Make a date this Ramadan

From buffet platters to custom-made gift boxes, Rotana Foods is diversifying its dates product offerings under the Nadiya brand

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  September 5, 2005

|~|dates2L.jpg|~|Customised gift packs are a popular choice with hotels across the region.|~|Hotels across the region are now busy preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, and are getting ready to stock up for Iftar and Suhour buffets. Dates will be central to all menus and supplier Rotana Foods is preparing for an influx of orders. The company launched its Nadiya brand of Saudi dates four years ago, and it is about to celebrate its third Ramadan with expectations high for a bumper season. “Muslims from different countries may eat different traditional regional dishes at their Iftar dinners, but all Muslims are required to break the fast with a date. It is a religious requirement, and as dates are generally in excess of 65% sugar, it provides an instant carb boost after a day without food or water,” explains Tim Davies, general manager of Rotana Foods. “Consumption of dates during Ramadan increases dramatically. Hotels will host Iftar dinners, and Rotana provides special platters for the tables, and gifts for the dinner hosts,” he adds. According to Davies, sales of dates in the run up to Ramadan increase six-fold, and remain high throughout the month and on into Eid. In fact, since the company launched Nadiya four years ago, Rotana has recorded 150% year on year growth. So what’s the secret of Nadiya’s success? Davies claims quite simply it is the quality of the product and the extra services Rotana offers. “Rotana Foods has a purchasing team based in Qassim in Saudi Arabia. They select the best farms and best fruit from those farms each year for Rotana Foods. They inspect the dates even before harvest and then again at harvest time against our specifications, which include moisture level, insect damage, colour and size conformity, taste, texture and sugar content. Dates that meet our specifications represent less than 5% of the overall production,” he claims. Rotana only buys dates from Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of dates in the world. The country produces in excess of 800,000 tons of dates each year. What’s more, Saudi Arabian dates are considered the best in the world. “Saudi dates are deemed the noblest of all dates, coming from the holy land. They are also regarded by many connoisseurs as the best quality dates,” Davies remarks. There are several hundred varieties of dates. The main varieties that Rotana offers are Khodri, Sagai, Khalas, Sukkari, Safawi, Mabroom, Barhi and Amwaj. The harvest for dry dates starts in September. “In order to produce high quality large size dates suitable for Rotana Foods, the dates bunches must be thinned to allow maximum nutrition to the remaining fruit. This technique is only used by a fraction of the region’s date farmers. “They must be harvested at their peak of ripeness when the sugar levels have reached maximum concentration, but before the dates become too dry and hard, and before dates become damaged by insects,” Davies adds. The dates are dispatched to the Rotana Foods factory in Jebel Ali by truck during September and October, and are sorted according to size and variety. They are treated to ensure no insect infestation can occur, and are stored in cold storage to keep them at their peak condition until they are needed. At the factory, the dates are washed and either stuffed with nuts, dry or candied fruits, or left whole. The dates are then distributed to hotels by Rotana Foods’ sister company, Al Tenmia Foods, food importers and distributors. The cold storage facility means that even if Ramadan falls before the date harvest, Rotana Foods will still be able to meet customer requirements. “If Ramadan is before harvest it puts more pressure on production,” says Davies. “They will last for 18 months in cold store, as they have an 18-month shelf life anyway. Once they are out of the cold store, the dates need to be consumed within 3-4 months to be at their best, when they are moist and have a good appearance,” he explains. Rotana Foods specialises in providing a wide range of date products for the hospitality industry. “We specialise in whole dates, but also produce chopped dates, sliced dates and date paste. We provide a service, so hotels get dates from one place,” Davies says. Hotels look for dates of the same size, colour, and with no skin blemishes. From 100 dates, 60% are the perfect dates, with the other 40% we produce chopped and sliced dates, or date paste. It is a way of using them,” he says. The company provides date platters for Iftar and Suhour buffets, as well as individually wrapped dates and dates in gift boxes, which can be custom designed to match a hotel’s corporate image. “Rotana offer dates for hotel gift shops, or packed in gift packs often personalised with the hotel’s logo, so that the hotels can give them to guests as a welcome gift in the room. We also supply the kitchens with loose dates (whole and stuffed) for the buffet, executive lounges, and individually wrapped dates that are given out at various points in the hotel to guests. Whole, chopped dates, date paste and date syrup are supplied for baking,” says Davies. “Orders can be delivered within 24 hours, though we generally work on long-term contracts with the hotels. For Ramadan orders, hotels often need new packaging, as the box carries a Ramadan message. For this, we need four weeks to deliver a new programme, to get the specifications right and the packaging right. In September, the orders will start coming in, but the earlier the better,” Davies says. The corporate gift market is huge and Rotana relies on it for the rest of the year. The company is now considering entering the retail arena, following success at gift shops in hotels. Rotana is considering gourmet shops in shopping malls and duty free for distribution of Nadiya dates. In addition, the company is diversifying its product range, and introducing a new range of chocolate-coated dates this month. The new variety combines Belgian chocolate with Saudi dates, and it will feature the same stuffings with a choice of milk or dark chocolate coating. “We are introducing the chocolate dates to expand the range and bring something new to the market, to introduce dates to people who have not had dates before. We see this product replacing the traditional box of chocolates. Dates are caramelly and chewy so they are an ideal paring for chocolate,” Davies explains. However, he is quick to point out that while consumers in this region have a sweet tooth, the chocolate-coated dates are not suitable for breaking fast. “The chocolate product is not targeted at Ramadan. We see it as a gift for non-Muslims and think it will be great for tourists to take home,” he says. Rotana Foods is looking forward to a bright future as the company continues to diversify and hone its dates offering. “For hotels, we have expansion plans initially within the GCC premium hotel market, and are looking for qualified distributors to represent us,” Davies reveals. In the meantime though, Rotana is firmly focused on maximising its reach during Ramadan.||**||

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