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Jax Daily Record Friday, Feb. 9, 201805:13 AM EST

Investor travels world to craft hummus recipe

David Hicks Jr.’s factory is “rising from the ashes” of the failed Jerome Brown barbecue sauce plant in Northwest Jacksonville.

A Jacksonville investor who spent years creating a premier hummus recipe wants to make it commercially and bought the former Jerome Brown barbecue sauce plant in Northwest Jacksonville for his factory.

Moongate Kitchen could be operational by June.

It’s a move that creates a blend of redevelopment, investment, entrepreneurship, manufacturing and nutrition.

Jacksonville native and seasoned businessman David Hicks Jr. spent years crafting the details of the business, such as where to source ingredients and how to market and distribute the products.

Through 5638 Commonwealth LLC, he bought the building at auction in July. Hicks 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 expects to invest at least $300,000 more into the 33-year-old structure at 5638 Commonwealth Ave. and hopes to start construction in February.

“This is where we will be rising from the ashes,” Hicks said.

From Jacksonville To London and back again

Hicks, 51, grew up in Jacksonville and is the son of entrepreneur David Hicks Sr. and philanthropist Ann Curry Hicks. He is one of three children.

David Hicks Sr. is known for creating Computer Power Inc., which was sold to Alltel Corp. and EverBank Financial Corp. among other entities.

David Hicks Jr. attended The Bolles School in Jacksonville and graduated from The Taft School in Connecticut. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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

“That worked out well,” Hicks said.

A devotee of fresh, healthful food, he then traveled around Europe and Africa, visiting kitchens and immersing himself into the culinary cultures of Morocco, Italy, France and other countries. 

During that time, he discovered the healthy attributes of hummus, a natural plant-based food made from cooked and mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. It is a staple of Middle Eastern diets and is popular worldwide.

“I cook all the time but I had never dabbled in hummus,” he said. 

He decided to master it and eventually visited Israel where he spent three days tasting hummus at 14  top restaurants. A chef taught him how to perfect tahini sauce, which is made from ground sesame seeds.

When he returned to London, he refined his recipe and lost 25 pounds because of the high fiber and low glycemic index ingredients that tell “your brain when you’re sated.”

The low GI means the food is more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized.

Hicks, his wife, Margaret, and three children returned to Jacksonville in 2013.

He said his health-focused diet was driven by having bad knees, which weren’t inherited by his son, Charles, the 16-year-old cross country state champion runner at The Bolles School.

Upon his return, “I had a lot of people interested in my hummus.”

Perfecting the recipe

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

He developed about a dozen flavors, including the classic.

Sage and onion were an English inspiration and rosemary and garlic came by way of Italy. Seasonal tastes include Moroccan spiced pumpkin in October.

Hicks has a few Southern-inspired flavors that he will unveil in June.

He also experimented, such as with goat cheese, beets and vinegar. Family and friends are fed and provide feedback.

“Hummus is a wonderful blank canvas,” he said.

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

His meticulous research led him to an organic chickpea grower in the United States and a source for tahini in Israel that uses sesame seeds grown in Ethiopia.

He said his hummus is extremely useful with protein. Pair the two and drink water and you’re satisfied, “so two hours later you are not reaching for a carbohydrate.”

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

He provided the recipes and they created the protocols, including identifying the proper equipment and processes to produce the hummus in a commercial quantity.

He declined to provide details of his manufacturing process for proprietary and competitive reasons.

“Lots of natural foods stores that have tasted it said, ‘When can we have it?’ ” he said.

Aaron Gottlieb, the founder of Jacksonville-based Native Sun Natural Foods, said he intends to carry Moongate Kitchen’s hummus in his three stores.

“He is a true foodie and a true representative of what Native Sun” seeks in its products, Gottlieb said of Hicks.

Native Sun, which carries organic food and natural products, seeks written and updated statements from every manufacture of the goods it carries regarding the quality of the raw materials used in them.

“I’ve never been so excited about a local product,” Gottlieb said.

The business and the building

Hicks considered enlisting a co-packer to produce the hummus but decided to do it himself.

He bought the equipment but his first location didn’t work out, so he needed a home for it. A real estate broker who was touring the ill-fated barbecue sauce plant called and said, “I found your building.”

The 35,000-square-foot structure on 3.8 acres 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.

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. BizCapital foreclosed on the loan a year ago and the city filed a breach-of-contract suit. Court records show a default and final judgment was effective July 28.

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, but that’s a venture for after the hummus business is established.

The city is reviewing a permit for Moongate Kitchen 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 another event — flooding from Hurricane Irma — that hit five weeks after he bought the structure. The building will be remediated as well as renovated.

He assembled a Jacksonville construction team to include; Cynthia David with Place Plan LLC for design; R.E. Bay Electric Co. Inc. for the electrical work; Crabtree Plumbing Inc. for the plumbing services; and Thigpen Heating & Cooling Inc. for the mechanical systems.

A contractor  is being finalized.

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.

Hicks expects to need about 5,000 square feet of the building and three to five employees to start. About 20,000 square feet of warehouse and offices could be leased to another tenant.

Hicks said the business will be ready when the building renovations are completed. 

Council member Brown, who represents the district, did not return a telephone call Thursday for comment. She is the daughter of Jerome Brown.

Hicks hasn’t spoken with the city about economic incentives that might be available to him in Northwest Jacksonville, but said he is open to those conversations.

Starting in North Florida

For the first six months, Hicks intends to focus on North Florida customers to ensure the manufacturing and distribution processes are operating smoothly. 

Distribution will start locally. He counts Gottlieb as helpful and collaborative and also has spoken with Grassroots Natural Market.

Over time, he has no geographic limitations other than ensuring the product is delivered in a timely manner for freshness.

For the name, he thought of his former England beach house called Moongate. He took the illustration to a designer who created the logo and packaging. He is working with Jacksonville-based Wingard Creative.

“Thank you for taking your first step through the Moongate with me. May it be the first of many,” Hicks writes for the packaging.

He sees healthy benefits not only for customers but for the city: A Jacksonville native develops a detailed business plan for a natural foods product and will bring it to market by purchasing a vacant building in an area of town targeted for investment.

“The journey continues,” Hicks said, “and everything is ready to go.”

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