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.