Q&A with Amy Zitelman, Co-Founder & VP of Business Development, Soom Foods
Amy studied Interpersonal Communication and graduated from the University of Delaware in 2011, followed by teaching English in Israel and traveling extensively throughout 2012. She has been talkin' tahini since January 2013 - www.soomfoods.com. Amy likes to bowl with her husband, Darren, and take their dog, TAZ to the park.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I grew up in Rockville, MD – the youngest of three girls to two entrepreneurial parents. I went to the University of Delaware where I studied Communication, focusing on interpersonal communication. Halfway through my senior year, my oldest sister, Shelby, called me and said: “what do you know about tahini?”
What inspired you to start your business?
The joke is: Shelby had a business degree, Jackie (our middle sister) married a tahini expert, and I needed a job.
But really, Jackie moved to Israel in 2008 and soon began dating Omri, a sesame expert. When Omri met our oldest sister, Shelby, he shared the tahini he sold around the country - a unique, high-quality sesame paste made from single-sourced Ethiopian White Humera sesame seeds.
Shelby couldn't believe the creamy, nutty, and delicious product she tasted was tahini; the tahini she had eaten in the past was bitter and grainy. This tahini could be used for so much more than hummus or falafel sauce.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, Shelby and I both lived in Israel and became familiar with tahini as a delicious and healthy ingredient used in smoothies and baked goods, and as condiments for meats and vegetables.
We surveyed the American market and purchased all of the tahini on the shelves. What stood out was that no quality tahini was available, and no brand spoke to the inspiring versatility of such a nutritious and delicious product.
That sparked the question, “Why don’t we bring good tahini to the United States?” So we did! In 2013, Soom Foods, a certified women-owned company, was born.
Where is your business based?
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
We spent over a year and a half, from idea to first import, doing market research. We wanted to understand what tahini was available to people on the shelves and chefs in distribution, and we wanted to learn what people thought of tahini. Then, we spent time building our initial sales list of hundreds of businesses around Philadelphia, DC, and New York City that we thought we could sell our tahini to. Disclaimer: we didn’t and still don’t sell too many of them.
We placed our first order of 20,000 pounds of tahini (a small container's worth) and found a warehouse to store the product. Once the product arrived, we started selling.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Our biggest challenge has been that back in 2013, when we first started selling tahini, very few people were familiar with tahini. If they did know what tahini was, and happened to have some in their house, they only used it to make hummus. All in all, our biggest challenge (and steady focus) has been on consumer education.
That’s where our unique strategy (and answer to the fifth question) comes into play – instead of focusing on getting our tahini onto shelves and into people’s homes, we’ve focused on getting our tahini into professional kitchens and chefs’ dishes. We invested into creating a relationship with chefs across the country, and they, in turn, have shared that they use Soom tahini (for much more than just hummus, I might add!)
How do you stay focused?
At first, it was hard to stay focused, because it was just a daily grind to sell, deliver, and operate the daily tasks of growing a business. Now I stay focused by knowing what I’m good at, and sticking to those responsibilities. I keep all important tasks as an event on my calendar, so I get reminded to complete them.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
We differentiate ourselves by creating authentic, real, and honest relationships with all shareholders in our supply chain.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
In general, focusing on getting our product into influencer’s hands – like professional chefs, bloggers, food writers, etc. – has been our most effective marketing strategy to grow our business.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Tell people what you are working on to give yourself the opportunity to meet or be introduced to others in your industry. When you have the chance to talk to someone with experience, ask a lot of questions. Always follow-up with thank yous and share your product liberally.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
Favorite app: Instagram – I love being able to see and stay connected to both my professional and personal networks
Favorite blog: http://rich20something.com/about/ - Daniel DiPiazza and his small team put out thoughtful, relevant content for aspiring and hustling entrepreneurs
Favorite book: Presence by Amy Cuddy. It was my Aha! Moment about what it means to “have a presence” it’s all about being present. Read to understand how having presence sets you up for success in all aspects of life.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
My sister can do margins without this great cheat-tool, but I love it. KNOW YOUR MARGINS!
Who is your business role model? Why?
Our mother. She had such a successful business in the mid-80s it allowed our father to start his own.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
Introducing our next ingredient – Silan, a syrup made from 100% steamed and pressed dates.
How can our readers connect with you?
@soomfoods – our brand is much more interesting than my life.