Caribbean Health Foods Limited
Naturally delicious delights
Business View Caribbean interviews Clifford Balgobin, General Manager of Caribbean Health Foods Limited, for our focus on Best Practices in Manufacturing
Trinidad’s picturesque Maracas Valley is home to Caribbean Health Foods Limited, a well-known manufacturer and distributor of health food products. Operations first began as ‘College Health Foods’ in November 1987 on the campus of the University of the Southern Caribbean and, despite its name change, the company’s mission and vision have remained steadfastly the same – to improve the lives of customers by manufacturing healthy foods that promote good health and well-being. These initiatives combined with excellent customer service have made the business a preferred health food company throughout the Caribbean.
General Manager, Clifford Balgobin, began working for Caribbean Health Foods in 1998 and is still passionate about the firm after 22 years. “There were two reasons we started the company,” he recounts. “First of all, we belong to the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church alongside a network of other heath food factories – some fully automated and others semi-automated. The religion is devoted to physical well-being, with members adhering to Kosher food laws and vegetarianism, so the directors decided to open a health food factory in the Caribbean. Trinidad was chosen because its economy is stable and there was an emerging craze to eat healthy. The church strategically positioned itself here to fulfill market demand.”
Choosing Trinidad was the right decision, as the company has grown from a simple factory of 10 workers to a semi-automated manufacturing facility of about 90. The team manufactures and distributes food items under the brand name Natural Delights. Products include fan favorites such as lactose free yogurt, and Triflitos cereal made up of corn, oats, and rice flour. There are snacks like ginger granola bars and sesame seed cookies; whole grain and multi-grain breads are available including options for diabetics made with flax seeds and sweet potato. There is even a cold line of frozen veggie ‘meats’ like sausages and patties. The company distributes these products in its four retail stores throughout Trinidad. “Each location is run on a cloud-based retail management system, so I can log onto it to see what has sold or what stock is available,” explains Balgobin. But it doesn’t stop there. Last year Caribbean Health Foods opened a casual dining vegetarian restaurant called Newstart – a deli and bistro which is doing well.
Some of this company success can be attributed to local ingredients. “Our base ingredient, oats, is imported,” says Balgobin, “but everything else is sourced locally – from sugar to oil to flour. We’re making a deliberate attempt to source more local products. We’ve already started, but we’re going deeper and making it even more prominent in our manufacturing process.” To achieve this, cultivating and maintaining working relationships with local companies is essential. National Flour Mills Limited, the flour milling and dry mix manufacturer in Trinidad and Tobago, is one example of Caribbean Health Foods’ consistent supplier partnerships. Others include Nature Mix, and Pepe’s Marketing Ltd. – a provider of natural products like seeds and dried fruit.
These pure ingredients create flavor combinations that customers crave. While discussing a specialty bread containing cassava, Balgobin reports, “It tastes really good, not like cassava. Our products aren’t flavored, they contain real ingredients. For example, our granola bars have peanuts, ginger, and dates. Not peanut, ginger, or date flavoring, but the real thing. Our flavor is very unique and that’s what makes us stand out. We make a Tropical Granola with coconut, pineapple, and papaya. People love that one.” Caribbean Health Foods also operates the only meat-free food manufacturing facility in the Caribbean. Balgobin boasts, “There are no eggs or meats in our manufacturing system. The veggie meats we make here are 100 percent plant based. We’re also Halal certified. Other vegetarian products, despite being vegetarian, may have ingredients that don’t pass the Halal Examination and Certification test. We do. Our veggie meats do well in Muslim and Hindu communities, as well as for individuals who fast, especially during Divali or Lent.”
Ensuring customers can easily purchase products is vital, so accessibility factors into the company’s distribution plans in a big way. “We use our own delivery vehicles to distribute to major supermarkets and small mini-marts across Trinidad,” Balgobin states. “An exciting new addition to this process will be our upcoming revamped website where customers will be able to place online orders. We’re a small country, so after a customer makes a minimum order, we’ll deliver free of charge because we have drivers going to various areas of the island. Payment will be made upon delivery.”
The company used to export a good amount of product, but as a semi-automated facility that has become more challenging. Bigger markets like the United States, with its strict Food and Drug Administration (FDA) demands, require fully automated facilities. Balgobin notes, “We used to export our powdered soy milk, but the challenge was getting the U.S. to buy it. There is a market for it, but it will be easier when we’re fully automated. Meanwhile, we’re looking for new export markets but focusing on our core products. We’re also going heavy into our social media and YouTube. We’ll be doing cooking videos with our employees’ kids; they are our future customers, so get them now.”
About 80 percent of the company’s employees are women. Balgobin admits that in the sales department alone, which encompasses sales personnel, supermarket merchandizers, retail shops, and the restaurant, there are only two men including himself. It’s similar for the company’s production, manufacturing, distribution, and re-packaging departments. The production department also serves as an ‘ad-hoc’ R & D division, developing ideas that are then tested in the lab. Currently in development is an innovative whole grain product that has never been done before. The economy may have led to a recent downsize but according to Balgobin, “The company is still a happy place to work. We have many workers who have been here 10 years or more. Every day for 15 minutes we participate in a good dynamic event where we share our experiences with each other. It builds camaraderie and gets us all together. Maybe soon we’ll be branding ourselves as the Natural Delights Family. We have an ‘open-door’ policy where all employees are welcome to come in and even suggest new product ideas.”
Contemplating future goals over the next two to three years, automation is top of the list. “With automation we’ll be able to produce with even more consistency,” says Balgobin. “Our production costs would also decrease allowing for more competitive pricing and marketability. We’ll then be able to tap into the large foreign markets like Europe and the U.S. because our automation processes will meet their industry regulations.”
Continuing to source local ingredients by partnering with local entrepreneurs is also part of the plan. As is the possibility of opening another retail store on the west side of the island. A Caribbean Health Foods mobile unit selling products and food is even being considered. Balgobin adds, “There are many fast-food trucks here, but we need a healthy one offering something different. Not just in food, but also in service. It’s a whole experience we’re trying to sell; it’s not just about the products. When you have healthy customers, you have customers for life. We also believe that happy employees make a happy company. That’s why, from Maracas Valley, we want to share our experiences and products with the world.”
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AT A GLANCE
Caribbean Health Foods Limited
What: Manufacturer and distributor of the quality health food brand Natural Delights
Where: Maracas Valley, Trinidad and Tobago