Flavor is everything

Few people are aware that real vanilla extract can enhance the taste of a wide variety of dishes. Can one small company convince the public to use its product?

Amber Flavors 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Amber Flavors 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Since on Shavuot the custom for many is to eat dairy products, dessert can include real (non-parve) ice-cream and of course cheesecake.
What some might not realize is the fact that many of these desserts, including cakes, fine chocolates and of course ice cream, most likely include a natural ingredient extracted from the fruit of a member of the orchid family, whose purpose is to make those mouthwatering desserts taste even better.
Believe it or not, that mystery ingredient is not a mystery at all, rather it’s the internationally- traded commodity known simply as “all natural vanilla.”
In Israel, a lot of the demand for all-natural vanilla extract sold in health food stores, included in the recipes of chefs in gourmet restaurants and found in the food served in catering halls and hotels, is met thanks to Josh Cohen, whose company, Amber Flavors Ltd., imports high-quality all-natural vanilla extract along with other natural extracts and sells them to food distributors for use throughout the country.
Until now Amber Flavors has been marketing products under the US label Bakto Flavors. That’s about to change as Amber Flavors expands its product line.
Cohen, who made aliya from New Jersey in 2001, and lives in the community of Hashmonaim with his wife and three children, had been working in the hi-tech sector for 17 years and decided it was time for a change.
At first, the Cohens, both husband and wife, starting churning homemade, all-natural ice cream at home and selling their creation door to door in their community. The product was received so well that they expanded, selling to a local health food store and to nightclubs. At some point, though, they realized the tremendous capital needed to run a truly lucrative ice cream business and, lacking the necessary funding, thought of other similar ways to make a living.
That’s when Cohen went back to basics, and instead of selling icecream took a stab at importing and selling one of the raw ingredients found in ice cream: vanilla.
So in 2005, he founded a company and started importing all-natural vanilla extract from the US, along with many other extracts including almond, orange, rose and rum, and selling them in specialty and health food stores. By the end of the year, his products had made their way to the shelves of over 40 stores around the country.
Due to the company’s success, Cohen identified other food distributors and expanded the business, selling his products throughout the food service industry which includes cafes, restaurants, catering companies, bakeries and even icecream manufacturers.
“What some people don’t often realize,” says Cohen, “is that vanilla is not only found in desserts, but is used by chefs to enhance flavor in savory dishes including tomato sauces, vegetable dishes [especially orange vegetables], fish and poultry recipes, and salads.”
He explains that vanilla is also used in the healthcare and cosmetics industry as an ingredient in perfumes, soaps, lotions and other skin-care products.
In addition, Cohen says that consumers are often unaware that “most of the vanilla you find in the local supermarket is imitation vanilla, and not from the vanilla plant at all. It’s made from synthesized chemicals, usually from petroleum or a byproduct of paper production. What we offer is real, allnatural vanilla, a pure product originating from the vanilla plant. Discerning home chefs and cooks can certainly tell the difference!” Cohen says that he became knowledgeable in vanilla, which according to his estimate is “approximately an NIS 5 million a year business in Israel, if you’re talking about imports,” mostly while learning on the job. He becomes animated explaining the history of vanilla, its uses, the locations it’s grown in around the world (in numerous countries with tropical climates, near the equator), and the complex process of turning the vanilla beans into extract suitable for consumption, which involves curing the vanilla beans, and the extraction process itself, using alcohol and water.
He says there are two species of vanilla that are acceptable for use in food and that “vanilla is almost like grapes in that vanilla grown in different regions results in different flavor profiles. In other words, it is possible to have different flavors of vanilla based on where the plant is grown.”
For some immigrants, starting a small business in Israel might seem like a daunting task, and while Cohen admits there were bureaucratic obstacles along the way including obtaining the various import licenses, food storage licenses and others, “I learned that with patience and perseverance I could ultimately achieve all that was necessary.”
For Cohen, language and culture were also a challenge in the beginning, but he says he was able to overcome those barriers, and in fact, his Hebrew has improved tremendously thanks to all the Hebrew he speaks interacting with distributors and customers at his job.
BUT MORE than anything, he says that he is grateful. “Israel is a true entrepreneurial society. Everyone is so accepting, and willing to take a chance on you.” He adds that “networking in Israel is so much easier than in the US. If people like you and your product, they are willing to get on the phone to their contacts and vouch that what you have to offer is good. And that word of mouth,” he says “really helps.”
Cohen, who says he does about NIS 1 million of trade in flavors a year, also believes his success in the field has a lot to do with timing.
“There are two trends in Israel today which have benefited us,” he says. “One is the fact that Israeli consumers are demanding healthier foods while at the same time there is a demand for gourmet.”
In regard to Israelis being more healthconscious, he cites as proof the fact that several major supermarket chains including Mega and Shufersal have opened “stores within their stores, exclusively for the purpose of selling healthy foods.”
In addition, Cohen says the popularity of gourmet cooking shows on television, hosted by celebrity chefs, leads to greater sales.
In fact, he says that “there have been times when we immediately feel a boost in sales, and only later discover that some famous chef mentioned one of our products on TV.”
While of course he understands that the words “health” and “ice cream” don’t often appear side by side and says, “you don’t want to live exclusively off ice cream,” he insists that his all-natural vanilla, “which contains no artificial flavors or colors, when used in the ice cream made by his customers who manufacture the product, is a healthier alternative.”
For Cohen his ideal customer is “someone in the food service industry interested in buying cases of our products, or in other words, in bulk.” At the same time he highly values his retail customers, stating “that market is growing for us, primarily based on word of mouth.”
His future goals for the business include “leveraging the strong relationships we have with our distributors, in order to continue to improve our products, and introduce new products into the market. It’s all about trust,” he adds, “as long as customers believe in our products, and want them, they will sell.”
“Ultimately,” he says, “we hope to export products outside of the country as well.”