Forbes Middle East

Business

A Date To Remember

Hannah Stewart
A Date To Remember
Eng. Yaser Bakker, Co-founder and CEO of Operations at one of Saudi Arabia’s leading date retailers, Talah Aljood, cannot quite remember his first date—the dried fruit variety that is—but all things considered, he can be forgiven. To say that the 52 year-old developed a taste for his industry from a young age would be an understatement; the Arabian treat first touched his taste buds the day he was born, its sticky juices rubbed gently onto his gums for good luck. Over half a century on, the Saudi businessman boasts more than a sweet tooth; claiming to posses the largest market share inside one of the world’s largest date producing nations, Bakker has global aspirations for a brand that is homegrown in more ways than one. “My vision,” he begins, “is to see a well-maintained brand image all over the world.”

Bakker’s portfolio may not hint at world domination just yet, but the man whose entrepreneurial drive stems from his passion for the much-loved fruit, is spreading his roots. “We have distributed to gulf countries and other Arab countries such as Egypt before, as well as Saudi embassies around the world,” explains the CEO—no mean feat for a company that started life as a single retail outlet with three employees. Launched by Bakker and his co-founders, Majed and Majdi Darweesh, back in 2001, Talah Aljood (talah meaning small palm tree) now boasts a staff of more than 200, and with 10 branches across Jeddah, Riyadh, Mecca and Medina, business is growing, with a product range to match.

In addition to the plain and stuffed date staples—Sukkari and Ajwa dates account for 50% of sales—Talah Aljood’s offerings now extend to cakes, milkshakes, and traditional pastries known as ma’amoul, all of which are manufactured in the company’s Jeddah-based factory. As for the source, the Saudi who used to help his mother prepare ma’amoul treats during Eid, keeps his dates close to his chest, conceding only that they are grown in Saudi Arabia’s central region.

Bakker, who grew up between Riyadh and Jeddah alongside his three siblings, is as reluctant to divulge figures as he is the source of his produce, sharing only that initial investment in his company stood at around $400,000. A 25% rise in sales in the last three quarters of 2013, however, points to solid growth, with a 20% annual increase anticipated over the coming years. Moreover, with prices for Talah Aljood’s finest ranges varying between $25 and $48 per kilo, there is no doubt profit to be made in a nation with the highest per capita consumption of dates at 36kg per year, and production that accounts for 14.14% of the world total according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Scale is hard to measure in a fragmented market where dates are sold in independent stores, stalls, and supermarkets, but the annual Buraidah date festival provides just a small window into the fruit’s mass appeal. Located in Saudi Arabia’s northwest region—the site of more than six million of the Kingdom’s 23 million date palms—the month-long festival is the largest of its kind in the world. According to the organizers, more than 160 tons of dates are delivered each day during the event.

Today, strong demand is met by a growing number of retailers, but for Captain Khalid Bakry, Saudi airline pilot and loyal Talah Aljood customer, Bakker’s brand has the edge. “When we visit friends or have occasions we take their dates, it’s an iconic brand. Wherever you go you find people coming in with Talah products.” Accounting for its popularity, he adds, “They care about quality more than quantity and they always have the freshest dates.”

Eng. Mohammed Balkhi, who has long frequented Talah Aljood for both personal consumption and corporate occasions, agrees. He has been dealing with the brand since its inception, at a time when only two or three players such as fellow Saudi date retailer, Bateel, were in the market. “What made me like Talah more than the others is that they were very selective with their products, and at the same time, cared about the opinions of their customers,” he remarks. But for Balkhi, it’s not a question of one or the other where Talah Aljood and the likes of Bateel are concerned. “The Gulf region needs both!” he exclaims. “They are competitors but they complete each other.”

This may be so, but in a competitive market, success boils down to more than simply selling a product.  “In order to survive in this progressively competitive market, we strive to be innovative in our product ranges, our packaging and presentation, as well as the services we offer,” remarks Bakker who worked in the Saudi airline industry before opting for the entrepreneurial route. Delivery for special occasions and the enticement of Arabic coffee count as just two of the small, yet valuable additions that the company has included in its service lineup, alongside pre-packaged gift sets and the option for consumers to bring their own plates for professional filling and wrapping.

With one eye on product and service development, Bakker has the other firmly fixed on expansion, which according to him, is driven by growing regional and international interest in the brand. “Recently, we have received a high level of interest from independent parties in terms of a possible franchise strategy,” explains the co-founder.

Still in the development stages, Talah Aljood’s master plan is divided into three stages: first, franchises are to be awarded to interested parties within Saudi Arabia reaching a target of 25 branches by 2016. Next, Bakker plans to turn to the interest in the wider GCC, before ultimately going global.

Bakker’s outward looking strategy may be yet to come to fruition, but if Saudi Arabia’s date exports are anything to go by, cultivating a retail footprint on foreign soil could be a smart move. According to the most recent data from the UN’s FAO, the Kingdom ranked as the third largest exporter of dates by value in 2011 after Tunisia and Iran, exporting 77,795 tons, at a value of almost $86.3 million. This vast quantity ranked dates as the 11th biggest commodity exported from the Kingdom that year.

But in today’s hi-tech world, global reach doesn’t end at exports or the shop front; online presence is rapidly becoming a vital component of a brand’s international success—a reality that Bakker is turning into opportunity. Four months after launching Talah Aljood’s new website, which allows consumers to browse the best the brand has to offer, the site’s online purchasing feature is on the verge of making its debut.

Jumping on the online bandwagon, however, isn’t enough to make it in a highly competitive Saudi market. For Bakker, establishing a strong brand in his native country relies on several key factors. In addition to keeping running costs in check and doing the necessary leg work in terms of feasibility and risk analyses, the seasoned businessman stresses the need to understand the market, the consumer and the competition.

And the list goes on; the development of innovative ideas, choosing the right locations and above all, ensuring consistency in the quality of both product and message are crucial too. “Failure to address any of these would undermine the long-term life of the organization,” remarks the CEO. “Sadly this has been witnessed in many rushing start-up businesses these days,” he adds.

For Bakker, startup challenges may be a distant memory, but Mother Nature can test even the most adept of businessmen, and throughout the year, the date industry throws up its own unique set of challenges. “Although the purchase of dates is popular all year around, our busiest season is during the holy month of Ramadan—a month which annually shifts further away from the harvesting season of dates,” explains Talah Aljood’s co-founder.

On a practical level, this means that dealers and farmers must keep their produce in cold storage in the name of quality preservation. Simple, one might say, but these facilities are currently in limited supply, not to mention lackluster shape, across the kingdom.

Undeterred by the perennial challenges of his seasonal fruit, Bakker is heeding his own advice on brand success through constant innovation. “Our development team is currently generating a new line of products to be launched in the New Year,” reveals the co-founder-CEO. Ever the businessman, rather than divulging details, he opts to hold the fans of his coveted dried fruits in suspense, “Keep your eyes peeled and visit our stores and website!” he enthuses.

With expansion and development underway visiting both store and website are set to pick up pace, not only in Saudi Arabia, but the wider region, and then the world. More than 50 years after Yaser Bakker’s very first date, the sweet treat is leading to sweet success. Now, as his taste for dates matures, so too does Talah Aljood as its devoted co-founder looks to take one of Saudi Arabia’s most celebrated delicacies global.
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