My Business: Bringing the taste of Jamaica to New York
- 20 June 2012
- From the section Business
What makes an entrepreneur? The BBC's Kim Gittleson and Tom Santorelli hear from Lowell Hawthorne, a Jamaican immigrant who, with nine of his family members, founded the Caribbean bakery empire Golden Krust, the United States' largest West Indian food chain.
Everyone knows when the boss is in at Golden Krust's New York factory: a trail of yellow crumbs leads from the machine floor to the adjoining office.
On the factory floor, Golden Krust's ovens turn out 400 perfect half-circles of nine types of Jamaican patties each minute. Lowell Hawthorne, Golden Krust's co-founder and CEO, spends his morning tasting the product before it is shipped across the United States.
The patties - spicy meat or fish filling surrounded by flaky, yellow dough - are a West Indian favourite. They are what the chain, which has more than 120 restaurants in nine US states and more than $100m (£64m) in yearly sales, is best known for.
But it was not always that way. In the beginning, Golden Krust did not even make patties.
Learning from Dad
Golden Krust started as the American incarnation of Mr Hawthorne's father's bakery back in St Andrews, Jamaica. The Jamaican bakery had no running water or electricity, but it supplied the surrounding rural towns with Jamaican hard crust bread and seasonal delights like Easter buns.
Crucially, however, Mr Hawthorne's father did not make patties because other, better-known manufacturers in Jamaica had already cornered the market there.
So, like his father before him, during the first three years of Golden Krust's existence, Mr Hawthorne's chain bought the beef patties from a competitor in the West Indian restaurant field.
One day, when Mr Hawthorne was visiting family in Jamaica, he got a phone call from one of his staff telling him that his patty supply had been cut off - the competitor decided that Golden Krust was getting too successful.
"So Golden Krust was forced to make patties. My brothers, my sisters did what we had to do to fly over to Europe, going to England, learning how to make patties," says Mr Hawthorne.
Equipped with a Scottish baking method, a chef named Mel, and a new machine, less than a year after the crisis, the business topped sales of $2m for the first time.
Finance was also an issue. Not a single US bank would give the Hawthornes a business loan when they first applied in 1988.
So the Hawthornes were forced to invest their own money in the enterprise, with some going so far as to take out another mortgage on their houses just to scrape together enough money.
The business opened with $107,000 in funding in 1989.
Although the Hawthornes had been successful small business owners in Jamaica, as immigrants, they were also flummoxed by many of the differences in doing business between the two cultures.
"As an immigrant, not understanding the system here made it more difficult," says Mr Hawthorne of the early days of Golden Krust's existence. "Had I lived there and understood how it worked I think we would have gone through it easier."
The problems Mr Hawthorne faced in the early days included the familiar - figuring out the raft of regulations governing food production in New York City - and the not-so-obvious, like recognising a Mafia member when you see one.
"They were the garbage collectors here," recalls Mr Hawthorne with a laugh. "They came and without any questions asked, they put a sticker on your window, telling you what your fee would be."
At first, the Mafia-run garbage squad demanded $250 a week to collect the factory's garbage - but within a few months, they had increased the price to $7,000 a week.
Eventually, Golden Krust decided to stop paying the fee - only to have the Mafia men retaliate by dumping rotting fish heads at the factory's doors.
Still, the Hawthornes held their ground and eventually were able to find a different contractor.
As American as pizza
Nowadays, Golden Krust brings in more than $100m in sales each year, and it makes the bulk of its money by selling franchise licences and selling patties wholesale to big distributors like Wal-Mart.
But crucially, the factory also supplies New York's schools and prisons with patties in an effort to expand the customer base beyond the West Indian communities in which the business first took hold.
The hope is that the patties will one day become so ubiquitous that they will, in Mr Hawthorne's words, be as American as pizza and bagels.
"We have a 2020 vision," he says. "We want to make Caribbean cuisine mainstream by 2020."