By Dave Bernard
When you live abroad and cannot keep up with the demand from friends and family for the interesting food products you ferry home in suitcases each year, it might be time to start your own business. So it was with Colleen Sundlie, who had discovered date syrup while living in the United Arab Emirates with her professor husband and son. Now back in Springfield, Missouri and two and a half years into her business, Date Lady, Sundlie no longer has to seek out the obscure Middle Eastern market to locate a bottle of this nutritious and surprisingly versatile syrup.
After tasting many products and coming to appreciate Middle Eastern “date culture,” where hosts typically serve coffee and dates, and bowls of the fruit are a staple at gyms, hotels and car dealerships, Sundlie put her marketing and business background to work. In addition to the date syrup, Date Lady sells a caramel sauce and a chocolate spread, both sweetened only by dates, as well as packaged dates and a new date balsamic vinegar. The all-natural products are sold nationwide, including at many prominent retailers, such as Murray’s Cheese, Whole Foods and Mom’s Organic Markets, as well as in many smaller specialty food stores. Sundlie reports the company’s sales have roughly doubled in the last year.
According to Sundlie, consumer demand for Date Lady’s flagship date syrup has exploded in recent months. “We have a lot of people that are addicted to it,” she said. “We’ve had people asking us if they can order it by the gallon.” While the company is looking into larger packaging, it recently added convenience with squeeze bottles for its date syrup and caramel sauce. These products previously came in glass jars. “People were just using it more often and asking, ‘How can you make this easier for us?’” said Sundlie.
When it comes to the company’s packaged date offerings, Date Lady’s uniqueness extends to this product line as well. While most dates sold in the United States are Medjools or Deglet Noors, Date Lady sells organic California Barhi and Halawi dates. Sundlie likens these less common dried fruits to pieces of caramel. The company does use Medjool and Deglet Noor dates in its other products.
In addition to climbing retail sales of Date Lady’s date syrup, some manufacturers have begun substituting the 100 percent fruit syrup for other sweeteners, for example in chocolate and fruit and nut bars, smoothies, ice cream and even beer. Interestingly, none of these products are date-flavored. The syrup has the sweetness of maple syrup but carries a more complex flavor, with hints of caramel, toffee and molasses. The date flavor itself is often masked when the syrup is used to sweeten other foods. However, when used alone as a syrup, for example on pancakes, notes of date do come through.
To meet growing demand from consumers and manufacturers, Date Lady recently moved to a new Springfield headquarters and production facility, tripling its capacity. The company benefits from a relative lack of competition within the larger specialty food landscape. While other companies sell whole dates, Date Lady’s syrup, caramel sauce, chocolate spread and date balsamic go virtually unmatched. Even most Middle Eastern products do not compete directly with Date Lady products. Many include added sugar, and, according to Sundlie, some products touted as “all-natural” frequently fall short of the claim.
Always looking to branch out into the gourmet market with new products, Date Lady launched its new date sugar last month and plans to debut additional products later this year. For more information, visit www.ilovedatelady.com.
By David Bernard
When developing a successful specialty food company, usually you work hard to create a product, market that product and build the business. Then you have some fun after success hits. The team at Hampton, Virginia-based Simply Panache, maker of Mango Mango preserve, took the opposite route.
Simply Panache’s three co-owners, Lakesha Brown-Renfro, Nzinga Teule-Hekima and Tanecia Willis started out having quite a bit of fun as corporate and special event planners. While organizing these events, the trio wanted to give guests something special to remember the occasion, and that turned out to be a signature mango preserve. They had their chef add the preserve to everything from mimosas and lemonade to cream cheese dip and ginger shrimp. And the preserve simply took off from there.
“Our event clients always wanted to know, what was in the shrimp, what was in the punch,” said Brown-Renfro, co-owner and Product Executive at Simply Panache. “They started asking if they could buy what was in all of these things we made. We looked at each other and said, ‘We think we have something here.’”
Immediately a hit, the preserve actually landed its co-owners a coveted spot on the television show Shark Tank. While the owners did not end up partnering with the Shark, they did field 15,000 new orders in the 48 hours after the show aired. “We have people who order from all over the world now,” said Brown-Renfro. In the year ending in September, the company sold more than 60,000 jars, a whopping 300 percent increase over the previous year’s sales.
Simply Panache’s Mango Mango preserve is an all-natural, four-ingredient preserve that just two and a half years after its debut is now sold in all Mid-Atlantic Whole Foods stores, and in gourmet and other specialty stores nationwide. When creating the preserve, Brown-Renfro and her colleagues had all-natural and less sugar in mind. Mango Mango contains no preservatives and uses less sugar than most commercially available preserves.
“It’s a very distinctive taste,” said Brown-Renfro. “It’s the blend that does it. You don’t really see commercial preserves with lime juice and vanilla. The blend is what sets it apart from other mango products and other preserves. And with no fillers, you get more of the mango fruit.”
Simply Panache will open a new production facility and bistro in Hampton, early next year. The company has several new products in the works, including two vinaigrettes – one with red wine, olive oil and vinegar and one with mango and Dijon mustard – a mimosa mixer, lemonade and cocktail sauce. If all goes to plan, these products will start rolling out next spring.
For three friends who were happily operating an event planning business, this fruity turn has been a pleasant surprise. “This was an accidental business,” said Brown-Renfro. “But once we started making the preserve, with our event clients requesting it, and then the positive early feedback we got, we thought it would be successful. And we’re hoping that it will be a lot more successful. We’d love for it to be a household product, because it just has so many uses.”
This story was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Gourmet News, a publication of Oser Communications Group.
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