Evolving consumer palettes and the fact that we all are moving around more than ever have people yearning for globally-inspired foods. Brands big and small are hoping on the cultural bandwagon, sometimes sans credentials. But for Hila Krikov, founder of snack food brand Sweet Tahini, it’s much more personal. After relocating from Israel to Texas (and later, Boston), this fearless founder – and Foodboro member – traded in her established career in fashion for food to bring a taste of her homeland to the States.
See how she’s paving her way and taking her sweet spreads and states from local Boston farmers markets to customers across the country while staying true to her roots.
Israel to Texas… that’s quite the move. What was this like for you?
When my husband and I first moved to Texas we knew absolutely no one. It was completely foreign to us. I missed the flavors of my homeland terribly. Growing up in Israel, food was what brought people together, so whenever I had the opportunity I would cook or bake my favorite Israeli foods and share with neighbors, who quickly became friends.
Did you find moving to Boston from Texas an easier transition?
Yes, absolutely. Traditional ingredients were easier to come by, and our community really had a passion for food. I continued to experiment in the kitchen and share my creations. A lot of people know tahini as something used in hummus or other savory dishes, so were surprised it can be used as a dessert. I got a lot of really positive feedback!
Was this the inspiration for Sweet Tahini?
Actually, the idea for Sweet Tahini came about by accident. I would often use carob spread in my recipes, and one day bought carob syrup by mistake. To make use of it I blended it with the tahini to make a paste and found it was a great addition. I saw this as an opportunity to show tahini’s full potential as an ingredient.
What were the early days like?
Starting out, I really dove right in. Having a background in fashion and design was helpful when developing the brand identity and packaging, but I really had to educate myself on the laws, permits and regulations, how to bring to market, etc. I was nervous about the first farmers market, but with the help of my family it turned out to be a great success. Customers were a little hesitant to try our products at first, but once they got a taste they were hooked.
Have you noticed consumer perception of your product changing with the trends?
Absolutely. More and more people are familiar with tahini, but haven’t traditionally eaten it sweet. They know it as an ingredient in hummus and other spreads, not as something to be added to cookies and desserts. Education and trial is important. We want to show that tahini can be a dessert, and with the changing trends consumers are more open to trying which is very exciting.
In addition to your sweet spreads you also sell snacks and cooking classes. Why the broad range of offerings?
The spreads are really the foundation of our company. The date and tahini snacks are used as a way to educate shoppers on tahini and its versatility. The cooking classes are really a passion project for me to showcase the many flavors and cooking methods of my culture. As we grow, however, I see our spreads as most scaleable.
As far as retail, where is your primary focus?
Due to production constraints, right now we are primarily focused on farmers markets sales and online through our site. Connecting with consumers at farmers markets has been great because it allows us to both educate them on our product as well as learn what they like and dislike.
We do have product in a number of retailers in the Boston area. We don’t do any in-store demos and it still sells great, so I do see opportunity in retail as we continue to grow.
What pain points do you struggle with as a startup company?
Production is definitely a pain point. Everything is made in a shared kitchen space, and with limited hands we can only produce so much product at any given time. Another hardship is the price of ingredients. Because we use only the highest quality ingredients… many of which are hard to find… it can be expensive to source.
What has been your proudest moment as a founder?
There have been many moments of joy, but seeing people taste and show interest in a product that is new to them is something I am very proud of. Sharing a part of my culture and selling something that is innovative and new to market is also very exciting!
What advice do you have for other early-stage entrepreneurs?
One of the biggest things I have learned is that it is so important to be a good listener! Listen to your customers, watch them in the field and learn from their reaction to your product. Ask questions on what you can do better and improve upon.
Also, educating yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help! Starting out I was a bit intimidated because I was very unfamiliar with the industry, but by getting involved and surrounding yourself with others in the same situation you learn and grow. There is so much to learn from not only your customers, but other entrepreneurs. Attend industry events and network with other makers in your community.
Spend time listening to others in the industry, go out and meet people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask others for insights!
What can we expect from Sweet Tahini in the future?
We are working on rebranding to better align our messaging with our products. As mentioned earlier, customer education is very important. We see a big opportunity for growth by shifting from “sweet tahini” to “sesame butter” because customer reception will be more clear. Nut butters are popular right now, so this will resonate with shoppers on how to use our products.
*featured image courtesy of Katie Noble at Edible Boston