Iconic Barbadian franchise, Chefette— globally popularized as Rihanna’s favorite fast-food— recently made its United States debut via a two-city (New York and Boston) food truck pop-up event, in celebration of 50-years in business.
Make no bones, as a passer-by in New York’s Bryant Park area— while you would have caught a whiff of the seductive aroma of Caribbean seasonings and the pulsating sound of soca tunes— what would have surely made your head spin was the line, several-blocks-long, of thousands of hungry, dancing people. And judging by the diversity of the crowd, you didn’t just have to be from Barbados, or the Caribbean— or a Rihanna fan— to be a part of the mouth-watering excitement.
The smashing success of the event, which took place during the first week of Caribbean American Heritage Month, begged further analysis— was Chefette selling Bajan-nostalgia, Caribbean food, delicious food, or all the above?
For starters, Chefette is a Bajan brand in the business of selling western-style fast-food such as chicken, fries, burgers, pizza and nuggets. Outside of its wildly popular selection of rotis, and its use of signature spices, Chefette does not sell stereotypical Barbadian or Caribbean food at all.
But I’ll come back to this multiple-choice test later…
One need not look further than the story of Jamaica’s Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery— New York City’s largest, locally-owned restaurant franchise, operating across more than 100 outlets in nine states, and retailing out of tens of thousands of supermarkets— to be reminded that there is undoubtedly a significant market for Caribbean food in North America, and that market is not solely from the diaspora.
According to The National Restaurant Association, Caribbean food is one of three global cuisines (alongside South American and South Asian) poised to take off in the United States in 2023.
The Caribbean specialty food trend, which has been gaining popularity for years, has been recognized by several larger US manufacturers that have seized the opportunity to produce competitively priced Caribbean products. This has naturally put authentic Caribbean foods at a disadvantage— particularly those with a manufacturing base in the Caribbean, forced to contend with inconsistency in the supply and cost of raw materials.
“Caribbean brands have had to overcome some huge struggles to establish a stronger presence in the US and Canadian market,” says Nicole Grimes, Founder and CEO of Caribbean Biz Network (CBN) a Caribbean entrepreneur community and business development platform dedicated to the growth and success of Caribbean American businesses, freelancers and brands.
This is especially the case for smaller brands trying to carve a physical or export niche for themselves in the United States.
According to Grimes, limited marketing understanding or access to digital tools, resource constraints, logistical challenges, and cultural stereotypes are among a plethora of challenges facing Caribbean brands.
“Many Caribbean companies lack comprehensive knowledge of consumer preferences, cultural nuances, and market dynamics that are critical for effective marketing and brand positioning,” she says. “This knowledge gap has hindered their ability to create relevant and compelling messaging that resonates with US consumers.”
Nathan Haddad, Founder and CEO of Peppatree, a line of authentic Jamaican seasonings and sauces for the do-it-yourself chef, says that if Caribbean food brands are to succeed in foreign markets, they have to start thinking “outside the bottle.”
“Caribbean food brands tend to be more focused on manufacturing as opposed to branding, contrary to their American counterparts,” Haddad explains.
“As a result, many brands that manage to cross over into the US market, despite a plethora of structural challenges, have difficulty extending their reach beyond the diaspora and are forced to accept below-market prices for their goods. The irony is that our products tend to sell for significantly less than those American brands that are selling ‘Caribbean-style’ foods.”
Grimes’ brainchild, The Momentum Expo, a business and cultural exposition, is helping Caribbean brands to identify and navigate a variety of issues associated with marketing, culture, resources, logistics, and capital so that they can thrive in the highly competitive North American market.
Momentum, which takes place from June 24th to 26th in Brooklyn, New York will spotlight Caribbean brands across a variety of industries— including food— and will feature panels and insider success-stories from entrepreneurs who have made a successful bridge between the Caribbean and North America, such as Jamaican food blogger, Helena Faustin and Myriam Jean-Baptiste, Haitian-Canadian Co-founder of LS Cream Liqueur.
Among the enterprises represented at the expo will be Nudge Caribbean, a regional incubator for small, medium and micro enterprises. Nudge was started by Trinidadian social entrepreneur, Anya Ayoung-Chee, and Julie Avey, Senior Vice President of People and Culture at the Massy Group, a conglomerate with 57 food retail outlets that operate in five markets across the English-speaking Caribbean.
”There are so many talented creatives and Caribbean small businesses here in the US and across the entire region,” says Grimes. “We deeply want to help empower, amplify and advocate for all that they represent and ultimately help these businesses to flourish.“
Mark Hill, Chief Executive Officer of Export Barbados— one of the sponsors of the Chefette pop-up— shares Grimes’ enthusiasm for supporting regional brands. His vision is to build a new export economy in Barbados, in the belief that “a great brand naturally transcends national boundaries.”
According to Hill, “A product must bring a value proposition to the market that transcends the nationality of its home-market.”
In the context of food, a Caribbean food brand should not just sell Caribbean food to Caribbean people— it should sell high value food (whether Caribbean or otherwise) and an experience that connects it to its market.
Says Hill: “Brands can make their own rules, shape their alignments, and determine their impacts. Great Brands innovate and create innovative premiums. Brands also create more jobs and create more value. Because brands grow faster and bigger. A brand naturally transcends national boundaries.”
Hibiscus Brew, Allison Dunn’s Jamaican sorrel (or hibiscus) themed brand and Brooklyn-based café is the perfect example of a Caribbean food and beverage brand that has connected to its market. Its locally-brewed sorrel, ginger and agave-flavored beverage— Hibiscus Brew— has put the café on the map.
