The journey of persons traversing the upper reaches of the East Coast Demerara or extending into Berbice is frequently punctuated by pit stops at Cove and John to refresh themselves on the offerings of the cane juice man.
Bharrat Nirmal is in his sixteenth year of vending cane juice, marketed as Ingrid’s Cane Juice, a title that acknowledges his better half.
Nirmal lives at Lusignan but has set up stall about 100 yards east of the Cove and John Police Station.
The origin of enterprises like Nirmal’s all too frequently, reflects knee-jerk responses to perceived needs in underserved rural communities. Nirmal and his friends used to make regular trips to the coconut oil mill at Cove and John to purchase copra. That wait at the mill, sometimes for as many as five hours, had to be endured without access to a shop or stall where they could get anything resembling a snack or a cold beverage, beyond a few biscuits and an aerated drink. It was this obvious need that was the genesis of his enterprise.
It is no secret that cane juice has long been one of the more popular roadside beverages sold across coastal Guyana. Greenish in colour and decidedly thirst-quenching, cane juice has even been credited with medicinal qualities. The juice is extracted from the stalks of sugar cane by a grinding process and offered to customers ice cold in drinking glasses.
Once he had decided that he had found what he felt to be a potentially lucrative market fitted with a manually operated grinder. He began, he said, with a gallon of cane juice, ten egg balls, a plate of cassava balls and a plate of pholourie. The business, he says, crept before it began to walk on uncertain legs. There were days when sales were limited to eight glasses of cane juice. Potential customers, it seemed, took time to become aware of his presence. There were times, he says, when anyone passing by and evincing the slightest interest, would be offered a glass of cane juice. A point had been reached too when he had considered calling it a day. The motivation to persist was provided by his small band of loyal customers.
Once members of the nearby Cove and John Ashram and students of the Secondary School became aware of Nirmal’s offerings he knew that his persistence had paid off. Things began to look up and greater numbers of villagers – who then conceded initial reservations about patronizing the cane juice man – began to show up at his stall. Nirmal even credits his cane juice enterprise with significantly popularizing the beverage with visitors to Guyana traversing the East Coast highway.
Increased demand necessitated logistical and operational changes. He recruited a young man from the village as an assistant. The growth persisted and two more employees were pressed into service.
There were other changes too. Over time, the demand for cane juice swelled to forty gallons daily. The manual grinder with which he had begun his enterprise was no longer adequate. He invested in a motor-operated grinder with a capacity to handle three times the volume of his now defunct manual grinder. Simultaneously, Nirmal expanded the range of his snacks, introducing puri, fish cakes, cassava balls, potato balls and channa.
Younger villagers, particularly, have stepped up to support the cane juice enterprise. The locale has become as much a sort of hang out joint, as it is a place where you can enjoy a good snack. One young man with whom the Stabroek Business spoke said that he and his brothers would check out the juice man to watch him grind the juice out of his stalks of sugar cane and afterwards they would enjoy a glass of the beverage.
Their CXC examinations behind them, Nirmal’s children have thrown in their lot with their father. He explains the division of labour. “While we are at home frying the egg ball and suh, the two big ones would come out around 7.30, clean up and start grind the juice so by the time we bring the things everything set and is just to start sell.”
Down the road, Nirmal is contemplating creating a sitting area where regulars can sit around and enjoy what he has to offer. There is a picture of the old stall where the manual grinder had been set up, a reminder of times past. In the picture Nirmal is grinding a stalk of cane whilst one of his sons is enjoying a glass of cane juice. The picture is a reminder of how far the business has travelled.