When we started our specialty food company Date Lady in 2012, we were excited to conquer the world with a new product that would offer a clean alternative to the processed sugar predicament stalking US households. We had discovered date syrup while living in the Middle East. We were attracted to the syrup not only for its luxurious taste, but because of its simplicity as it is made only with 100 percent dates. Sure, there were things like agave nectar on the market, but deriving agave nectar from a plant is a complicated chemical process that takes some education. Date syrup production can be surmised by just about anyone – an uncomplicated, one-ingredient product without anything added to it, full of natural vitamins and minerals and ready to be enjoyed on pancakes or in coffee. We loved the concept of clean, simple food and saw the opportunity in an increasingly concerned US market. So, we went for it, and we immediately sold the syrup to some of our favorite specialty and organic food stores and eventually expanded our line to include six products. One of those products was a caramel sauce that used the natural caramel notes of the date syrup for a base. By reducing it a little, and then adding caramel extract and sea salt, we were able to create a delicious sauce without the use of any added sugars.
Eventually, we ran into a complication with the caramel extract. Most of you know what an extract is. Think of vanilla extract. You can easily make it yourself at home by splitting open vanilla bean pods and letting them soak in an alcohol (such as vodka) for a length of time. The alcohol extracts the vanilla from the vanilla bean. It’s a straightforward and wondrous process. We inquired of our then supplier about the caramel extract and how it did not add any calories or significance to the nutrition if it indeed was extracted from actual burnt sugar, cream or any of the other common ingredients you would use in real caramel.
They never answered these questions directly and eventually changed the title of the product we were purchasing to caramel “flavor,” which changed the ingredient by definition. We were reassured by that supplier, and others, that the flavor was non-GMO and contained none of the common allergens, which put our minds at ease to a point.
We kept coming back to the same question – How can we sell a product without knowing what is in it, no matter how minimal its amount is in the recipe? Since our company mission is to offer only clean and simple ingredients, you can understand our dilemma. If we couldn’t understand an ingredient, no matter how accepted by the public, then we couldn’t feel good about putting it into our products. Was it our second best selling item? Yes. Would people continue to buy it regardless of our troubled conscience? Yes. So could we keep going with it? Negative.
As we got to the end of our caramel flavor investigation, we decided that we had to make a change. We still had the caramel in Amazon inventory, in our warehouse, and on shelves in stores around the country. But we knew that we had to make the transition. Just like that. We saw the restock orders come in from retailers and distributors and we contemplated making further batches to fulfill those orders, but the truth was, if we did that, we’d be continuing to invest in & promote a product that we didn’t feel 100 percent about just to avoid losing sales or to take the easy path.
I had always wanted to produce a different caramel, in a more traditional way, using real cream. I had done some experimenting just for fun, with the future in mind, but had never brought the recipe to completion. With the original caramel now at its end, we decided now was the time to get that caramel with cream ready for market. We ended up going into absolute overdrive on the recipe hoping to launch it as a replacement for the caramel without missing a beat.
Not only did that put us in a precarious situation to quickly find the right suppliers and get the recipe sewn up, but it required a substantial amount of test batches, as well as investing an exorbitant amount of cash in lost product, labor and marketing. I think most of us know what the cash flow is like for young companies. Tight! The other notable factor was that the original caramel was dairy free and because of that, we had a significant vegan following. So even if we had a caramel to replace the old version, we didn’t want to leave our vegan customers hanging. So, we rolled up our sleeves and simultaneously worked on another option we had started on a year prior that hadn’t been completed. Vegan Coconut Caramel.
We ran into many problems and it almost broke us. But in the end, after many long hours, late nights and restless sleep, we had two new products ready for retail to replace the older one that we were discontinuing. We often questioned if we were making a good choice, but we always came back to the fact that we couldn’t sell something that wasn’t true of our philosophy.
So, in March 2017, we launched both caramel sauces. We ended up winning the prestigious Specialty Food Association Sofi award for our Date Caramel, a competition we had entered our original caramel in for three years previously without success! And, our sales are already showing favorable results with both caramels together on a path to outpace the original caramel numbers. Regardless of those successes, are staying true to our brand, and that makes us happy.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.