Caribbean Food Delights continues to provide a vacation from ordinary food with its authentic line of Jamaican patties in the freezer case.

By Dan Malovany

As winter’s wrath approaches with a vengeance, Caribbean Food Delights is aggressively spreading the warmth of the tropics into the freezer cases of grocery retailers, club stores and mass merchandisers throughout the nation.

There’s no need to book an expensive flight or cruise or even move to a winter home in Arizona or Florida. Rather, the Tappan, N.Y.-based company is providing an affordable escape from the cold with its distinctive line of savory, flaky Jamaican patties and other products that range from its perennial, top-selling spicy beef and mild beef patties to classic Jamaican varieties such as curry chicken, jerked chicken, shrimp and vegetable patties.

Baked or microwaved in minutes, these handheld turnovers feature indigenous ingredients such as the island’s jerked spices and scotch bonnet peppers that contain the heat of a Caribbean sun and provide a zesty kick to more conventional, ham-and-cheese types.

“You don’t have to go to Jamaica for our products,” says Sabrina HoSang, chief operating officer of Caribbean Food Delights. “You can have the taste of Jamaica right in your home.”

More recently, the company expanded its product portfolio with new, more mainstream flavors such as beefy cheese, chicken pot pie, spinach and spinach and cheese patties to broaden the line’s appeal to a wider swath of consumers. Caribbean food isn’t as common as Mexican or Italian in the United States, Sabrina notes, but the spicy beef patty in Jamaica is as popular as eating a burger from a major fast food chain or an empanada in other parts of Latin America.

In addition to 1.5-oz. cocktail appetizers, the company produces its signature 5-oz. patties, which are sold in the retail channel in convenient two packs or value-driven 10-packs.

“We’ve gone from an eight to a 10-pack to provide two extra patties and a better value proposition,” says Sabrina, whose parents Vincent and Jeanette began selling Jamaican products some 30 years ago and still remain active in the day-to-day dealings of the family-run business.

Today, many consumers can relate to escaping from their everyday lives, especially during the last 18 months when the cold, stark reality of the recession hit parts of the nation hard. Because they are affordably priced, Sabrina adds, sales of Caribbean Food Delights products have jumped at double-digit rates in club stores and other distribution channels as consumers dine at home more often and search for value-driven meals that allow families to stretch their dollars a bit longer.

“As a result, we’ve done really well despite the recession,” she explains.
In addition to providing bang for the buck, Caribbean Food Delights benefits from its products’ uniqueness. Often, they’re the only Jamaican patty in club stores and other channels.

Expanding to the larger 10-pack provided not only a better value for consumers, but also a higher cash register ring for retailers, adds Tim Conway, director of sales.

“By doing that, we increased sales by 18% without even moving an extra package,” Conway says. “We have a great marketing strategy with the club stores as well as a very aggressive price point that the club stores institute at their level. Their mark up isn’t tremendous, and we offer an everyday low price that they can pass on to consumers.”

Today, retail, and specifically club stores, now account for more than half of the sales, unlike seven years ago when the foodservice channel made up the bulk of the company’s business. Despite the surge in the retail market, Conway notes, foodservice sales are still rising at a double-digit rate, as more mainline distributors carry Caribbean Food Delights products.

It seems that the two channels of distribution are feeding off of each other.

“The growing demand of our foodservice business is fueled by our retail sales,” Conway says. “People see our patties in all of the club stores, and when they go out in restaurants, they still want to see our patty. This has prompted more distributors to carry our product.”

Although Jamaican consumers prefer to bake the unbaked patties because they perceive them as fresher and closer to homemade when they come hot out of the oven, it’s the burgeoning trend toward single-serve meals and handheld foods that is turbo-charging retail growth at Caribbean Food Delights.

In addition to its distinctive ethnic niche in this segment, these products can be microwaved in less than two minutes in a crisping sleeve, and as everyone knows, convenience rules in the broader retail market, Conway notes.

“The snack or handheld category in the frozen food department is continuing to grow in demand year after year after year,” he says. “We lead the category with our Jamaican meat patty in club stores. In fact, we’re the only ones with that product in club stores.”

Geographically, Caribbean Food Delights’ line is primarily available throughout its core market in the Northeast, and to a lesser degree in the Southeast, but the company has recently broadened distribution throughout Texas and as far west as California.

