Our inaugural episode features the wonderful Sylvie Charles of Spice Mama and Just Date Syrup. A Bay Area maker of nourishing and addictive low-glycemic index date syrup, Sylvie is a second generation South Indian and former physician turned food entrepreneur. After carving out a niche for herself in the world of Ayurvedic medicine and right before she entered UCSF, Sylvie suffered from a traumatic spinal injury and was forced to look at the world and her profession a little differently. For seven years, she balanced that immense spinal injury with school and work, which constantly demanded pulling 80-90 hours per week, before she finally knew it was time to reconsider her time and priorities. In 2016, Sylvie left UCSF as a Resident Physician and began to heal her body. To fill the time, as well as nourish herself, Sylvie returned to the invigorating and delicious flavors of her youth, and rediscovered the healing power of food through both Ayurvedic spices and the possibilities of date syrup as a replacement for processed sugar. Just Date Syrup is now available at Whole Foods and many other local groceries across the U.S, as well as online.
Fondest food memory:
I specifically remember all of my aunties in a circle, grinding coconut. They had these little grinders - you would cut a coconut in half and these little grinders that would take all of the meat out. All of that coconut meat would be used for coconut rice, coconut milk and flavorings, and curries. Just remembering that moment of all of them just grinding coconut and ending up with huge piles of what looked like, I don’t know… snow? Slash grated parmesan or something? That’s my favorite food memory.
Pei-Ru Ko: It’s been a little less than a year since your live storytelling gathering - a lot of exciting things have happened for you, including an amazing feature in the San Francisco Chronicle! What has the last year looked like for both you and your companies?
Sylvie Charles: It’s been an amazing year of growth, both for the company and for me personally. It’s been humbling to watch the business grow from just selling at food fairs and food festivals and a couple of stores in San Francisco to now launching with Whole Foods tomorrow, actually. Which is extremely exciting. Nationwide, in almost 500 stores and seeing that growth and those numbers, and how we’ve really evolved as a company with a very small team has been incredibly empowering and now I feel like I can look at things from a big picture view and make good decisions for our company. And still making some bad decisions! But just learning a lot along the way and being open to that is what has really helped me personally and helped the company grow. It’s been exciting.
PK: So when we chatted with you last and heard your story, you were still very focused on Spice Mama. Can you talk a little bit about that transition?
SC: Yeah, that was a very bittersweet transition. I had Spice Mama - three Indian spices that are refined sugar-free, and were really the jumping off point for Just Date syrup. I created date syrup for my tamarind sauce and then realized that it was a stronger product on it’s own. It was tough leaving behind both the investment in Spice Mama and the products themselves, but it was the right decision as a business and I hope that one day we'll be able to circle back to some of our more unique, niche offerings, but I think the best way for us to grow the company right now is with something that everyone can use.
PK: Now that you’ve navigated both spaces - a pre-med doctor at one of the most esteemed medical schools in the US to a successful artisan food producer and entrepreneur - What are the most important lessons from medical school and training that you bring with you to Just Date Syrup?
SC: I couldn’t have done Just Date Syrup if I didn't have my medical background. I think by learning through patience and research and my general education in medicine, that all primed me for this moment where I was looking for something better for our bodies. Americas’ never going to lose it’s sweet tooth, so why not make that craving for sweets one that doesn’t destroy our bodies like refined sugar does. Refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup have both been shown repeatedly to lead to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and so many more problems with your liver, weight gain, the list goes on. In the 1990s and 2000s when everyone was on a low-fat craze, all of this sugar made its way as a replacement for the fat and to pretty much everything we ate, especially high-fructose corn syrup. Even now, in a lot of artisan products, you’ll see a lot of organic cane sugar. The difference between cane sugar and natural sweeteners like maple syrup and coconut sugar and date syrup of course, is that cane sugar is really just straight glucose, straight sucrose, straight to your blood and immediately elevating your blood sugar, so it’s really hard for your body when you have too much of it to be able to be able to manage those spikes. And you've probably felt it!
