A doctorate in dates: Persian heritage inspires growing business to take root

On the wall of Daryoush Davidi’s Berkeley office, along with his diplomas and organic certification for his company, is a framed certificate with an ornate gold border and a small photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini. A picture of Davidi as a boy also appears on the certificate.

“This acknowledges that I was a good Islamic student and that I will fight for Islam,” Davidi translated from the Farsi, trying to keep a straight face. And then: “It’s a reminder of what I went through — the needing to blend in to survive.”

Davidi has tucked a photo of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe, into the corner of the same frame.

It’s been an interesting journey since Davidi fled his native Iran for the United States nearly 30 years ago. When he told his mother as a newly minted Ph.D. in psychology that he didn’t want to pursue that field but wanted to sell dates instead, she cried.

“We came to this country so you could be a doctor or lawyer, not a merchant,” she said through her tears.

She’s not crying anymore. In the past decade, the El Cerrito resident, 41, has largely realized his goal of becoming “the date guy of the Bay Area” through his company, United With Earth (unitedwithearth.com). He represents five growers and supplies specialty markets, including Berkeley Bowl and chains like Sprouts and Wegmans on the East Coast, with organic Medjool dates grown in the Coachella Valley of Southern California and Persian cucumbers grown in Baja California.

Davidi, who was born in Tehran in 1975 and immigrated to Los Angeles with his family in 1987, chose these products for a reason.

Daryoush Davidi with his product photo/alix wall

“It’s a way to embrace my culture and educate people about my culture,” Davidi said in an interview. “This product keeps me who I am.”

Dates hail from the Middle East and are mentioned in the Bible. Davidi’s own family, in keeping with Persian Jewish custom, used dates in haroset at Passover. And the new crop was always eaten on Rosh Hashanah in honor of the new year.

Davidi said he does a lot of business during the Muslim festival Ramadan, when it is traditional to eat dates because Mohammed is said to have broken his daily fast with them. Copts eat dates during Lent. And when Jesus came to Jerusalem, date palm fronds were shaken to herald his arrival.

“They are the oldest cultivated fruit in the world, but they haven’t gotten much recognition,” Davidi said. “I wanted to sell something that hadn’t yet reached its full market potential. I don’t sell onions or potatoes.”

The middle of three brothers, Davidi can still remember how after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 there was a dramatic change from normal for his Jewish family. When he was about 7, he recalls both Israeli and American flags being burned at his Islamic school in Tehran in front of all the students. When he went home and told his family what he had witnessed, it planted the seeds for their eventual move to the United States.

They wouldn’t make it to Los Angeles for another eight years, during which time Davidi felt he had to hide his Judaism from most people.

“I felt scared in my daily life, but I had to blend in and learn how to read the Koran,” he said. “During Ramadan, I’d go to the mosque to be part of the boys. I was scared to tell people I was Jewish, as I wasn’t sure what would come of it.”

While coming to the United States improved the family’s life in some ways, in other ways it did not; his parents’ marriage didn’t survive. Davidi’s mother, now single, began selling dates to ethnic markets in L.A. to support the family. He took it upon himself to cook for his brothers, making things like pita pizza by putting a pita in the toaster oven topped with ketchup and Kraft American cheese. Fortunately his cuisine improved over time.

In 2006, after getting his Ph.D. and changing his mind about his life’s direction, Davidi moved to San Francisco and lived in a friend’s basement, starting the work that would eventually grow into his business. He began by approaching small retailers, asking if they would carry his dates. He had learned from his mother, who would drive to the Coachella Valley, pay farmers in cash and sell the product to small ethnic markets in Los Angeles.

Today, “I buy from small growers but am able to give them a higher return because of my model,” Davidi said. He doesn’t have a warehouse. “Whatever product I have, I drop-ship it to the retailers, and since dates are shelf stable, they don’t go bad right away.”

Meanwhile, as his date business was growing, one client suggested that he start selling Persian cucumbers, too. After researching the matter, Davidi learned that the best place to grow them is Mexico — mostly in Baja California — and that there are many Israelis who move there and work in agriculture.

Davidi was introduced to an Israeli who was looking for a change and jumped at the chance to move to Mexico and head the company’s Persian cucumber-growing operation.

“Israeli growers are amazing. They can fertilize anything with their drip system irrigation, and there are many of them implementing Israeli practices in Mexico,” he said. “A lot of the agricultural companies growing in Mexico recruit from Israel.”

Today his Persian cucumbers (those are his at Trader Joe’s) outsell the dates, as cucumbers are popular no matter what culture.

Davidi’s products are organic, GMO-free and kosher, and he just launched an online business at www.shopdates.com.

Davidi said he hopes he’s building a business that his two children can take over some day. He’ll have to wait, since one is now in pre-K at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito and the other is in preschool at Gan Shalom in Berkeley.

“My business doesn’t just allow me to make a living, but it allows me to keep my history alive,” he said. “It’s important for my kids to know my roots.”

 

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."