New Bethlehem Startup Imports and Sells Rare Spice From Iran

By Colin McEvoy on July 21, 2017

Zaffrus is the brand of saffron sold by Almas Foods International, a Bethlehem startup founded by Ali Almasi.

Zaffrus is the brand of saffron sold by Almas Foods International, a Bethlehem startup founded by Ali Almasi. (photo by Morgan Buchas/MDB Photography)

When Ali Almasi first traveled from Iran to the Lehigh Valley, he had no idea he’d be starting the business he runs today.

Almasi, 30, traveled 6,500 miles to move to the region specifically to join Lehigh University’s Technical Entrepreneurship Master’s Program, which he said his research led him to discover was one of the top entrepreneurship programs in the country.

Today, he is running his own company importing and selling saffron, a very rare spice derived from flower prominent in his home country. The spice is used in various types of foods, boosts the mood of those who eat it, and has many health benefits associated with it.

“If you grow up in Iran, like I did, everybody knows about saffron and how it’s used,” Almasi said. “In America, there are a lot of people who don’t even know what it is, let alone the health benefits or why they should have it in their diet. That’s what I want to change.”

The company, Almas Foods International, sells four different qualities of saffron threads, five flavors of saffron herbal teas and tiny single serve saffron capsules under the brand name Zaffrus, Almasi said.

Ali Almasi with his product, Zaffrus.

Ali Almasi with his product, Zaffrus. (photo by Morgan Buchas/MDB Photography)

It has also partnered with Bethlehem companies to develop various saffron-infused products, including ice cream, popcorn and face cream. Nuts About Ice Cream will offer saffron ice cream, and Clusters will offer the popcorn.

The company formed in February and is based out of SoBeCoWorks, a collaborative workspace in Bethlehem for micro- or small-enterprise businesses. Other startups, like the company that makes throwable paintballs called Goblies, also operate there.

When Almasi first came to the United States and entered the Lehigh program, he expected to form a startup related to information technology, similar to a company he ran in his home country and continues to co-manage from abroad.

But he was partially inspired to focus on saffron instead after hearing former President Barack Obama discussing the Iranian New Year, where he specifically mentioned that more Americans would love to see saffron in the U.S. Iran is the world’s largest saffron producer.

Although this wasn’t the company Almasi originally anticipated starting, he said the tools he learned at Lehigh’s Technical Entrepreneurship program, and the contacts he established with companies and universities in the region, allowed him to easily adapt to this new plan.

“There are a lot of great resources in the Lehigh Valley here for entrepreneurs,” Almasi said. “The TE program gives you the tools and knowledge you need to be an entrepreneur, so you will know how to succeed no matter what specific project you work on.”

The Technical Entrepreneurship Master’s Program helps student entrepreneurs create, refine, and commercialize intellectual property through the licensing or launching of a new business. Offering 30 credits over 12 months, the curriculum includes skill-building, entrepreneurial theory, product development, product and company development.

“In the TE program, we encourage emerging entrepreneurs to develop a suite of products, and we emphasize the importance of strategic partners in developing a scalable and successful company,” said Michael Lehman, Professor of Practice with the program. “Ali represents exactly what we’re trying to do in the program.”

Almasi will have a vendor’s booth in Southside Bethlehem during the upcoming Musikfest, and is seeking to work with other regional food companies, supermarkets, and vendors to partner with and sell the product.

Almasi works with suppliers to import the saffron. A total of 177,000 saffron flowers are required to produce 1 kilogram of the spice, and they are all picked and dried by hand. As a result, saffron has a reputation for being one of the most expensive foods on earth.

However, Almasi said he is seeking not only to make saffron more widely available in the United States, but also to make it as affordable as possible. He said the spice is not as expensive as many consumers often fear, and he hopes to disrupt that “myth.”

Almasi said the saffron flower is known as the “flower of happiness” in Iran because eating Saffran makes people happy. It is also good for the memory, skin, and creates more red blood cells. The recommended amount of saffron for every day is 100 milligrams, he said.

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