Moreover, the specialty food producer supplies more than 80 military commissaries in the United States and abroad. Earlier this year, Caribbean Food Delights further diversified its distribution base by selling its product in the United Kingdom and is only one of 14 U.S. companies allowed to sell meat and poultry products to the United Kingdom and European Union.

Next year, the $30 million company plans to expand its reach into markets throughout mainland Europe as well.

Such growth has been possible due to the $17 million addition completed in 2007 that expanded the operation from 73,000 sq. ft. to 103,000 sq. ft. In addition to housing a third, state-of-the-art line that, by itself, has doubled capacity of the operation, the company added a new freezer that can store three times the amount of inventory than in the past. The extra inventory helps improve customer service by ensuring that orders are delivered on time and in full, says Vincent HoSang, company president and CEO.

Previously, the company stored most of its inventory offsite, which made distribution more difficult to control and dampened margins because it is more expensive to shuttle product back and forth than having it all in house, he explains.

With inventory in house, Caribbean Food Delights doesn’t have to worry about being out of stock, which isn’t an option when a company deals with some of the largest retailers in the nation.

“We move so much product through all of these channels that we probably have no more than a three-week inventory at any given time,” Conway says. “Unlike other companies, our inventory isn’t getting stale or old. We don’t have an aging report for our inventory.”

The plant’s new capabilities, he adds, have allowed the company to shift more energy to further growing its club stores’ business, as well as branching out to more conventional grocery stores and supermarket chains that it couldn’t serve in the past due to a lack of capacity.

Although other companies explore the increasingly popular private label channel, Caribbean Food Delights has kept its focus on promoting its brand.

However, as the saying goes, he adds, never say never.

“It’s not that we’re not interested in private label projects,” Conway explains. “We actually entertained a couple of them. Again, we didn’t want to make an over-commitment to private label projects because we wanted to fulfill our own growth goals.”

On-trend Packaging

Although it pushes its branded products, Caribbean Food Delights works closely with its customers to fashion its line to maximize sales. Take the company’s recent facelift of its retail packaging. Not only did the company hire a marketing firm, but it also sought input from its buyers during the development of its new high-impact graphics.

“We got the buyers to take a little bit of ownership in the development of the product, which they like to have, and it’s been extremely successful to this point,” Conway says.

Specifically, Caribbean Food Delights shrunk its logo and focused on an eye-popping, glamour product shot because image sells the product. People buy with their eyes and repurchased the product after trying it, Conway says.

Looking toward next year, new products, especially more wholesome handheld options, are on the table. During the past two years, the emphasis has been on more healthful products, specifically reformulating its products to remove trans fats and lower saturated ones, says Simone HoSang-Klosowska, a nutritionist who’s in research and development and is Sabrina’s sister.

Working with Raquel Pascual, senior food technologist, Simone also has focused on adjusting the family’s recipes to add whole grains or incorporate starches to bolster fiber content to make them more relevant to today’s consumer trends. The challenge, she says, is mimicking the taste and texture of the original recipe.

In other instances, the company tinkered with its line to develop the more mainstream products such as a chicken pot pie patty or, in response to consumer requests, add cheese to its beef patty line to create what could be called the Jamaican cheeseburger in paradise.

Take, for example, the company’s curry chick pea or vegetarian patty. Simone had been developing an entrée for the company’s JerkQ’zine franchises, where she often tests and samples new products, and just happened to have leftovers. She put the extra filling in a veggie crust and sent it to her mom, who tried them and told her, “You have to make these. They’re great.”

Other times, new product development is designed to fulfill more practical issues. Take the company’s effort to develop a vegetarian patty made with callaloo, a vegetable from Jamaica that’s similar to spinach. Although Caribbean Food Delights wanted to use the indigenous callaloo, it couldn’t get a reliable supply of it. In lieu of authenticity, Simone says, the company went to the next best thing, and the spinach along with the spinach and cheese versions became a hit because they’re more familiar to consumers.

In 2010, Caribbean Food Delights plans to roll out a new line that takes the company’s product portfolio to a new direction, Vincent says. Yes, it will be a handheld item, but he’s holding his cards close to the vest.
In the long run, expect the company to diversify even more with authentic entrees that feature jerked chicken in a whole different number of formats.

“We’re looking at more ready-to-eat or heat-and-serve types of products,” he says.

It would be another way in which Caribbean Food Delights provides an affordable vacation from ordinary food in the freezer case.