More than forty years after Pandit Bhola Ojah pioneered a family business selling cooking spices from door to door in villages on the West Coast Deme-rara, his grandson, Ram Prashad, is keeping the tradition alive.
More than that, the contemporary manifestation of the now deceased Pandit’s pioneering initiative, Prestige Manufacturing and Bottling Enterprises, is thriving at its new home, Industrial Site, Eccles, East Bank Demerara.
The brand name Prestige is more than 20 years old and seeks to symbolise the high standards to which Prashad says the enterprise
seeks to aspire. It is associated with a range of food seasonings including mustard oil, essence, hot sauces and other condiments. Apart from what Prashad says has been the sound reputation which Prestige products have enjoyed on the local market, the propensity among Guyanese in the diaspora to hold fast to their culinary traditions has meant that the company’s spices and seasonings have more than held their own on the international market.
About a year and a half ago Prashad re-sited the factory from a 24,000 square foot space at La Grange, West Bank Demerara to its present home at Eccles Industrial Estate.
Prashad says the move was consistent with his keenness to operate in an environment that would better equip him to become compliant with the provisions of the 2010 United States Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), a piece of legislation that requires importers of foods into the United States to meet certain minimum production and manufacturing standards.
Prashad has a vested interest in staying abreast of the requirements of the FSMA. Some of his more important markets are in New York, New Jersey and Florida where West Indian shops still regard it as a ‘cultural duty’ to stock bona fide Caribbean foods. Prestige is working with a company in Canada to become fully FSMA-compliant and that, the Proprietor of Prestige says, is high on his company’s list of priorities.
The United States apart, Prestige enjoys markets in Canada, Suriname, Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, Barbados and the United Kingdom.
Consolidating the company’s Caricom market is also high on its list of priorities. Prashad says that for the past year and a half he has been working with an agent in Port of Spain in an effort to secure access to what, for him, is potentially the most lucrative Caribbean market. He is peeved over the fact that the aspiration of a regional single market notwithstanding, strong tendencies towards protectionism persist in some quarters. He believes that those tendencies will be suppressed only through the collective political efforts of the leaders of the region.
Prestige’s earliest products were essences: almond and mixed essences. Other products currently being manufactured under the brand include vinegar, mustard oil and, more recently, hot sauces. The addition of hot sauces to the brand came after a period of diligent market research.
Riding on the crest of the success of its growing overseas market, the company has now ventured into green seasoning, which, Prashad says, has secured a potentially lucrative niche on the North American market. He says too that while, initially, the company’s research had indicated that green seasoning might not be popular on the local market, the product was now “flying off the shelves” of local supermarkets.
Prestige’s broader range of products include Chinese sauce, cassareep, tamarind chutney, mango achar, cake colouring, ground thyme, bilimbi achar, mango sauce, karaila lime sauce, lime achar, golden apple sauce, pickled cherry pepper and coconut oil. He believes that the company makes a persuasive case for being the most diversified enterprise of its kind in the country.
In the absence of a farm of its own, the company purchases its raw materials from farmers around the country. The seasonal nature of the produce is a challenge and, he says, “there is a limit to how much you can purchase and store since there are both costs and risks associated with lengthy storage periods.”
Among his concerns associated with acquiring fruit and vegetables from farms across the country are the “traceability” stipulations in the FSMA which require the manufacturer of the product to account for the raw material contained in the finished product from the farm through to the production process. Prashad says he is comforted by the knowledge that the Ministry of Agriculture has identified some local farms and is working with them on the traceability issue.
Prashad also wants potential suppliers to know that he is currently in the market for pepper. He anticipates that the price of the commodity will rise as Christmas approaches, though he adds that his own prices are unlikely to increase.
Electricity, labelling and packaging are among his biggest costs. Electricity costs, he says, “are killing the manufacturing sector”.
His sole supplier of bottles is Carib Glass Works of Trinidad and Tobago. He says that during the Christmas season supplies dry up. The scarcity of bottles frequently affects the company’s exports.
The company purchases its labels from Canada where the proprietor says “the prices are competitive.”
Exporting brings additional responsibilities including those associated with preparing goods for the inspection of the Guyana Revenue Authority.
On the whole, however, Prashad is sufficiently upbeat with the progress of his operations to sustain the business despite what he concedes are the pressures of being away from his family – a wife and two sons who reside in Canada. Still, he believes that some things are worth the sacrifice.