Nouvelles d'Arménie, January 2014
Nouvelles d'Arménie, January 2014
Success with Armenian Jam
The secret inside the jar.
Seven years ago, Sylvia Tirakian quit her job as an engineer to start manufacturing Armenian jam, which she sells in the United States. Harvest Song has since become a flourishing business. We sit down with this assertive woman who is not afraid to speak her mind.
[Sylvia Tirakian, who lived in Armenia until she was nine, before moving to Beirut and then the United States.]
Nouvelles d’Arménie Magazine: How does a telecommunications engineer go into the jam business practically overnight?
Sylvia Tirakian: Seven years ago, in Yerevan, I ran into one of my friends from New York, James Tufenkian, and we decided to have breakfast together. During the meal he told me that he found it surprising that we have the best jam in the world but do nothing with it. “And what if we tried to make our own products, just as a hobby?” he asked me. We started with 10,000 jars of apricot, just for fun. I never would have imagined it could be so successful.
How did you finally decide to take the plunge?
For years James had been urging me to start something in connection to Armenia, where I lived until I was nine, before moving to Beirut and then the United States. I never took him seriously. For a long time I had things to prove, I did advanced studies, I wanted to do something fulfilling. If God had told me that one day I would be selling Armenian jam, I wouldn’t have believed it. It wouldn’t have been serious or sexy enough! Besides, I was making a very high salary as a telecommunications consultant. But at the same time, I started to question myself. I had a great job, but it was passionless. I was one engineer among thousands, without a direct impact on individual lives. It made me sad to see the people of our country, who are so proud and such good workers, reduced to accepting aide from Armenians living outside of the country. They have to. Thank God the diaspora helps, but I think there is a risk of eventually creating a society of idlers. There’s an Armenian proverb that says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” That’s how I see things. If I became involved, it would be to create jobs, to offer opportunities.
[Quality. “Our customers range from movie stars to ordinary people.”]
Concretely, how did you go about it?
When I went back to New York, I bought 200 different brands of jam and sent them to a lab to be analyzed. Even the best ones only contained a little fruit, with a lot of pectin, corn syrup, and additives. I realized that I’d have to do less: less sugar, less manipulation of the fruit, and no pectin at all. Then I went to the USDA to find out how to get started. They explained that my plan was impossible, and their arguments were strong: Armenia didn’t have cooperatives, the farmers had all left for Russia, they didn’t need the American market because they already sold to Russia, the weather in the mountainous region could demolish the crops in overnight. Bizarrely, the more they described the obstacles facing the industry, the more it encouraged me. Unlike many Armenians in diaspora, I don’t have an idealized image of the country. I’m pragmatic; I look at the problem ahead and face it.
But was your voluntarism enough to start a business in Armenia?
It’s hard, it takes patience, but it’s doable. During my next trip, I started looking for jam makers I thought I could work with. I had many meetings and quickly realized that the people needed me because they were disconnected. The Armenian jam makers had no dialogue with the western market. They could not succeed. Some have stayed very Soviet: they don’t pay attention to details, don’t respect deadlines, the quality of the product leaves a lot to be desired. Eventually I met a businessman about my age who was very curious about how the western market worked. There was a path to collaborate. The next time I went, I got to know the farmers. That’s when I discovered how poorly they are treated.
Which is to say…
Generally jam makers ask their prices, pretend that they are too high, and promise to come back two or three weeks later. Too late. Once the fruits are damaged, they buy them at a very low price, package the jam horribly, and send it all to Russia. It kills the poor Armenian peasants who already have barely enough to live on. In Armenia there are two mentalities. The first is a complete lack of respect for what you have, thinking everything is better in the West. This clearly involves an inferiority complex. The other, to the contrary, is extreme self-confidence, convinced of Armenia’s superiority to the rest of the world. Today we must reach an equilibrium and tell ourselves that yes, we are sufficiently good to enter the international market, but that at the same time we have to make an effort to me competitive. That’s the message I try to get across when I’m there.
[Terrain. Sylvia spends the harvest season in Armenia.]
How do you go about it?
