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.
Eboni K. Williams and Cheslie Kryst have a lot in common, as Iman Oubou Founder & CEO of SWAAY as well as host of the Women Who Swaay podcast puts it, "They're both badass attorneys, they're both from North Carolina and they've both competed in the Miss North Carolina USA pageants." And they also both took over our podcast on the most recent episode, straight from the headquarters of the Miss Universe Organization!
Cheslie is a successful licensed attorney who also happens to be the reigning Miss USA 2019, with plans to represent our country in the upcoming Miss Universe competition. Not only is she at the height of her pageant power, but she is using the notoriety to create positive change for all of the women in her life, much like her role model Eboni K. Williams. Williams is a journalist, author, attorney and speaker; from her long history as a pageant queen she has risen through the ranks of male dominated industries from law-firms to Fox News. All throughout her journey she has persevered with intelligence, tenacity and poise. Lucky enough for us, she has kindly put her reporting skills to use and got candid with Ms. Kryst about supporting their fellow women, the current state of race in America and their history together as pageant compatriots. All of these topics are incredibly close to their hearts as powerful black women using their influence to create a better future for all women in America.
Oh and, as previously stated, both are complete and utter badasses.
During their podcast takeover they talked about it all, from pageants to politics. It's clear that both of these women are motivated by an altruistic spirit and are strong supporters of #womensupportingwomen. Eboni even read a passage from her book, Pretty Powerful: Appearance, Substance, and Success, in which she outlines how her own career trajectory was so positively affected by the incredible women who mentored her in different stages of her life. She completely shuts down the idea of the "woman on woman teardown," calling it a "pitiful dynamic" tied to the "long and very hurtful history of women." This idea that in order to compete for a spot in the old boy's club, women must first fight off their own gender is not only reductive but it also supports an outdated social structure that was built to greatly favor male success. Throughout history women have been encouraged to look at one another as competition, one more obstacle to pass by. However, all that has managed to do is to pit us against each other, fighting for the few meager seats at the table allowed for women while we ignore the real problem. The problem isn't about the lack of seats allotted for women; the problem is that men are still the ones making the seating arrangements, and it's time for that to change, something that both Cheslie and Eboni understand well.
Race is another topic that is incredibly important to both of these women, and they have quite the in-depth discussion on it during this podcast. Cheslie, who is biracial and self-identifies as black, laid out her point of view on race. She voiced her frustrations for never feeling like she had her own box to tick, being stuck to decide between "black, white, or other" in standardized situations like the SATs. Existing as someone stuck between two cultures has been incredibly challenging, and though she found some solace in the black community, she felt less welcomed by her white peers. Self-identifying as black is something that has allowed her more agency in regards to her own identity, and though she still faces difficulties she realizes how important it is to be a confident black woman in the esteemed position she is currently in. Both Cheslie and Eboni seem to bond over the idea that no matter the successes, they both revel in the victories of their fellow women of color. Each of them is motivated to see more women of color in powerful, visible positions to inspire future generations. It's not about their own success; it's about respect and renown for any and all women of color.
I may have just provided the highlight reel, but the full conversation shared between Cheslie and Eboni on the Women Who Swaay podcast is a must listen. These two women managed to make me laugh while restoring hope for a better America all within a half hour of listening time! Seriously, go get those headphones, right now. You will not regret it.