Model’s good taste behind first sugar-free coffee shop in Dubai
Elena Weber is a Dubai-based fashion model with a very sweet tooth. But rather than nibbling on salads to stay slim, the German discovered stevia, a natural sweetener that allows her to eat her favourite foods without piling on the pounds.
And she’s made it the signature ingredient for her chain of the UAE’s first sugar-free coffee shops.
The first Icons coffee couture cafe opened last October in Souk Al Bahar, Dubai, with the advertising slogan No sugar added – ‘cause you’re sweet enough.
The brand has since signed a franchising agreement for a further six outlets in the UAE, and five in Qatar. A branch in Mina Al Arab, Ras Al Khaimah’s waterfront community, opens this month.
“I love sweets and chocolate, just like every woman, and it was a hassle for me when I was modelling full time,” admits Ms Weber, 28, who has worked for leading brands such as Pantene since she was 18. “One of my biggest challenges was to stay skinny. Sugar is highly addictive, and that’s why I suffered, because I never could stop eating sweets. Today you seldom find a product that doesn’t contain sugar – you find it in breads, tomato soups, sauces, but it’s one of the main reasons for diabetes and obesity.”
Her cafe concept is certainly needed. The International Diabetes Federation states that 382 million worldwide are living with diabetes and 19 per cent of the UAE population now has the disease.
Ms Weber was modelling for a charity initiative in Argentina in 2011 when she came across stevia. “People there were using stevia’s green leaves in their tea to make it sweet. They told me it’s 300 times sweeter than sugar, and has zero calories. I thought ‘Oh my God, that’s the solution to all my problems’,” says Ms Weber.
“I found out you can use it to make cakes and sweets and it occurred to me to make a business out of it. When I looked into getting a patent for stevia, I found that Coca-Cola had already reserved it. That was the first indicator that it was about to hit the mass market.”
When Ms Weber returned home to Germany from the assignment, stevia had just been approved for use in the EU, but she was only able to procure it from pharmacies where it was sold to diabetics.
“The first cakes I made were horrible so I got a pastry chef on board and his cakes came out super-great. People who tried them couldn’t taste any difference between stevia and sugar.”
Then three years ago she approached Union International Holdings Group – based in Ras Al Khaimah – with a business plan to launch a sugar-free cafe chain.
Ms Weber had completed a semester’s internship at Union Holdings in 2007, as part of a business administration degree from Munich University. In a meeting with the company’s chief executive before completing her placement, he told her to return any time with her business ideas.
“I took my business plan and some stevia cupcakes for them to try. It took me nine months until I had the whole board convinced that their investment would make sense,” she says.
The union has led to the launch of the cafe franchise as well as an agreement with Bin Majid Hotels and Resorts to serve the young company’s coffee at five hotels, with plans to double that number by the end of this year.
Capitalising on her status as a fashion model, Ms Weber is also marketing her brand as a “fashion cafe”.
Ms Weber says: “We didn’t want to be just a diabetic concept, because then people think ‘No, I’m not sick, actually’. And as a model, I always feel people are attracted to the fashion world. We want to project a lifestyle brand more like Armani – with a beautiful interior, so it looks more high-end, but at a price level on the Starbucks side. We don’t want to promote being super-thin. We still sell cakes, ice-creams, frappés and hot chocolates, we just try to make them as healthy as possible.”
And for customers with an appetite for luxury, Icons also offers the world’s most expensive coffee, Indonesian kopi luwak, made from the seeds of coffee berries that have been eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet (Dh180 for one pot).
While Ms Weber still finds time for the occasional modelling job, she says she is now more driven by her business. “I think I’m married to my business – and every shop coming up is one more baby.”
The value of stevia as an additive for use in food and beverage manufacturing totalled US$110 million last year – a figure that Mintel and Leatherhead Food Research forecast to grow to $275m by 2017. So the brand may not remain the only sugar-free cafe for long.
“I hope there will be more coffee shops offering stevia in the future,” says Ms Weber, “because I think we need to change our outlook, and really let food do what it’s supposed to do. It should empower us and make us feel good, not age us.”
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Published: October 20, 2014 04:00 AM