We are a tribe. When you enter a tribe, you can’t tell everyone that your way is better than theirs. So you go with the flow, and once they trust you, you introduce changes. I’m not sure they trust me completely—they’re very suspicious. We are a paranoid nation, but patient… Concretely, with the farmers, we stick to the prices they give us from the beginning. If we accept them, they know that we will take all of the fruit. This assures their revenue and permits them to plant more trees so they can respond to our growing demands. We now have canning factories working exclusively for us and conforming to international standards. This took a lot of effort and dialogue. For example, while I’m in Armenia during the harvest season, I work in the factories. I spend half a day in each department and I take advantage of the opportunity to talk to the employees. I know their names, their problems. They’re happy, I think, that I’ve invested in them. Happy in the sense that their work is recognized and respected. I also use this time as an opportunity to communicate my vision for the management, which is completely different from the Soviet method where the boss and the employee are a thousand miles apart. I haven’t forgotten that I could have been one of these women. At first they’re very shy and, with a sense of hospitality that characterizes them, they don’t want me to get tired. But by the end of the day, when I talk with them, person to person, about children, about life, about cooking…I realize that they have the same problems as New Yorkers. We don’t realize how beautiful this country is; it’s a beauty we forget to see behind the corruption of the government. Sometimes, looking in from the outside, we get discouraged. But when we touch people deep within, when we listen to their stories, they show so much love…
During these trips back and forth to Armenia you created Harvest Song with James Tufenkian. How did you come up with the name?
We are an old country with pagan and Christian traditions. I remember when I was young we would go to the villages with my parents during the harvest. The farmers would sing songs thanking the harvest gods. Our name comes from that custom.
How do you explain your immediate success?
Our product is simple, 100% natural, made with fruits native to the Ararat Valley. For the rest, I don’t have an answer. We created a company without a business plan—ignorance often seems to be the best solution. All I can say is that when I received my 10,000 jars of apricot from Armenia, I asked myself what I was going to do with it all. A friend in the fruit business advised me to enter a prestigious international completion, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT), in 2006. As soon as we won, orders started to pour in. Journalists from all over the world came to see us to understand, they were looking for romantic answers. I didn’t have anything else to say. The second year we won a gold medal for our sour cherry, the third silver for fresh walnut, and the fourth another silver for wild black currant. No one else has won four awards in four years.
What difficulties have you faced?
Before ours, most jam made in Armenia was very Russian: a lot of sugar and only a little fruit, crushed in gelatin and pectin to avoid using too much. It’s a lack of savoir-faire. At the same time, they were marketing to Russia and they sold a lot. Another problem: our local production is limiting, it takes a long time for the products to reach the US. And then there’s the Soviet mentality where people don’t honor their contracts. I’ll give an example. At the beginning we found a company in Armenia that was going to make our jars. But guess what? They were poor quality and they weren’t delivered on time. We were in a panic and had to buy jars from Russia and France at a very high price. The only way to change this mentality is through the diaspora. We have to stop giving money without creating jobs. These gifts must stop. Where do they even go? I don’t see them. The Armenians must realize that they are no longer babies but adults with a country. We must be more demanding of the population and the government. Corruption is no longer acceptable.
[Credo. “We have to stop giving money without creating jobs.”]
Despite this critique, do you still believe in Armenia?
Of course in Armenia the people are different, sometimes they do things that cause huge problems, act stubborn and think they know even when they often lack understanding. But if I concentrate on our similarities, everything is much more simple. We’re all the same. You know, large companies have offered me jobs, but I always turn them down. Its soulless, that’s not my identity. I also think Armenia is at a fantastic moment. We belong to the global village, we are accepted as exotic and respected as an educated, Christian country. I think that we must hold on to who we are while keeping an ear to global change. Not to loose our identity while competing globally—that’s our challenge. We must leave our mountains and stop living like hermits. Look at our jam. The packaging is modern and our customers range from movie stars to ordinary people. They all buy a product that says, Made in Armenia. If that’s not a big gap, I don’t know what is.
We must, in the most general way, do the best at our jobs, whether as doctors, journalists, engineers…it doesn’t matter. We can leave Armenia, pulled by the vast world, but we also must learn to return and to serve, to make Armenia as competitive as any other country.