The Date Lady An adventurous entrepreneur's story

She brings the good stuff.

The year was 2009 and Colleen Sundlie was walking through a little market in the small town of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. She was holding her newborn baby boy, Henry. With his white skin and blond hair he stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact they both stuck out, as Colleen was not covered like the rest of the women in the marketplace. Some of the Emirati women would come up and pinch Henry's cheeks. They were fascinated with the small child that was so different from them. Since the Sundlie family lived in a smaller city in the UAE they were well known around town.

Colleen picked up a jar of date syrup and as a group of Emirati ladies crowded around her they started telling her about the wonders of the date syrup. They told Colleen that their Bedouin ancestors had used it to cure their stomach issues and other sicknesses, and that it would be great nutrition for baby Henry because of all of the iron in it.

As Colleen realized that there was only one ingredient in it, she thought to herself, wow I really need to take this home and try it. When she got home and tasted this mystical date syrup that the Emirati ladies raved about, everything changed. She was blown away by the amazing taste that followed her first bite. It wasn't nearly as strong as molasses, but it was still more complex than honey. Her family fell in love with it, and thus the idea of the Date Lady had begun.

"When I first tried the date syrup my mind was blown." Colleen Sundlie

How it all began.

In 2005, Colleen and Ryan Sundlie were both very busy at work in their careers in the United States. Colleen owned her own advertising agency and Ryan was teaching at a university in Springfield, Missouri. Two years after they had been married, Colleen became pregnant with their first child, Henry. He arrived that summer.

Right around the same time, Ryan was offered a teaching job in the United Arab Emirates at UAE University. Their son Henry was only two months old when they moved to the UAE. They were eager to take on this new adventure. Colleen, wanting to devote herself to her new baby, became a full time mom while Ryan was teaching. Colleen and two-month old Henry would often explore the local markets in their little town. As a foodie, Colleen was fascinated by all of the local markets and cafes.

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

She discovered yummy foods such as hummus, baba ganoush and schwarma, but one item in particular stuck out to Colleen everywhere she went: dates. The date, which is widely unknown in the United States, was a local gem here and she quickly discovered how culturally rich the date was to the Emirati people.

The beautiful caramel-like fruit that filled every hotel, store and restaurant in the UAE was so different than the diced, dried and very undesirable dates that you would find in the United States. In just about every boutique in the UAE, they sell over 1,000 date cultivars, which most people can't believe since the only date varieties in the United States are either Medjool or Deglet Noor.

"A date boutique in the UAE is kind of like walking into a Godiva chocolate store in the United States," Colleen Sundlie said. "It's a beautiful store. they have all of these pyramids of dates behind a glass counter and they're all different prices per kilogram."

Colleen would make frequent trips to the marketplace to pick up this delicious date syrup. She and her little family used it for baking, poured it over cereal and oatmeal, and used it as an all around sweetener to replace sugar. They also quickly discovered that it was amazing when poured over waffles and pancakes. Colleen began to develop recipes with the date syrup and shared it with her family and friends back home.

"The texture was so luxurious, and the taste so complex and lovely," Colleen Sundlie said. "We soon found ourselves eating it straight off the spoon."

In 2008, the Sundlie's moved back to the United States. After a few years of bringing home suitcases of dates and the date syrup, they decided that in order to have an over abundant supply would be by creating a company that would sell the product in the United States.

In May of 2012, the Date Lady was established. Colleen and Ryan Sundlie run the company and strive to offer incredible tasting date products to the people of their home country who have been in the date dark for so long. All of their products are rare, organic dates and date syrup. Date Lady also offers two new date caramel sauces, date chocolate spread, date balsamic and date sugar. All of their products are made with minimal ingredients and non processed sugar. They are organic, gluten free, non-gmo, kosher and paleo.

"The date was both a survival food to the UAE Bedouin ancestors and a feasting dessert of the ancient kings." Colleen Sundlie

What is a date?

The date is a type of fruit, and there are more than 1,600 different varieties. They grow on palm trees that generally grow to be around 75 feet tall. The date is a single seed fruit. It tends to grow in an oblong shape, but its shape could vary in size, shape and color. A single branch on the date palm can produce up to 1,000 dates. It is generally a dried fruit that is made up of more than 50 percent of sugar and two percent of fat and protein.

In the United Arab Emirates, the date palm represents the ultimate symbol of sustainability. Al Ain is known as being an oasis in the UAE, which causes the date palm to grow. Without the date palm tree, life would have been very difficult to sustain. The date has been apart of the Emirati culture for more than 7,000 years. After they developed a proper irrigation system 4,000 years ago, the importance of the date has grown even more and today holds as one of the most significant fruits in UAE agriculture.

Combining dates with camel milk was one of the most nutritious meals that could be offered. Dates are generally low in fat and high in several different vitamins. These vitamins include vitamins A, B and D. This pairs perfectly with the camel milk because camel milk is high in vitamin C and fat. This explains why the date was known for its nutritional sustainability.

