A mother-daughter duo have turned their personal love of hibiscus into a successful beverage line.
Growing up, Gina El Kattan, a current Duke MBA student, and her mother Amal Soliman always had hibiscus in the fridge. And when the family moved from Egypt to Oakville, Ontario, a few years ago, Soliman made sure to bring some dried hibiscus flowers and serve the beverage as a welcome drink for any guests who entered the house.
Time and time again, the drink was a hit. So much so that neighbors began asking if they could have bottles to take home.
That sparked an idea in El Kattan and Soliman. Maybe they could create a business around their beloved hibiscus drink, which had yet to be widely discovered in Canada or elsewhere in North America.
It was then that Nuba, a startup they named for the Egyptian region where the drink’s flowers are grown, was born.
“We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” El Kattan said. “We just had this thought of ‘Hey, hibiscus is really good for you. We don’t see it on the market in Canada. Let’s just try this.’”
Now available in around 400 Canadian stores, the ready-to-drink drink company is just getting started. They’ve made an appearance on Dragons’ Den, the Canadian version of Shark Tank, in which they literally moved one of the dragons to tears. The appearance landed them a major account the day it aired in December, and they now have customers from independent stores and Whole Foods across Canada.
They’ve also unveiled low- and no-sugar options to their original hibiscus beverage product in addition to creating a second line of drinks called Flavours of the Middle East, which offers tamarind and apricot flavors.
Targeting both health-conscious consumers curious to try something new as well as Middle Eastern people looking for a familiar taste, Nuba provides functional beverages that are good for you, El Kattan said. And they are looking for more ready-to-drink markets to grow into—including the U.S.
Many people who have no connection to the Middle East have appreciated the brand’s story and its products’ unique flavors, she added.
“People want to see who’s behind the brand,” El Kattan said. “People really resonated with our story, and that’s just been so heartwarming and rewarding.”
El Kattan said Nuba’s social impact has always been a vital part of their mission. While supporting small farmers in Egypt, Nuba offers these local workers five times the amount they would generally make during harvest season.
“We want to be a really authentic Middle Eastern brand that’s bringing top-quality products while supporting small-scale farmers in the region,” El Kattan said.
Ultimately, Nuba is a reflection of El Kattan and Soliman’s Egyptian culture and they are protective of its image to customers who try the drink, both Egyptian and non-Egyptian alike.
“We have a responsibility to do this in a way that represents us and our culture,” El Kattan said. “This is deeply personal to us. It’s where we’re from. It’s not like we went on vacation in Egypt and decided to come back and do this. There’s just that level of responsibility.”
Throughout their startup journey, El Kattan and Soliman have transformed from people with initially no experience with consumer packaged goods to strong business leaders capable of handling the never-ending challenges of running their own manufacturing and more, according to El Kattan.
“When you’re doing your own manufacturing, nothing ever goes right,” El Kattan said. “You need to build a buffer for that. Every time there’s a production run, there’s a mini-disaster.”
Because they are in charge of their own manufacturing, Nuba has retained complete control over its supply chain, which has been especially helpful during the pandemic, El Kattan said.
The business has still undergone some significant obstacles because of Covid-19, though.
Grocery customers initially didn’t want to spend a lot of time looking at new products in stores, making new customer acquisition more challenging than it would have been previously. Additionally, store demos and trade shows were out of the question at the onset of the pandemic.
Things are on an upswing now, though, as Nuba gets its products into trade shows and festivals and looks to expand its offerings beyond Canada.
“We are definitely wanting to dip our toes in the U.S. market,” El Kattan said. “It’s a whole different beast.”