By Mahvish Irfan
TMO Contributing Writer
Nadia Khan, a 35-year-old mother of four home-schooled children between the ages of 3-12, was looking for a way to make cow’s milk palatable for her youngest son whom she had just weaned from nursing.
Fed up with finding nothing but unhealthy junk from big brands in the grocery stores, including Hershey’s and Nestle’s syrups that were full of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, preservatives, and colors, and yet contained no real fruit, Nadia decided to make her own organic syrup.
She stopped by the local farmers’ market, purchased a few cartons of organic strawberries, came home, looked up a recipe online, tweaked it to her taste, and proceeded to boil and strain the strawberries, adding organic sugar in the end.
Her strawberry syrup became a sensation amongst family and friends. Everyday, her son kept asking for “wawa-wee,” his way of pronouncing “strawberry,” and she found great encouragement from others to start producing professionally. After all there was nothing else like it in the market, and in less than two years, Wawa-Wee organic strawberry, peach and blueberry syrups were born.
The Muslim Observer sat down with Nadia to discuss her journey turning her homemade syrups into a business venture, the many lessons she learned along the way, and the process of trying to hit the shelves of gourmet grocery stores like Whole Foods.
Did you ever think you’d be where you are today? What are some surprising things you’ve learned in this journey?
It’s really exciting to see an idea that I played around with in our home kitchen develop into an actual high quality food product ready for retail shelves. We’ve hired a licensed co-packer to manufacture for us, we’ve obtained our permits from the California Health Department, our organic certification, and set up our social purpose corporation. There were some surprising things I learned along the way. When I first started, I envisioned selling a product that would be identical to the one I made at home. I quickly learned that no large-scale manufacturers had the facilities to wash, chop and boil fresh fruit and then strain it. That would simply be too labor intensive and cost prohibitive.
I had to hire an experienced food chemist to convert my home recipe into what’s called a “manufacturer’s formula.” For large-scale food production, the primary concern is always food safety and shelf life. How long before my food product would start to degrade? My food chemist warned me that as the syrups sat on store shelves over a period of months, they would lose their fruit taste and begin to taste like sugar water. Hence the addition of natural flavors. Natural flavors are added to products to maintain freshness and flavor throughout their shelf life. There are food scientists called “flavorists” who identify the naturally occurring chemicals in fruits that give them their smell and taste, and then they create concentrated versions of those tastes and aromas. The source of natural flavors, as opposed to the source of artificial flavors, has to be something derived from “nature.” That’s not always comforting. In my research, I learned that the most common source of strawberry flavor comes from a gland in a beaver’s butt! I refused to negotiate on the “cleanness” of my ingredients. I wanted my syrup to be something Muslims, Kosher-keeping Jews, vegetarians, even vegans would be comfortable consuming. I obtained letters from the suppliers of the natural flavors used in my syrups stating that they are all vegan—not derived from any animal by-products. Another consideration was color: I discovered that strawberry concentrate actually has a brownish tone rather than the bright red hue consumers have come to expect, so I was going to have to add some sort of color to the syrup. One common source of red coloring is from a certain species of crushed red beetle. I wasn’t too keen on that! The source of my natural color is purple carrot juice.
Making a premium-ingredient organic product is not cheap. The reason Hershey’s, Nestles and these other companies can sell their syrups so cheap is that their number one ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, which is a lot cheaper, and more destructive to health, than organic cane sugar, and their fruit taste comes from nothing but artificial flavors and colors. There’s not a hint of real strawberry in it! I didn’t want to make that type of product.
For every bottle of Wawa-Wee that is purchased, an orphan in need is fed. Tell us more about the social responsibility behind your brand.
In a regular corporation, the primary objective of the board of directors is always maximizing profit for the shareholders. If the board doesn’t deliver in that objective, they are answerable to the shareholders. In a social purpose corporation (SPC), however, the social objective is clearly stated in the bylaws and is just as important as profit maximization. In my present situation, I am both board and shareholder, but if my company grows, as I pray it does insha-Allah, the very fact that I am incorporated as an SPC means that I won’t have to worry about prospective shareholders hindering me from my social objective.
Social purpose is part of the very DNA of my company. Supporting orphans through GiveLight Foundation was always in the forefront of my mind when I first began to seriously consider turning my homemade syrups into a business venture. It has been my hope to establish some sort of sadaqa jariya that is pleasing to Allah Most High, one that continues to benefit orphans long after I leave this world. GiveLight seemed like the perfect fit for my new company. It was started by my friend Dian Alyan after she personally lost 40 relatives in the tsunami that devastated southeast Asia ten years ago. Today GiveLight supports over 800 orphans in ten different countries, and it is largely volunteer-driven, so you know your money is going directly to benefit the boys and girls who need it most.
What’s your favorite flavor? And, your favorite way to eat it?
I don’t have one favorite. I love blueberry on pancakes, strawberry in milk, and peach in soda. But the other day I tried peach in my milk and it was delicious! And strawberry soda float is the classic that my brother used to always order at Ghirardelli’s. We would tease him, “They have so many dessert options here! Why do you always get the same thing? You’re so boring!” But then his strawberry soda would arrive and it would taste so good that we would guzzle it down and he would have to order himself another one. I can honestly say that a float made with Wawa-Wee Organic Strawberry Syrup tastes even better than the one on offer at Ghirardelli’s.
What are some other ways to Wawa-Wee organic fruit syrups?
[You can use the] syrup on everything: pancakes, waffles, crepes, ice cream, yogurt, and cheesecake. We were mixing it with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to make salad dressing. My children’s favorite way to use it was to mix it with seltzer water and top it with a scoop of ice cream to make a float.
Which stores can consumers purchase your syrups? Which stores will you be in in the near future?
We currently sell through our website, www.wawa-wee.com, and a handful of small retailers, such as ice cream shops. I’ve been so busy with my website orders that I haven’t had time yet to focus on pitching to retailers. There is one market in Brooklyn called Balady that carries Wawa-Wee. For those planning to attend the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) conference in Toronto this month, there is a vendor called Salam Shop that will be selling our syrups. In the near future, we hope to be at big box retailers that cater to the natural, health conscious crowd, such as Whole Foods Market.
Should we expect to see any new products soon?
I have lots of ideas. Once Wawa-Wee grows into a recognized brand name, we might add pancake mixes, yogurts, sodas, juices. The sky is the limit!
Any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
My motto throughout this process has been, “It doesn’t hurt to ask.” There are so many questions you feel afraid to ask because it might sound dumb, you don’t speak the jargon, you’re afraid of being told, “no.” Allah Most High is the Source of all success. Do not fear His creation, and do not have anxiety over your livelihood. If you have an idea, just run with it.