Dates are well known to contain amazing health benefits and magical remedies in several different cultures and societies. In ancient times, the people believed that the date was a medical remedy to stomach pains and intestinal disorders. The reason for this is because as a person continually ingests dates, it helps to prevent the development of unwanted pathological organisms. Therefore, the growth of benevolent bacteria increases in the intestines. The date also contains many amino acids and dissolvable fibers, which helps to break down the digestion of food. Thus, more of the nutrients will be absorbed by the digestive tract to benefit the body. Dates can also be used to treat constipation, since it has such high nicotine content.

Dates were not just harvested from the palms and the rest discarded. The ancient people of the UAE used the leaves from the palm to produce sustainable shelter for themselves and their animals. The leaves were even used to produce everyday household items such as furniture, baskets, roof beams, food covers, boxes, fish traps, fans and even boats. After realizing this, it is no wonder that life would have been unlivable without the date palm!

In the Ancient Egyptian culture, dates and the date palm were used for many rituals and traditions. Mummies were often times wrapped in date palms and their tombs were decorated with them. The date was an important feature in a funeral ceremony and family members often offered dates to their recently departed. They even used date beer to embalm the bodies of the recently departed. As a matter of fact, date beer and date wine can be found in many areas of Egypt today.

In one of the Egyptian rituals, on the Pharaoh king's 13th birthday, it was tradition for him to hold a bundle of date palm leaves. Legend says that the number of ribs in the palm was an omen from God signifying how many years the Pharaoh had left to rule and to live.

Today, the date palm is widely used in decorating Christian's homes and churches in cohesion with Palm Sunday. The date palm is mentioned in several different accounts from the bible and Jesus' era.

What's in a name?

The Date Lady didn't actually start out as the Date Lady. During one of the demos in the test marketing phase in the northwest, Colleen was sampling some of the date syrup on a piece of Norwegian cheese and some crackers. All of the sudden, a very comedic customer came up to the table and tried the product. She loved it instantly. She loved it so much that she wanted to go get the exact same crackers and cheese that Colleen had used for the sample.

Growing brings change.

The Date Lady has made several changes as they have grown and developed over the past five years. One of the big things that has changed has been some of their strategies. When they first started out in the business, they wanted to get to distribution really quickly to get out as much of their product as they could. They would sell it all to one distributer and that distributor would continue to put it into several different retail stores.

However, this tactic put the Date Lady products in so many stores that they couldn't keep up with all of the locations. They were put into several different Whole Foods stores on the West coast, but going into Whole Foods wasn't as perfect as they'd thought. With this distribution getting out of hand, Colleen and Ryan felt very out of touch with their product and hated the fact that their product was just sitting on shelves.

They have since taken their product out of distribution and have gotten really good at selling the product direct. Colleen said that once they get their brand out there to where it's more well known, then they will want to get out into the big world of distribution again.

Colleen and Ryan have also contributed to several food expos and trade shows around the United States and even Canada. Some locations include: Seattle, New York City, California, Austin and several other states. The expos that they generally participate in are business to business. They are trying to get their product out to different retailers. Retailers use the date syrup for a plethora of things. They use it for vinegar, beer and nutrition bars. However, they have done some consumer shows, such as Paleo f(x) in Austin, Texas. Colleen said that she really loved that expo because she was able to directly talk to the consumers to share her love of date syrup with them.

"I've really been trying to figure out how to educate the consumer about dates," Colleen Sundlie said. "my generation doesn't really know what to think about dates. They were kind of like me. They didn't really know the difference between a prune, a fig or a date. Educating the public is really hard on a national level when you don't have a huge marketing budget."

do it for the #gram.

Colleen's knowledge of advertising and business has seriously helped with the marketing strategies of the Date Lady. Right now, the Date Lady is heavily involved with advertising via social media. "You get the most bang for your buck using social media right now," Colleen Sundlie said. "It's just where everybody is at. There is a growing generation and advertisements don't hold the same weight for them that they used to." Colleen said that putting their money into a magazine ad would not be necessary like it was 15 or 10 years ago.

The Date Lady's current consumers are also really important in the companies promotional strategies. Colleen said that they are the people that are spreading the Date Lady brand. With that in mind, if someone comes to the Date Lady website and they purchase, say date syrup and date sugar, Colleen said she likes to include a little sample of caramel sauce, date balsamic and chocolate spread in their box to share more of their amazing products with them.

Date Lady products are also advertised on different food shows and used by professional chefs. They recently had a vegan chef do a Facebook live video. Because of that video, the Date Lady website received 40 orders in a very short amount of time during the Facebook live video and for a period after.

Surprisingly, however, Date Lady sells most of their products on Amazon. They sell hundreds of jars a day. Colleen said that even if they did have more money to put into the marketing of the Date Lady website, Amazon would still likely be their most popular vendor. The reason being, people want a one-stop shop.