You’ve probably felt that high after a sugar rush, or after a pastry, and then the crash that comes later. And the best thing that we can do for our body's is offer it something more consistent. Date syrup, even more than maple syrup, and coconut sugar, all offer a little bit of a steadier increase in blood sugar because they have other factors that help mitigate that absorption. Being able to see this food product through the lens of nutrition and science isn’t something that I would have been necessarily capable of if I hadn’t had this background in medicine. And I’m not just saying that everyone in medicine knows so much about nutrition, but me personally, that was always something that I was really interested in and I’m excited to be able to apply it in a broader sense than just kind of one-on-one with a patient in a room for 30 minutes where it’s often forgotten by the time that person gets home. And now we get to offer it in a much broader way and talk about it on a bigger stage and that’s just been a really exciting part of the business for me.
PK: Some people might say that $8.99 per bottle is too pricey to be accessible - what are some of the challenges of being an artisan food producer?
SC: That is certainly one of the biggest challenges - it will now be $7.99 at Whole Foods, so that’s an exciting change, but of course I would love to see it continue to get lower and lower, and to really make something that I feel like is important for the general population actually accessible to their pricing. I mean, I even have some of my production staff sometimes asking - so who’s buying this at $8.99? It’s so expensive! Unfortunately, it's not like we’re not making tons of money off of that price point. It’s just that dates cost a lot of money, and until we reach a much larger scale, we won't be able to bring that price down. But that’s certainly the goal over time. I would love to see it at $6.99 or $5.99 and continue to really make it accessible for the general population. We’re coming out with single serves soon, and those we will hopefully be able to offer at a much cheaper price point. I think that's going to be really important because when people are on the go and don’t have any healthy options around them, they should be able to choose date syrup for their coffee or tea instead of the sugar that's being offered wherever they are. So because the single serves won’t have excessive packaging needs, we will be able to offer those at a more affordable price point, hopefully like a quarter per single serve.
PK: That’s exciting! On the other hand, you are soon to become a mother! And a through line throughout your storytelling is a real emphasis on food as healing, such as the immense influence charu has had on your life. From both a doctor and eater’s perspective, and now as a mom-to-be, what are your thoughts on the healing power of food?
SC: I think that during this pregnancy and being a busy entrepreneur, it’s been harder to take care of myself more than ever and even doubly as hard and guilt-inducing when you have a little human growing inside of you that you want to nourish, but you barely have time to nourish yourself. So 32 years later, I’m still relying on my mom to nourish not only me, but to nourish my baby through the same things that have always been the most healing for me - Indian spices, healing dhals, and charu. I think that more than ever, during these last nine months - and yes, I’m in my ninth month of pregnancy - it’s been really evident that eating poorly has effects on your body.
PK: In a world where more mobility and opportunities are available than ever before, and the labor landscape is changing at the fastest rate we’ve ever seen, many people are at the same crossroads you found yourself a few years ago - Maybe the narrative that we’ve told ourselves about our purpose in life isn’t completely correct. Or maybe we have let other people - whether it be our friends, families or society - dictate our narratives for too long. Do you have any advice for people that feel like they are at a crossroads in their life and might want to change careers?
SC: I think that’s a really good question and something that I contemplate a lot these days. I haven’t had any moments where I’ve looked back and kind of longed for my career in medicine - I really feel like this was the right path forward. I’ve been thinking a lot about that time and what it was like to make that decision, to leave all of that behind. My therapist at the time actually gave me great advice, and he said “just follow your nose - if you feel like doing something that day, just follow it, and see where it takes you,” and I think that having the trust in yourself to be able to do that regardless of the advice people are giving around you can really lead to amazing things downstream. So if I had any advice, it would be, follow your gut! Trust your intuition and explore. Spice Mama is a good example of where things started - that’s how I entered the food world, but transitioned to something that makes even more sense to me, and even more sense for the company. Being able to transition quickly, based on where your intuition is leading you is a really important quality when you’re thinking about changing careers.
PK: Beautiful. Thank you Sylvie, for sitting down with us today.
SC: Thank you for having me!