Mo Jo Hammoud’s plan for his Sri Lankan business venture was based on a simple truth. “Everyone loves hummus,” the 43-year-old entrepreneur says on a sweltering afternoon in the island nation.
A Lebanese native brought up in different parts of the world, Hammoud knows first-hand the power of the popular Arabic dish, so much so that when he opened his dream guesthouse and hostel in Weligama – a laid-back surf town on the country’s south-west coast – the Hummus Bar was soon to follow.
Decorated with fairy lights and featuring original artwork by guests and friends, including a graffitied replica of the Lebanese flag, alongside its namesake dish, the restaurant serves vegan Lebanese delicacies such as falafel, tabbouleh, batata harra or spicy potatoes, and baba ghanoush. Fresh bread is made daily, and each evening a surfing documentary is screened outside – a nod to the owner’s years spent in California.
Hammoud’s love of the chickpea dip runs deep. His first job was to make the hummus at his uncle’s restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, and that experience had quite an effect on him and is something he is still doing today, using his mother’s recipe.
I was in Sri Lanka on holiday when Hammoud invited me into his kitchen, where I found him decked out in a Hummus Bar apron with Bob Marley-branded boardshorts.
“Follow your bliss” is one of the first signs I see, taking pride of place in the work space, and, as Hammoud prepares the baba ghanoush for the day, massaging the eggplants by hand for good texture, he tells me that he found this quote while making his way to Sri Lanka.
“I had a life going on,” he says, noting that he was working as a humanitarian for the Danish Refugee Council in Lebanon at the time. “Nine-to-five job, debt, bank accounts, family, friends.”
But he wanted more, so when he made the decision to open his guesthouse in Weligama he moved quickly, relocating within nine months ... he wanted to open before tourist season began. At first Hammoud put his energies into the aptly named Happy Go Island hostel. A few weeks after opening, he hosted a celebratory dinner and “everyone was so crazy about the hummus”.
This prompted him to research whether there was enough demand to open a restaurant dedicated to the dip. The answer was yes – each time he made another batch of hummus, he would run out. It turned out that many travellers are vegans or health focused – the perfect ingredients for the successful launch of the Hummus Bar.
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“Finding a Lebanese restaurant as good as the Hummus Bar would be amazing anywhere in the world, but finding it in a small surf village was even better,” says Janene Price, a 28-year-old New Zealander who spent six weeks travelling around Sri Lanka.
Although the idea of setting up a business in a foreign country might intimidate some, Hammoud was not fazed one bit. After all, he has worked all around the world, from Italy and Saudi Arabia, to the United Kingdom.
Hammoud says he found the process relatively easy, largely due to the government incentivising foreign-owned small-to-medium-size hospitality businesses as part of Sri Lanka’s efforts to become an international tourist destination. That said, there have been the usual challenges, the biggest of which is the scarcity of Mediterranean ingredients like quality olive oil, olives and raw nuts.
He has made a point of including Lebanese ingredients on the menu, and this has not gone unnoticed. Catalan tourist Moon Lich spent a few weeks at the hostel after having spent months travelling around South-East Asia. The 28-year-old said the taste of olive oil transported her back to her home city of Barcelona.
She’s just one of the many globetrotters and locals who have not only enjoyed the food, but an education in the Lebanese culture too. “The Hummus Bar is not just about feeding people hummus,” Hammoud says. Some travellers have never been to Lebanon, much less met a person from there, so in more ways than one he says the restaurant is also about dipping into “a discussion of culture”.
For more details go to www.happygoisland.com/the-hummus-bar