From the Bitter Part of a Sales Job to the Sweet Beginnings of a Jam Business

Translated from the original on Wall Street Romania. 

OMV Petrom in partnership with NESsT Romania ran the "Made in Andrei Country" Competition. The winning entrepreneurs received seed capital and business mentoring. We feature one of the winning enterprises. 

Bunicel, the sweet little business Mihai Zaharia founded four years ago, came at a time when the young entrepreneur was no longer satisfied with the job he had as a salesman. Mihai says the frustrating part of his job as a salesman led him to start his own business. Their business employs small-scale producers from low-income backgrounds in the local area, Micesti, while also using local and seasonal products. 

Mihai and his wife, Alexandra, started the business after making fruit jam in his orchard.

I am from Costesti, Arges County — where I grew up. My father and mother are not there, they came during communism, they got an apartment. Dad bought a land of 1,800 square meters, where he made a house and planted an orchard. There are apples, plums, peaches, apricots, cherries, cherries. After my grandmother from Tulcea died, my parents went back and sold the apartment in Arges, but the land and the house remained.
— Mihai Zaharia, Founder of Bunicel

And because the property remained "somewhat abandoned," but the fruit was still there, Mihai and Alexandra wanted to do something.

"In 2013 we started to experiment and made 30-40 jars of jam. At first we did it for ourselves, then for friends. When we saw that they were being appreciated we thought make a business out of it," says Mihai.

At first they made the jam using traditional recipes, with 50% fruit and 50% sugar. Traditional jam is still in the product portfolio, but two more categories have been added: sugar free and no special sweets.

"The main feature of traditional jam is that fruits are often whole, such as candy or strawberry jam. The strawberries are in the sugar sauce and preserved. Very good, but very sweet and with a lot of sugar. And so came the second category, sugar-free products: sugar-free fruit can be used, but only those with more pectin, which are boiled (plums, peaches) and become a jam and preserved. And we also have the third category, in which we take the basic fruits - apples, plums, peaches - that have a lot of pectin and combine them with other fruits that have a special flavor, but they do not have pectin, like raspberry," says Mihai.

In the business, Alexandra is the person who deals with the recipes for the jams.

In the business, Alexandra is the person who deals with the recipes for the jams.

"I have no sense of taste, instead Alexandra has something native, a talent. When I was in college at Politehnica, and I was sitting in the home, I ate something wrong and I did not realize it was not good anymore," says Mihai. Mihai handles the production itself and promotion.

Special products include: plum jam with grapes and star anise, which has no sugar at all; Peach jam, corcodus and cardamom and strawberry jam, raspberry and ginger.

"Alexandra invents the recipes 100%. She has the ideas on how to combine the fruit and all of them have a logic: a fruity with a strong taste, one with a desoebite flavor, then the seasoning comes to an end, to fill the taste ", details Mihai Zaharia.

Jams and preserves are made in the house on the land purchased by Mihai Zaharia's father, which was transformed into a "factory", last year equipped with modern equipment, after Bunicel was among the ten winners of the "Made In the Land of Andrei "by OMV Petrom. "They gave us a grant of 32,000 euros that we invested in the business. We invested in hoods, stainless steel cookers, licenses, analyzes, certifications. All this costs a lot, we would have had no way to do without this grant," explains Mihai Zaharia.

Winning the Petrom grant also meant changing the small business into a social business. "One of the conditions was to hire people from the underprivileged environment, and another to work with producers from this environment and to have a community workplace, this being Micesti, near Maracineni," says Mihai, stating that the fruit production of this orchard never reached the needs of the small factory, which tripled its volume from year to year, from 1,000 jars of jam in 2014 to 3,000 jars in 2015 and 9,000 jars last year.

"The fruit production in our orchard has been inadequate since the first year, so we have been buying from local producers since 2014. We also need vegetables, because, we make sweet peppers, for example. We buy from the area, from local producers as small as possible," explains Mihai Zaharia.

The sales are made 90% online through the site , the average order is around 100 lei, and delivery is free. The clients are both companies and individuals. The products can also be found in some grocery stores selling traditional products.

Consultancy has been very important. I’ve been to workshops before, but you often miss two hours at a workshop where there’s a lot of ‘bla-bla’ from people who have never done that. NESsT has been very diligent. You leave with something concrete with useful information for your business
— Mihai Zaharia

The fact that the business is a social one means one thing: profit must be reinvested. "We have salaries, but we often do not. We live out of this business and my wife's job. We are so passionate about this business that many of our personal activities are also related to our business," says Mihai.

The business registered a total revenue of USD $20,500 and a net profit of USD $5,500 last year. Last year, was the first year Bunicel made a profit, which is a goal that Mihai set in 2016.