On the up · 5 June 2018

Meet the founder bringing jujube fruit from the Far East to the UK

Helen Wang – Founder of Abakus Foods and advocate of jujube fruits.

Will jujube be the next big superfood trend? Helen Wang, the founder of the healthy snack business Abakus Foods, would like to think so.

The London-based startup is currently exporting six varieties of their on-the-go jujube fruit snacks, including dried jujube fruit, jujube fruit crisps, and jujube fruit stuffed with nuts.

Business Advice caught up with Wang to find all about why she is so keen to educate the public on the benefits of eating the jujube fruit.

Who are you and what is your business?

I am Helen Wang, founder and chief jujube officer. I started Abakus Foods with the aim to make healthy eating easier and more enjoyable for busy people. We offer a range of healthy snacks made of the jujube fruit aka red date, a berry from the Far East which tastes naturally sweet and has lots of health benefits.

 How did you come up with the concept?

I was working long hours in London’s finance industry and feeling quite anxious and stressed out. My mum sent me parcels containing the jujube fruit and told me to eat them every day. They made a real difference and I learned about their adaptogenic properties which can help the body adapt to stress, both mentally and physically. In herbal medicine, they are used to help with anxiety and insomnia. Also, they contain 18 out of 24 essential amino acids and are packed with phytonutrients. I thought they were amazing and taste great, and should be made available over here so that everyone can benefit from them.

What was key in terms of getting started?

Initially, I was just researching this idea as a side project. I spent my holidays visiting suppliers and my weekends coming up with a product. Eventually, I brought a “minimum viable product” version to a trade show and had surprisingly good feedback. Even Whole Foods, whom I admired a lot, said this could be for them. This positive feedback, plus some naive enthusiasm gave me the confidence to give it a go.

What makes the business unique?

We help people discover natural products solutions to maintain good health and which taste good at the same time. Our company is the first to bring the jujube fruit to the Western audience, even though they have been enjoyed for thousands of years in countries like China, Korea and the Middle East.

Their naturally sweet, caramel-like taste makes them a great alternative to sugar-laden sweets and empty-calorie snacks. Also, to suit busy lifestyles, they can be eaten straight from the bag, and being super versatile, they work brilliantly on porridge, in tea, soups, baking and cooking.

Furthermore, jujube trees are very water-efficient and therefore used in arid areas to help against desertification. It is a very sustainable plant and a real gift of nature.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when launching?

The jujube fruit is not very well known over here, so the product requires a lot of education about what they are and their health benefits. There is a diaper-bag brand for babies called jujube – so sometimes we do need to step in last minute to demystify our product offering.

Jujube fruits are also known as “Red Date” because they taste similar to a date, and people call them “Anab” in the Middle East, and “Bor Fruit” in India.

What’s your biggest achievement to date?

One of our biggest achievements is being stocked at over 500 stores across the UK, such as Ocado, Grape Tree (over 100 stores), Whole Foods, Planet Organic, and we are also exporting to over 10 countries.

During year one, we sold over 100,000 bags which was pretty remarkable and shows how much demand there is for natural and healthy products like the jujube fruit.

Describe your marketing technique – what strategies have you used?

Being a bootstrapped business, we are on a tight budget and everything is to be re-invested back into the business. During the first year of trading, we didn’t really have a marketing budget at all. Luckily though, the jujube fruit has gained a lot of media attention for being so new and different (and so amazing, I like to think), which gained us over 50 pieces of press coverage in just a few months. This made a huge difference in raising our profile and helping to educate people about their health benefits.

Offering samples at tastings is also is a great way to engage with customers and gain new advocates.

In five years’ time, I will be…

No longer needing to explain what the jujube fruit is. Maybe.

Who are your business heroes and why?

Kazuo Inamori – a brilliant Japanese entrepreneur, who said his secret to success is to “do what is right as a human being” when he was facing difficult business decisions. A great example of human compassion and decision making.

Also, Sir Richard Branson, not only because he “made it”, but also because is the perfect example to remind oneself to have fun in the process.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Dream big and then test your ideas rigorously in the real world. Get feedback early on before you have spent too much time or money, and have a mindset of continuously improving your product or service.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Carly Hacon is a reporter for Business Advice. She has a BA in journalism from Kingston University, and has previously worked as a features editor for a local newspaper.

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