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Hot stuff - Grace 'mashing' up hot pepper production

Published:Monday | October 6, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Dwayne Brown (centre) prepares to unload a bag of peppers for sorting by pepper mash team leader, Shakera Isaacs (left). PHotos by Christopher Serju

Christopher Serju, Gleaner Writer

In the five years since GraceKennedy signed contracts with some 60 farmers to supply 45,000 pounds of hot pepper and scallion per week for its processing facility at Hounslow, St Elizabeth, operations have grown to the extent that it is now bursting at the seams.

Taji Alleyne, general manager at Grace Agro Processors (GAP) division - GK Foods & Services Limited - is excited about the prospect for further growth, with export markets a big part of the mix.

In addition to carrying its flagship, Fresh 'N' Ready stir-fry vegetable mix, GAP is now also fully self-sufficient in hot pepper mash, and has added shredded callaloo, as well as it provides value-added services for other food processors in St Elizabeth.

The pepper mash is made by sorting, washing and crushing hot peppers, then adding salt and/or other preservatives to give shelf life. The resulting extensive shelf life is because of the low pH (high acidity) and preservative properties of capsaicin, the chemical which gives hot pepper their heat. In addition to its own line of products, the company now supplies most large local seasoning and sauce processors with West Indian Red Pepper Mash, Scotch Bonnet Pepper Mash and Scallion Mash to various customers' specifications. The Scotch Bonnet Mash has two variations; one that is appropriate for jerk and other seasonings and another that is more refined and is suitable for sauces.

At start-up, the company used to import pepper mash from Costa Rica to meet any shortfall, but as the demand for this hot product grew, it began to make matching investments in anticipation of the significant demand it is now enjoying. Having ceased importation, GAP this year exported pepper mash to the United Kingdom, St Lucia, the United States, and Sweden.

With some 70 contract pepper farmers on its roll, the company is now heavily into production, and the projection for growth, as outlined by Alleyne, is impressive.

He told The Gleaner during a recent tour: "Last year, we produced 325,000 kilogrammes of hot pepper mash. This year, we are projected to end the year at about 600,000 kilogrammes and next year, the budget projection is for one million kilogrammes of pepper mash, that is 2.2 million pounds of pepper for next year."

Alleyne explained that, even though the country has been spared any major fallout from natural disasters over the past three years, GraceKennedy is mindful of the potential for disruption of its supply chain in the event of a hurricane.

In addition to the potential fallout in business from local and overseas customers, the company's domestic operations would also be negatively impacted, a situation it has anticipated and taken action to prevent, by way of stockpiling at least a year's worth of inventory.

For this reason, always having pepper mash in reserve is part of its long-term strategic business plan.

"Holding reserve inventory for our own internal use and for our customers is critical to mitigate against unforeseen circumstances (such as hurricanes, drought or disease) that may disrupt the availability of the raw material." he said.

Still, GraceKennedy is moving to expand its production and holding capacity as it seeks to make further inroads into the export market, according to Alleyne.

"What I am in the process of doing now is targeting a group of pepper mash companies in the United States, from Louisiana which is famous for hot sauce. It's called the Louisiana Pepper Exchange," he said. "Now if they were to call me, this inventory could go in a month based on the volumes they take. I went up and visited with them and they came down and we're in the process of negotiating price now. So that again could take the business to the next level."

He added: "When we started in 2011 to now is a big difference in terms of sales. Sales from 2013-14 have grown by 300 per cent; in 2013, our sales were J$14.2 million, in 2014 to August, our sales are J$69 million," he said.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com