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For saucemakers like Bisharo Ali, road to market leads through Cornell

When guests compliment your sauce by saying you should sell it, they have no idea how much work they’re asking you to do.

Bisharo Ali does. The mother of nine brought her fenugreek-fueled dream for a sauce business all the way from Somalia.

It took the Cornell Food Venture Center, in Geneva, N.Y., to help it come true.

In a Broadway Market kitchen, Ali makes sauces and a drink containing the spice fenugreek, under the brand name Najah, which means “success” in her native tongue. Her apple-fenugreek drink, tamarind-fenugreek sauce and date-fenugreek sauce are currently sold in seven Buffalo-area locations.

“Every immigrant has made a contribution to what we call the American melting pot, taking the best of their culture and letting it merge into their new environment,” she said. “Najah is my donation to the pot. I do hope that my legacy lives to enter every American home.”

Najah, the fenugreek-apple drink. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Like anyone with a recipe and a dream, Ali needed to meet federal regulations that govern food production to bring her wares to market. The Food and Drug Administration’s rules protect consumers from getting food that could make them dangerously ill, but they can be quite a hurdle for small businesses just starting up.

The Food Venture Center, part of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, offers services and classes to help entrepreneurs meet regulators’ demands. The center, in business for 30 years, recently unveiled $13 million in improvements and a new pilot plant making modern food and drink research and processing more accessible to businesses.

In the mid-1990s Ali immigrated to the United States from Somalia. After 16 years in Minnesota, she moved to Buffalo in 2010. When she considered starting her own business, she settled on fenugreek, a Somali staple with an ancient pedigree. Fenugreek seeds were found in Tutankamen’s tomb, and its seeds and greens are used in cuisines across Africa, the Middle East and south Asia.

It’s a common ingredient in prepared curry powder. By itself, it tastes rather like maple, to the extent that it’s used in maple flavoring.

It’s also prized by Somalis and others for its health benefits, she said, as it is thought to be helpful for diabetics in controlling sugar, and milk production in mothers breastfeeding infants.

Bisharo Ali in the process of creating Najah. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Najah’s date and tamarind sauces, which come in mild and spicy, are versions of the sort of condiments Somalis commonly make at home, she said. The apple-fenugreek drink is her bid to get an American-friendly fenugreek drink to market.

Ali started her learning curve at the Westminster Economic Development Initiative and Buffalo State College’s Small Business Development Center, where a brochure led her to Cornell.

“Our focus is on the small food startups and entrepreneurs, because we can provide the basic food safety information they need to be validated to get into the market, especially if they have a product that have to be registered with the FDA” said Bruno Xavier. He’s a “processing authority,” a combination of scientist, consultant and coach.

“Everyone has a recipe to make their food,” Xavier said. “Sometimes the instructions are not precise enough to show an inspector the level of assurance he needs to have that the final product is safe. What we do is translate that recipe into a set of instructions that include the minimal processing conditions required for the product to be stable.”

In Ali’s case, that meant adjustments like increasing the acidity of her tamarind sauce, he said. Otherwise it would have been at risk of growing harmful bacteria. “To adjust the recipe, she had to balance the amount of acid in the form of vinegar, so it would not overcome the flavor of the product,” Xavier said. “That’s a very common situation: reducing the impact of making the changes to manufacture the product in a large scale, so not to be noticeable to the final consumer.”

The center evaluates about 3,000 products a year, but Xavier recalled Najah fondly. “Her tamarind sauce was very special,” he said. “Here at the lab we remember it was very good.”

Ali also attended a two-day Cornell class to earn a required certification to supervise the production of acidified foods.

In her Broadway Market kitchen, just big enough for her solo operation, Ali supervises herself.

She simmers ground fenugreek with apple juice in a huge kettle, making sure it gets to the proper temperature to ensure its stability.

Bisharo Ali bottles some fenugreek-apple drink at the Broadway Market. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Then she pours it into bottles one at a time, screwing on the cap and lining them up on a cart. When the cart is full, she slips plastic sleeves on the bottles and shrinks them with a hairdryer so they tighten onto the cap.

So far, she’s sold more than 7,000 bottles of Najah products, and hopes to grow her business. Recently she bought a former funeral home nearby on Stanislaus Street, to be renovated into her new, expanded workplace and home.

“I was very excited getting this small kitchen,” Ali said in her Broadway Market space, over the hum of the hairdryer. “Now I’m thinking I need to make it big.”

Where to find: Najah products are available at Guercio & Sons, 250 Grant St.; Super Bazaar, 3218 Sheridan Drive; Walden Halal Groceries, 57 Walden Ave.; African Market, 355 Grant St.; Mandela Market, 272 E. Ferry St. Bisharo also sells at the Broadway Market, 999 Broadway, and at the Clinton-Bailey Farmers Market on Saturdays.

If you have a product: Email cfvc@cornell.edu or 315-787-2273 to learn how the Cornell Food Venture Center can help.

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