Entrepreneurs Bring South African Goodies To The Diaspora

Entrepreneurs Bring South African Goodies To The Diaspora

Wendy Cohen and Dan Siagel were on vacation in South Africa when they tasted something that sent them into a foodie frenzy. It was the best nougat they’d ever had, they said, made by a family business in KwaZulu-Natal.

Cohen, who grew up in Cape Town, is a nurse with a sweet tooth who splits her time between Boston and Cape Town. Siagel is a former IT guy.

They loved the nougat made by Walters Handmade Honey Nougat so much they became U.S. wholesale distributors for it.

The delicious treats that reminded Cohen of her native South Africa became the inspiration for the couple’s company, Cape Town Trader. They started small in the basement of their Boston-area home. Now they work out of a warehouse, delivering South African nougat — along with other lines of South African food including biltong, jams, jellies and chutneys — to gourmet food stores anywhere in the U.S. where expat South African communities live.

One of their customers is Marty Siegel, owner of Marty’s Gourmet Foods & Spirits in Newtonville, Mass.

In his gourmet store, Marty carries steaks from Uruguay — “the finest source of beef on the planet that’s grass fed,” he said in a phone interview with AFKInsider — and tomatoes grown on Mount Vesuvius in Piennolo National Park. He also sells Jeni’s ice cream from Ohio, made with cream from grass-fed cows.

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Marty knows fine food. He carries more than 50 South African products distributed by Cape Town Trader. Walters nougat is totally addicting, he said. That and the biltong.

Foods such as the nougat bring South African shoppers back in touch with South Africa, he said, and “we sell a tremendous amount. Once they’ve had it, they tell people about it. They buy it as gifts. It’s an extremely popular product. It’s something that, when we’re out of it, we’re not happy.”

Siagel remembers vividly his first encounter with Walters nougat. “We were in a store in Cape Town and they had Angel biscuits — shortbread filled with crunchy nougat that Walters makes. I’d never had anything like that in my entire life,” he said. “It was absolutely breathtaking. It forced us to try some of their other products.”

Cape Town Trader started with a small nougat order. Everyone loved the stuff, Cohen said. It comes in flavors such as ginger and almond, cranberry and macadamia nut. Every subsequent order got bigger.

Then the company added more products such as Fynbos chili sauce, made in Malmesbury, Western Cape, and Chaloner apricot jam and plum chutney from Stellenbosch. They also sell four flavors of Nandos peri-peri sauce from the South African chicken restaurant chain that went global.

The bulk of Cape Town Trader’s business is wholesale distribution. It sells to other South African distributors. Its South African product lines are in 100 gourmet food stores in the U.S., “especially in Massachusetts,” Cohen said. “South Africans go looking for their products.”

Cape Town Trader also sells on Amazon.com, Abesmarket.com (a site for natural food products) and on its own website. The couple does its own labeling and hand-wraps the nougat.

Walters Nougat, located in the town of Howick, is involved in the local community, working with HIV/AIDS orphans. That’s important to her, Cohen said.

The Ethembeni HIV/AIDS ministry cares for children and families affected by HIV in Mpophomeni, an area of KwaZulu-Natal whose population has more than 50-percent HIV/AIDS incidence and more than 60-percent unemployment, according to the Walters website. Walters helps provide a four-bed care center, a community center for children and home-based care.

When Cohen and Siagel started distributing Walters Nougat, the company turned them onto other fine food makers. Many of the specialty foods they deal in are organic, or have no preservatives, Cohen said.

Cape Town Trader has customers from California to Vancouver and Minnesota to Florida.

It hasn’t been an easy sell, Cohen said.

“It’s very hard to get people in the States to realize what good products we have in South Africa,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”

Before they can sell, Cape Town Trader gives away a lot of samples to potential buyers for big stores.

So what goes into Walters Nougat? The company isn’t giving away its secrets. But here’s how the Walters staff starts each day: with a song and a prayer, according to the Walters website.

The Walters Nougat team Photo: waltersnougat.com
The Walters Nougat team
Photo: waltersnougat.com

“Listening to 60 Zulu voices singing in harmony is powerful stuff,” the website says. “We are (not) spiritual leaders, but by simply providing this opportunity to take five minutes out of our day to acknowledge God and to give thanks, our little business has grown in many exciting directions.”

At the company’s website, you can click on a link to hear the Walters Nougat team singing.