“At Hibiscus Brew, we’ve made the connection between a traditional Caribbean drink— sorrel— and hibiscus, a US ingredient, to build trust and familiarity,” says Dunn. “Our authentic sorrel, made by my Jamaican mom, is based on a recipe that goes back many generations.”
The menu of Hibiscus Brew, which features healthy sorrel-based smoothies and vegan soft serve sorrel ice-creams, is based on fresh and high-quality ingredients— and capitalizes on the Caribbean craft of sorrel-making that gives the beverage its rich ruby-red color and floral notes.
Dunn says that for Hibiscus Brew, authenticity, innovation, and branding are key.
“Combining authentic food with the needs of our customers, sparks interest and takes them on a journey to a tropical island where they can experience the taste of the Caribbean,” she says.
Kirk Hamilton, Co-Founder of Tech Beach Retreat, a Caribbean-based Technology Ecosystem Builder, and Momentum Expo community partner agrees. According to Hamilton, the secret of success requires taking what the Caribbean already does well— and making it world-class through brand positioning.
“Caribbean brands that set out to translate the spirit of our islands in ways that connect with US audiences will be successful,” says Hamilton. “Millennials and Gen Z are currently the greatest influencers of trends in North America and the world, and brands designed to penetrate this demographic will gain wider visibility in the market.”
Hamilton believes that changing lifestyles, and the increase in demand for healthy, convenient food can drive market growth for Caribbean food brands.
“I believe food brands from our region that take our healthiest foods like cassava and breadfruit, and promote them in a globally appealing manner, is a segment poised to do extremely do well,” he says.
Chef Jason Howard of Barbados knows this all too well. By taking authentic Caribbean ingredients and recipes and turning them, quite literally into art, Chef Howard has created a highly recognizable global brand. Whether it’s Barbados’ pickled pork and sweet potato staple known as pudding and souse, which he reinvented using breadfruit— or a duo of meat, roasted squash and onion purée, seasoned, with a cassava and cabbage parcel and roasted asparagus— Howard creates crossover appeal by using indigenous Caribbean foods that put the fine in fine dining.
According to Kyle Maloney, Co-Founder of Tech Beach Retreat, finding success as a food brand from the Caribbean requires not only authentic Caribbean flavors but an overall brand experience that capitalizes on its uniqueness.
“Caribbean food has a rich tradition of a multiplicity of flavors that are largely unexplored by an American palette,” Maloney explains. “Native Caribbean food is influenced by a range of cultures from African, Creole, Cajun, Amerindian, European to Indian and East Asian. So, in some of your favorite Caribbean restaurants you’re likely to see fusions.”
Jeanine Prime’s popular Washington D.C.-based restaurant, St. James, for example, features a melting pot of African, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, and French influences, such as Duck and Dhal and Trini-Chinese Chicken.
Yelp’s top-ten rated Fat Fowl Restaurant in Brooklyn, New York features sides such as quinoa and beans, alongside more conventional Caribbean mains; what it refers to as “New Caribbean American Cuisine,” that transcends a strictly diasporic market.
There is a lot to be said, however, for the value of the growing Caribbean diaspora. According to the Migration Policy Institute, approximately 4.5 million Caribbean immigrants resided in the United States in 2019, representing 10% of the nation’s 44.9 million total foreign-born population, the majority of whom reside between Florida and New York.
For the culturally curious, or nostalgic consumers who fall among the 1.2 million people who were either born in Haiti or claim Haitian ancestry, there is A Taste of Haiti Box, a bi-monthly subscription of edible and artisanal products.
Trinidadian-led Florida-based brand Callaloo-box, founded by sisters Jamila and Malika Augustin, offers curated Trinidadian food boxes and subscription options for its customers, many of whom are among the 223,639 Trinbagonian Americans living in the United States.
The power of the diaspora, not just as a target market but as a market that can inform other potential markets is invaluable.
The US success of Grace Foods, for example, has been attributed to its authenticity as part of a century-old iconic Jamaican brand. But in 2014, the GraceKennedy-owned food specialist and producer of distinctively Jamaican food products upped the ante by becoming a major player in the US-Hispanic food category after it acquired La Fe Foods.
“To realize this vision of becoming a Global Consumer Group, we determined that we needed to have our own company in the US, because of the size and potential of this market,” said Don Wehby, GraceKennedy Group CEO, of the acquisition.
“In doing our due diligence we recognized that there is a closeness and many similarities between the Jamaican and other Caribbean islands, and the Latin American cultures. Both have a unique spirit and passion that translates to every aspect of our lives. Family values are paramount and we share a real passion for good food.”
Foreign food brands— whether Caribbean or otherwise— that succeed in the US do not just sell food, but an experience. What Mark Hill would refer to as “a love story between the customer and the business.”
“Brands that really scale like Jerk Sauces from Grace, or Golden Krust Patties or Mount Gay Rum, stay true to an authentic experience that gives people a taste of the Caribbean wherever they may be,” says Maloney.
This brings us back to our original question… was Chefette selling Bajan-nostalgia, Caribbean food, delicious food, or all the above?
Chefette was selling all the above and yet, it was selling so much more.
Chefette was selling a love story.
Chefette was selling food, but it was also selling a story and an experience— what Nathan Haddad refers to as, “outside of the bottle.”
“Caribbean food brands need to stand confidently behind where we wish our products to be in the foreign marketplace,” says Haddad.
“If we wish to compete with American brands, we need to advocate for things to change ‘outside of the bottle,’ because that’s what’s keeping us back.”
Read the full article here