Heather Chin’s online company fulfils Guyanese food cravings in the US

West Indian in the Woods packaged Bakes and Salt fish Sandwiches

Her heart set on black pudding with ‘loud sour,’ Guyanese Heather Chin, journeyed 50 miles from her Texas, US home only to be told that there was not enough pudding to sell.

Disappointed and angry, Chin decided that she was not going to be making any more long trips for black pudding, she would just make it herself. But that idea did not just pop into Chin’s head, she had grown up watching her mother and other relatives make black pudding, so she made her own.

But Chin did more than that, she thought about all the Guyanese living in the US who long for a food fix but are unable to access same and thus her company West Indian in The Woods was born.

Chin’s background is in Information Technology (IT), but today she mostly has her hands elbow deep in flour and faces the stove and oven on a daily basis, satisfying the taste buds of those who want a taste of Guyana while living outside of the country. For her, feeding people is more fulfilling than working in the world of IT.

Chin’s company is in the Woodlands, Texas, hence its name, and it is an online food, beverage and specialty grocery company which caters and specializes in traditional Guyanese and Caribbean cuisine.

There is no brick and mortar restaurant for Woodlands customers as yet, but Chin, who has three full-time employees and two others on call for big events, said it is in her midterm plan.

The fact that it all started with black pudding should come as no surprise. Chin shared that she not only has a “thing” for black pudding, but she grew up watching her aunts make the dish for sale. Her dad also purchased from Betty on Regent Street since it was a “Friday special.”

When she moved to the Woodlands from New Jersey in 2005, Chin said, she found one place that made black pudding and other Guyanese comfort food 50 miles away; she drove to the location every few weeks to stock up.

“One day the lady did not have enough black pudding to sell and I was so upset. I decided I would make it myself.  Then I thought about other Guyanese around the US who might be as frustrated as I was, not just for black pudding, LOL, but for the pastries and other things. So I started the company,” Chin told the Sunday Stabroek in a recent interview.

The company takes orders online but there are those customers who would request specific items and Chin said once enough persons ask for an item she would add it as a regular option on the website.

“We don’t generally stock prepared items. They are made to order so that the customer is guaranteed a fresh product,” she shared.

The company has a streamlined system which keeps the orders lined up so they can get them out as quickly as possible. “I think the biggest challenge was making sure the pastries got [to the customer] intact and we’ve mastered that for the most part,” she added.

The company ships to all states in the US except for Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico but if orders came from these states, Chin said, she would actually try. The company has also received requests from Canada, England, Dubai and even the Caribbean and is working to ship worldwide. Chin believes that most of her sales come through word and mouth.

‘Serious about Guyanese food’

She made it clear that she is “serious about my Guyanese food.” Black pudding—no surprise here—is her favourite, but she is also a curry and roti kind of girl and at times craves a good metemgee.

“Then again, I love a pepperpot just the way my father used to make it. I also love, love, love char siu pork…oh boy! I think I just circled the globe,” she said.

A big challenge at present is acquiring a brick and mortar location since it is very expensive but she is still working on it. Shipping has also proven to be a challenge as costs can be prohibitive but the company’s die-hard supporters and repeat customers don’t seem to mind.

While Chin had the cooking aspect of the business covered she said the biggest challenge was “getting our arms around  all that a business like this entails and even launching something like this. It is not as easy as it appears as there are many moving parts that are essential to producing an authentic product and keeping customers happy.”

On that note, she recalled two happy customers who visited the website and ordered everything that could be ordered and had them shipped to Seattle and California.

“It was crazy, but really fun to fulfil those orders. We never found out what they did with all that food. LOL! We suspect they might have had a New Year’s Eve party though,” Chin said.

‘Feeding people’

“Weird but true,” was how Chin described switching from her “first love” IT to cooking.

She worked in the IT world for over 20 years before deciding to move to the food industry and during that period she held many positions and was employed across many industries such as media, oil and technology.

“IT comes to me naturally.  I still keep abreast with the trends and I still consult in some capacity but West Indian in The Woods is my main focus right now. I’m comfortable in an IT environment and I’m also very comfortable in the kitchen. Those are the two things I could do with my eyes closed,” she said.

She rationalizes the move by explaining that there comes a time when simplicity is necessary; when one has to take stock of what’s truly important in one’s life. For her it was a good night’s rest and the fulfillment factor.

“I couldn’t really see how I was making a difference in anyone’s life for the most part. I was happy when I was asked to author and present a course on general controls for IT Security, Operations and Maintenance. I was in my element because I was actually enriching others, but that was a temporary assignment,” she said.

“That thrill, however, it’s the same feeling I have when I feed people. There’s this sense of absolute joy, so I think that’s why the transition was easy for me,” she said.

Chin is 100% committed to her customers, but she finds an additional 10% to take calls and questions about IT. She puts it this way: “I help out wherever I can. It’s not something that I can switch off or totally give up.”

Leaving Guyana

Heather was just 16 when she left Guyana in 1990 and went to live in Barbados. Her mother was a Registered Nurse at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados and Chin had hoped to attend the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill but it was too expensive, so she did another year of high school and then college where she studied computer science. She moved to the US in 1994 to attend Rutgers University.

Chin recalled that she had a “wonderful carefree childhood.” Her siblings were older than her and once they left she was alone a lot and found pleasure in books, music and dance. She also had had wonderful school and neighbourhood friends, most of whom she remains in contact with today.

She was a President’s College (PC) girl and shared that she had passed to attend Queen’s College as it was her dream and had already been assigned a house when she was offered the opportunity to attend PC.

“My parents were a little skittish but I knew I wanted to go there instead. What I wouldn’t give to be back at PC with all my ‘siblings,’” she said of the experience.

She is married to David Chin—whom she describes as Chinese and African with a bit of Portuguese in the mixture—and who “puts up with my wild ideas and impulsiveness. We have a blended family of five children and we were truly the Brady Bunch, noise and all. Our home is much quieter now that a third child is going off to college in the fall and another is in the US Navy.”

Speaking about herself, Chin said she is many things but her favourite is being “human. I love people and I hate human suffering. I experience the world through people and food.”

And so, quite rightly, she continues to ‘feed’ people.

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