Date lady today.

The Date Lady is thriving in business today. They currently receive their dates from a supplier in Tunisia, Libya. However, their goal is to find a supplier within the Unites States. They have looked at different suppliers in California and Arizona, and look forward to those suppliers being able to produce more dates in order for them to supply the Date Lady with the amount of dates that they need. Date Lady generally orders a 40 foot container full of date syrup per order. Now that's a lot of dates!

Colleen created and tested her own recipes to make the chocolate sauce, balsamic and different caramel sauces that you can find at the Date Lady today. "They all came from trial and error really," Colleen Sundlie said. "The chocolate sauce went though about 60 different 'maybes' that were close before we finally perfected it." She is constantly coming up with new recipes and ideas for future Date Lady products.

"Making up the recipes are really fun," Colleen Sundlie said. "The date syrup itself is such a fun product and just by adding a few ingredients to it you can come up with some really fun variations."

Date Lady products have won several sofi awards. Sofi stands for Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation and represents the best members of the Specialty Food Association. The sofi award represents culinary creativity across America and around the world. To receive a sofi award is one of the highest honors in the specialty food industry. In the 2016 sofi Awards, Date Lady placed as a finalist, winning silver for Outstanding Dessert Sauce or Topping with their date syrup. In the 2017 sofi Awards, they also placed as a finalist, winning bronze for Outstanding Dessert Sauce or Topping with their new coconut caramel sauce, which is now available on their website here.

The Date Lady sells their products in several different countries. You can find the brand in Canada, Taiwan, Chile, Australia, and they have a pending order to New Zealand. Social media has been huge in the promotion of international business. Colleen said that they have a lot of Instagram followers from several different companies. There are a lot of people in the vegan and paleo groups worldwide that follow U.S. bloggers and the bloggers often times talk about the booming products from the Date Lady.

"We have really funny connections," Colleen Sundlie said. "We get phone calls from people that hear about us in all kinds of crazy ways. They constantly want to know how we can bring our products to their country."

Colleen and Ryan have talked about possibly selling their special date recipes to people in the UAE, because they do not have products like the Date Lady chocolate sauce, or date caramel sauce over there. The only barrier standing in their way is the branding aspect of the company. Women are viewed very differently in the UAE culture and Colleen said that they would need to test with their brand first before going head first in investing the business over there.

Not your grandma's fruitcake.

Colleen had always wanted to experiment with fruitcake. Nobody wants to get a fruitcake for Christmas. However, Date Lady's fruitcake is "not your grandma's fruitcake" as they like to say. This holiday classic has become a Date Lady tradition now.

"The fruitcake was so much more popular than I ever thought it would be," Colleen Sundlie said. "We sold a ton of them! We had to keep having baking days, which was awesome."

Colleen said they just wanted to make a really good fruitcake with high quality ingredients. She said that their famous fruitcake is made up of over 50 percent dates, the rest contains organic cranberries, organic sultanas, walnuts, rum, fine flour and it doesn't have any of the colored cherries or candies in it. It is based off of a traditional fruitcake recipe from Britain.

Colleen has done other holiday promotional packages, such as their Date Lady Easter basket and a Mother's Day basket, but none have proven to beat out their famous fruitcake.

a big family date.

Colleen and Ryan now have five beautiful children. Three boys and two girls. Henry, Olie, Glory, Nola and Branch. The Date Lady has played a big role in the Sundlie children's lives. All five of the kids are homeschooled, which has put a slower growing pace on the Date Lady business.

"We knew from the beginning that homeschooling the kids would put a slower start on the business," Colleen Sundlie said. "but Our family always comes first."

Owning their own business has caused the Sundlies to many times work endlessly night and day, but it has also offered flexibility for the Sundlie family. It gives them flexibility to do things like homeschooling, travel whenever they want and to be able to take the kids with them, which opens a lot of opportunities for them as well. They even have a Date Lady camper that they take with them on their travels. They have gotten to take the kids to a couple of food expos with them too. They all got to stay in an apartment in New York City and they had an absolute blast.

The Sundlie's are all about healthy eating. Colleen said that she had a rule for a long time that when they would go through the grocery store isle, her kids would always want a candy bar from the stash right by the register. She said that she would buy it for the kids, but only if it did not have corn syrup in it. It just so happened that ever single one of the candy bars did contain some form of corn syrup. However, Colleen said that aspect is changing now, and she is really excited to see cleaner products coming to the market for her kids.

"The kids get that, and they don't ask anymore," Colleen Sundlie said. "They read the labels and they are conscious about it."

Colleen said that the Date Lady has truly been a blessing to their family. They have all grown in cultural awareness from frequent visits to the UAE, and they have grown closer as a family. The Date Lady has a very bright future and their story will only grow with the new adventures that arise.

Created By
Lexi Ferguson

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