce. The business was co-owned by District 8 City Council member Katrina Brown, the daughter of Jerome Brown.

Brown and District 10 council member Reginald Brown were indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury on charges that include conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

The indictment is related to the use of a $2.65 million U.S. Small Business Administration loan that helped a company co-owned by Katrina Brown finance the barbecue sauce manufacturing operation.

Attorneys for Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown said nothing fraudulent occurred and all the money was put into the sauce manufacturing business.

Louisiana-based BizCapital Bidco provided a $2.65 million loan for the plant. Cowealth LLC and Basic Products LLC, also received $590,000 from the city through a loan and grant.

The sauce plant was supposed to create 56 jobs, but the city said it didn’t. 

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