Doctor Turns Dates into Healthier Sweetener

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #117, Brad chats with Sylvie Charles, M.D., who traded a stable career as a physician for the wild ride of entrepreneurship when launching organic real-food sweetener company Just Date in 2018. She shares the mission behind her endeavor, along with her business arc and growth strategy.

As a practicing physician at the University of California, San Francisco, Sylvie was alarmed by the rise in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses. She knew that refined sugar in the diet was a key culprit, yet her patients often struggled to cut back. Realizing that there really wasn’t a healthy, great-tasting alternative to cane sugar, she thought about nutrient-rich dates, which her Indian family used to sweeten chutneys.

Sylvie got to work developing a low-glycemic organic date syrup that has less sugar than maple syrup, honey, or agave and delivers fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Her family, friends, and patients loved it, so she took it to Bay Area natural foods retailers, where it flew off the shelves. About two months in, Just Date broke into Whole Foods Market nationwide, prompting Sylvie to quit practicing medicine to be a full-time entrepreneur.

The move paid off. After three years of proving the concept with three flagship SKUs and several other products, Just Date is now in about 2,000 natural retail doors. The brand also does a robust e-commerce business and has a small but growing foodservice arm.

Sylvie has mainly bootstrapped the company with her own money, loans, credit, and reinvested revenue, which limited growth and kept it mostly a one-woman show. Recognizing that raising funds and building a team could turbocharge the next phase of growth, she recruited a business partner from the tech world last year. Together, they raised a successful seed round and put together a sales and marketing team. Though bootstrapping made for some lean years, Sylvie is grateful she is only receiving investor money now that she knows exactly how to spend it.

In less than a year, the company has made tremendous progress, including by optimizing its supply chain, enhancing sustainability, and refining its messaging and branding. Acknowledging that sugar science is complex and the array of alternative sweeteners is confusing, Just Date has opted to message more around its simple, clean ingredients and low-sugar proposition.

What’s next for this growing company? While it has done wonderfully in the natural channel, Sylvie says there is still room for growth there. She also aims to make more inroads in conventional to reach a broader audience. More opportunities are opening up in the foodservice space too, and as an ingredient play, with other CPG brands swapping sugar for Just Date sweeteners. Though the exact path ahead isn’t carved out yet, Sylvie hopes to grow the company to about $20 million and exit in about five years.