More than two years ago, Joanna Bensimon was about to indulge in a homemade falafel feast at her McNeil Estates home when she felt, suddenly, that the spread required a dipping sauce. Her husband, Michael Vakneen, a classically trained chef, was at work, and her mother, a personal chef and caterer, had just flown home to New York after visiting the young couple. As an experienced cook herself, Bensimon shuffled through the refrigerator and found the harissa — a flavorful blend of ground-up dried chile peppers, spices, and oil — that her Moroccan mother had made for them before she left.
Bensimon mixed the spicier, earthier harissa with a classic ketchup because she “wanted a spicy condiment that wasn’t too thick like hummus or too watery like Tabasco,” and in that moment, the idea for their business was born. “I thought, ‘A harissa ketchup. That’s not out there,’” she says. She eagerly awaited her husband’s arrival so she could share her epiphany.
Vakneen, whose father was also from Morocco, immediately took to the concept and sampled Bensimon’s concoction while noting ways he could make it taste even better. With food at the epicenter of their parallel childhoods, the couple put pen to paper that night as they brainstormed ideas for their line of Middle Eastern and North African condiments, now known as the Hamsa Brand, a new collection sauces, including the first-ever squeezable harissa hot sauce and marinade.
Although the idea came fast, bringing the first product — the Smoky Heat hot sauce and marinade — to market had its challenges. However, Bensimon’s college degree in entrepreneurship and small business, coupled with her former career working at a hedge fund on Wall Street, honed her instincts and gave her the confidence to pursue her own path. “If you can survive in the hedge fund environment, especially as a woman, you can pretty much do anything,” she says.
As the new company’s co-founders set out to make harissa ready to use and versatile, they aimed to replicate Bensimon’s family recipe and find a way to make it shelf-stable without the use of preservatives. Traditional harissa is more like a paste, usually found in a tube, and often needs to be diluted. Naturally, they turned to Bensimon’s mother for the ingredients, but she did not know the name of the peppers. “We went to Cardenas and bought I don’t even know how many varieties of dried chile peppers, and we just tested and tested and tested until we got that perfect smoky flavor, the sweetness, the earthiness, and a little bit of heat,” Bensimon says. They kept the taste-testing to themselves, since only they knew exactly what they were looking for. After refining the recipe over approximately nine months, they worked with Cornell Food Venture Center, which walked them through ways to recreate the packaged product to keep it preservative-free and safe without sacrificing taste. This was a lengthy process that required many months of trial and error, but they remained resolute.
When COVID-19 shutdowns put Vakneen out of work last spring, Bensimon saw it as “a blessing.” They used the time to focus on branding their new business, which they had originally called Five Finger Foods with the intention of using the hamsa symbol — a Middle Eastern hand-shaped amulet that is a sign of protection — as their logo. Since “hamsa” means “five” in Arabic, the name was a natural fit. By fall 2020, they sold out of their first batch (about 350 bottles) to their friends and family, and they officially released the Hamsa Brand to the public on November 12. “There was such a demand,” Bensimon says. “I can’t even tell you how many people who tried our Smoky Heat thanked us for creating a hot sauce that didn’t overpower their food and their palate.”
Bensimon’s eyes light up when she talks about the sauce’s versatility, an early requirement upon conceiving the idea. “I love it with my eggs; I need it with my eggs,” she says. “I love putting it into a dressing or mixing it into hummus, soups, and stews. I use it all the time now.” She also recommends it for use as a marinade for vegetables, seafood, meat, and poultry.
Since the launch, the Vegas-born company has been expanding rapidly with growing distribution and new products. It was met with overwhelming support from local culinary stars, including Sonia El-Nawal at Rooster Boy Cafe and Nina Manchev, who are fans of the flavor and the mission to honor their culture. “We always talked about the things we wanted to create, and heritage was such an integral part,” says Manchev, owner of Forte Tapas and Banichka, who went to University of Nevada, Las Vegas with Vakneen. “It’s almost like you are being invited to a family gathering and someone is showing you a family recipe.”
To Manchev’s and other fans’ delight, there are more Hamsa recipes in the works. For this past Valentine’s Day, the couple introduced a new Spicy Hot sauce that tones down the smokiness and lets the heat hit first thanks to the fiery chile de arbol and red jalapeno. They are also working on a dry harissa blend and a chermoula — a green mix of fresh cilantro, parsley, mint, garlic, paprika, oil, and jalapeno. For every condiment they make, the plan is to make a matching dry blend. “When you hear the Hamsa Brand, we want you to think of higher-end, chef-quality products that represent the Middle East,” Bensimon says.
As the brand develops, their hustle intensifies as the husband-and-wife duo also juggle a growing family and other responsibilities. Their daughter is nearly 3 years old, and they are expecting a second child in April. Vakneen continues to work full-time at Pop Up Pizza at the Plaza while he handles B2B transactions and operations for Hamsa, and Bensimon is in charge of online sales, marketing, and branding. With so much going on, Bensimon shares her personal challenge to maintain her own identity. She always makes sure to carve out time for herself — a priority she attributes to being an only child. “If you’re growing on a personal level, your brand will benefit from that,” she says. “I don’t want to lose myself during this whole growth process. That’s important to me.”