Exporter Profile September 2007
Exporter Profile September 2007
From food industry novice to exporter, this daughter of immigrants is now broadening her horizons to other countries.
When you ask Sylvia Tirakian is she ever dreamed she'd be successfully importing exotic preserves from her former Soviet Bloc homeland of Armenia and exporting to Japan and beyond, she answers and laughter.
"If I had known what was really involved, I think I would have been too scared to even begin." She quips.
Tirakian, co-owner of Harvest Song in Great Neck, New York, spent years as an optical engineer before stepping into her current path of crating the formulas for and marketing unique fruit preserve products from the valley below Mount Ararat in Armenia.
"Engineering? It's all gone," she exclaims. "I enjoyed it, but I don't miss it. Being a daughter of immigrants I wanted to be ‘mainstream,' and I wanted to be in the corporate world. Then once I accomplished being a good engineer, I wanted to do something different. But had I known what's involved in ...," her voice trails off questioningly.
Both she and her partner, James Tufenkian, not only had no contacts in the food industry, neither had they ever had any food business experience. But there was one thing they had that made all the difference. "We had a great affinity for the fruit of the Ararat Valley because it is so different in taste," she says.
On a fall day in 2005, she and Tufenkian met with USDA officials in Armenia to explore the possibility of brining local farmers' products to the U.S. market. What thye encountered was mix of communist and capitalist ideals. Still, with Tirakian's command of the local language and the willingness of the people to try new things, a business opportunity was born.
She knew once the harvest was over, it would be another year before they'd be able to process new products, so she went to work devising and implementing the product formulas as the harvest was happening. This turned out to be an opportunity to pack on a commercial level and subsequently test the market with the new product that very year.
Gourmet shops in New York City responded enthusiastically, and before she knew it the orders started pouring in, even as the first product was still crossing the ocean. Next they approached well know chefs who began featuring the preserves in new recipes. Today they have nationwide delivery through various distributors. The preserves are in the most Whole Foods stores, in some of the Wild Oats stores and in 270 Williams Sonoma stores. The company also just opened a new 177-store distribution chain in Japan and is in negotiations with stores in the United Kingdom. Products are shipped to overseas distributors via ocean freight.
There's no mistaking the passion and attention to detail Tirakian brings to her new enterprise. Every year she travels to Armenia during harvest time to meet with farmers and to watch as two canneries slow-cook fresh fruit into what has become wildly successful preserves. "This is the biggest pleasure I have walking in the Mount Ararat Valley, talking to our artisan preserve makers and working with them every day," she says, "It makes me appreciate their hard work but also re-energizes me seeing the wholesomeness and passion that goes into each jar."
"The fruit arrives daily at the canneries in small quantities," She explains. "Then they follow a slow preservation process. They get three lab certifications on every batch. We don't use any jellying components. The jam stays chunky because everything is done by hand and cooked as little as possible. The product contains only the sugar from the fruit and it doesn't have any color additives, and no pectin or preservatives. As it simmers and cooks, you have to add more fruit so the result of that is a totally different taste."
"In Armenia we do not give charity to our farmers," Tirakian says, "They work very hard so we give them fair trade prices by making sure at the beginning of March they are 80 to 85 percent funded and then the other 15 percent is held until harvest." Now she says new trees are being planted by the farmers and she believes they are more excited and feel their jobs are honored again.
Harvest Song artisanal preserves come in 12 flavors including Apricot, Sour Cherry, Wild Strawberry, Pumpkin and Apple, Peach, Golden Figs, Tea-Rose Petals, and Fresh Walnuts. The jars are topped with natural rice paper from Katmandu. The preserves are also gaining popularity as a favorite accompaniment for cheese.