Associated Manufacturers taking jerk seasoning to a worldwide stage
It’s a long way, literally, from making household and personal care products to creating Caribbean-seasonings, sauces, spices and preserves that are enjoyed in markets across the world.
But that’s the distinctive tale told by Jamaica’s Associated Manufacturers Ltd., the Kingston-based operation that got into the food business 15 years ago and hasn’t looked back.
The company had developed into the largest local manufacturing entity in the Caribbean by the late 1990s through its involvement in, among other things, the manufacture of the soap, shampoo and conditioner assortments found in hotel and resort chains across a tourism-heavy region.
It entered a royalty-based relationship with Jamaica’s Busha Browne in 1999 and began producing sauces and seasonings for that branding, then, nine years later, took control of another local company – Walkerswood Caribbean Foods – which had existed in the parish of Saint Ann since the 1970s.
To adhere to the legalities of a free trade zone in Saint Ann, the company split into two distinct segments: Associated Manufacturers, which stayed in the sauce business; and Parang Industries Ltd., which continues to manufacture and distribute its collection of hotel amenities and products.
A 30,000-square-foot facility in Kingston houses centralized accounting, payroll and purchasing functions for both companies, while the Associated Manufacturers production facility is in Saint Ann and comprises about 75,000 square feet of factory space built by Walkerswood in 2004.
The factory was part of Associated Manufacturers’ acquisition of Walkerswood in 2008.
“We only make sauces and seasonings and jams and jellies and that kind of stuff there,” owner Ian Garbutt said.
Walkerswood brand products manufactured at the plant are available in the United States, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, thanks a trade zone mandate that at least 85 percent of what’s produced is exported. Garbutt said 90 percent of present production is shipped overseas, while the remaining 10 percent is distributed locally by the Parang Industries side of the business.
New York, Florida and Atlanta are strong locations for the company in a U.S. market that stretches nearly the full length of the East Coast, due to the Walkerswood brand’s presence on ethnic shelves in selected locations of large chain stores like Publix and Kroger.
“We definitely are very happy with the position and the respect we have within the ethnic area of the market. Those people are our brand ambassadors,” said Sean Garbutt, Ian’s son and the company’s group marketing director. “They’re the people that will tell their friends in North America and the U.K. what brand to buy and why. They go to the stores and ask the store why they don’t have us.
“We wouldn’t have achieved half of what we’ve achieved without that great linkage.
“But we also do realize that there is a lot more growth potential in the mainstream segment of the market, which will require a slightly different message and maybe slightly different placement to reach out to that customer. We definitely intend on continuing our relationship in the ethnic while trying to create a new relationship in the mainstream areas.”
As for Jamaica, doing business in the home country has some unique challenges of its own.
Energy costs – which see locals paying more than 40 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity, compared to less than 10 cents in the U.S. – are what Ian Garbutt labeled as “horrifically expensive” and a “huge limiting factor” on financial efficiency, though he conceded some of that hardship for the company is evened out by the benefits it gets from exporting the bulk of what it manufactures.
“Because we are an ethnic brand making ethnic products that are locally sourced, we benefit from the value of the Jamaican value versus the U.S. dollar,” he said. “We’ve gone in the last three years from 86-to-1 to 112-to-1, so the more we export, clearly the more we benefit locally on the exchange gains.
“The energy cost probably is mitigated by that.”
Another mandate of doing business with food is staying relevant with consumers.
Sean Garbutt said a new barbecue-flavored seasoning is in the pipeline and planned for release next summer, while a new dehydrated jerk seasoning will be on shelves in the U.S. early in 2015.
He said other manufacturers of jerk seasonings merely rely on a collection of onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne and chili flakes while concocting their jerk seasonings, but the Associated Manufacturers stamp is unique because its flavor blend is put into a dehydrating unit and crushed into a concentrated powder before being packaged for distribution.
The company works with a government agency – the Scientific Research Council – to dissect its products into their basic parts while trying to discover healthier new combinations.
“Being in the food industry we have to constantly be keeping our game up and looking at adding new profiles or new ways of presenting similar flavors,” Sean Garbutt said. “Some of the other things we’re looking at are finding ways to make jerk a little bit healthier. It’s an all-purpose seasoning, but when some people see the sodium content they kind of raise an eyebrow. But the reality is that you don’t require any additional seasoning whatsoever when you utilize jerk.”
When those ideal combinations are found, the company expects opportunity to be waiting.
Because jerk has, Ian Garbutt said, “become a worldwide accepted genre of food,” the company is seeking more local farmers to work with to assure production of the necessary amount of raw materials for it and other products. He anticipates adding a full shift’s worth of production personnel at the factory and aims for the doubling of sales figures within three years.
“We’ve held off to a degree on going into new and further markets far and wide, when markets that are right under our nose, so to speak – like the U.S., Canada and England – markets that we know and understand, are untapped. There is a huge, huge area for growth that we see, the more that jerk becomes accepted. A lot of the larger manufacturers are now adding jerk to their range of sauces and a lot of restaurant chains are adding jerk to their menus.
“We’re working with that and working into that. We’re headed north. Our sales are growing.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Associated Manufacturers Ltd.
WHAT: Manufacturer and distributor of Caribbean foods under the Busha Browne, Jamaican Joe and Walkerswood brands, in domestic and overseas markets that include the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom
WHERE: Kingston, Jamaica