Thu | Nov 15, 2018

First AngelsJa successes | Patria-Kaye's journey up to Sweetie highway

Published:Thursday | January 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Patrcia-Kaya Aarons
CEO of Sweetie Confectionery Patria-Kaye Aarons (left) and general manager of Frozen Delights Distributors Winsome Rowe standing by a display of Sweetie candies.

Patria-Kaye Aarons is a well-known face in Jamaica. Those in the corporate world will recognise her as a marketing guru, she worked with two of the biggest companies in the region, Digicel and GraceKennedy, while the average Jamaican might recognise her from her ongoing roles as a presenter on CVM TV and a co-host of This Morning on Nationwide News Network. In 2014, she took on yet another role, candy-maker, when she launched Sweetie Confectionery.

This latest role might have surprised those who only knew her from her media work, but those who knew Patria-Kaye from her Campion College days wouldn't find this turn of events surprising in the least, since she used to be the school's walking candy store. One whole compartment of her knapsack was dedicated to housing her stock, and anyone who wanted their sugar fix would just needed to find her on the school grounds. In 2006, when she had her heart set on doing a master's degree at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland but her bank account wasn't up to the task, she put a '$50 box' on her desk at work at Digicel, and co-workers could purchase any snack they wanted out of this box for $50 banana chips, cupcakes, Kiskos stored in the company's fridge. That entrepreneurial spirit helped her raise enough funds to cover the first term of her business administration and management programme.

"I've always known the benefit of entrepreneurship, the satisfying feeling that it can bring, and the way that it can be the means to an end," she said.

She officially hung out her shingle after departing Digicel in 2009, registering Patria PR to "save the world with public relations one business at a time", but corporate life called her back, making an offer she couldn't refuse. So off to GraceKennedy she went, putting in four solid years as sponsorship and communications manager for GraceKennedy Money Services, before a simple question from her goddaughter, Rochelle, changed the game.


What is a blue raspberry?


Four-year-old Rochelle was having trouble identifying some of the fruits in the candy she was about to eat, and asked the crucial question, "Auntie, what is a blue raspberry?" The question lit a spark in Patria-Kaye's head and the idea that would later become Sweetie Confectionery was conceived. She wondered, where were the local sweeties, with flavours that the average Jamaican can easily identify, instead of these "nebulous fruits that don't mean anything to anybody?" Being Patria-Kaye, she immediately set out to do something about it.

"I actually took a vacation day. I'm very impulsive, and there's a dogged determination in that when something is in my head, I can't let it go. So this conversation with my goddaughter was in my head and I took the day to chase after this thing. I didn't know what this 'thing' was, but it needed investigation," she explained.

Her first stop was Miel Sweets, Jamaica's last remaining commercial confectionery manufacturer at the time, where she sat down with the owner, Paul Lue-Yen.

"We had a long conversation about the history of candy-making in Jamaica, about the time when candy companies used to run 24-hour shifts because business was that good," she said.

Business was booming until overseas competition was introduced in the 1980s.

Over time, local candy-makers like Miel and Lannaman's began to buckle under the pressure as they couldn't stand up to the prices of these imported sweets. Production dwindled, going from 24-hour shifts to 12 hours, to eight hours, to four.

"When I met with him, he was producing for less than six months of the year, and he was only doing Icy Mints," she recalled. "So on a whim, I said to him, 'If I was to come to you with a product that didn't compete with your mints, could I use your staff, your factory, your equipment, to produce my formulation? I'll pay you for it.' And he said, 'Sure,' and laughed, thinking he'd never see me again."


'I want to make a jackfruit sweetie'


Patria-Kaye's next stop was the Scientific Research Council (SRC), where she translated the idea in her head to something tangible and edible. "

I met with the scientists up there and told them I wanted to make a jackfruit sweetie, and you could see the puzzled looks on their faces. They'd never made candy before. They didn't even know how to make candy, but they bought into the sweet dream that I had and came along for the ride," she said. It was a smart move all around, as there was a gaping hole in Jamaica's confectionery space for something local.

The country imports a staggering US$7.5 million worth of candy every year. "If we're going to be serious about reducing the import bill, we have to chip away at it to make a difference. Cutting this US$7.5 million a year is one of these little chips that I am committed to making."

The SRC had to make some investments on their part, too, purchasing candy thermometers and other equipment. Then came an intensive six-month research and development process, involving testing different formulations and flavours across a wide cross section of Jamaican consumers. Some flavours were axed immediately: testers said the naseberry sweetie tasted like "dirty brown water," and otaheite apple was too bland. The five flavours that scored 80 per cent or higher on the scoresheet were: jackfruit, guava, mango, June plum, and pomegranate. The popular paradise plum sweetie would be resurrected and added to the product line in 2015, and peanut brittle would soon join the party as well.


Business loan vs car loan ... she made the decision


Things were moving along briskly, and although the cost of R&D testing was subsidised, Patria-Kaye soon found herself out of funds. She had a bunch of samples and prototypes on hand but was stuck, having exhausted her personal finances including her pension, because by this time she had resigned from GraceKennedy to get to this stage. She had also enrolled in the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in 2014 to pursue additional business training and mentorship, which required weekly trips to Montego Bay. She graduated at the top of her cohort with the best business plan and began excitedly shopping it around to banks and other financial institutions for a loan, only to hear "no" at every turn.

"Some banks said, 'But you're so young.' Other financial institutions said, 'It's a start-up. We don't really do start-ups because it's too risky.' Nobody would finance the business," she recounted. But fate would soon intervene. What could have been a tragedy an accident on her first trip to the Branson Centre that totalled her car turned out to be blessing in disguise. None of the financial institutions would offer her a business loan, but they all came running with loan offers to replace her car, despite the fact that it was fully insured. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Patria-Kaye decided to 'tun her hand and mek fashion':

"I used the insurance cheque and started the business, and since they wanted to give me a car loan, I took it." The insurance cheque was used to purchase the first set of packages, and Sweetie Confectionery was up and running.

The first major order came that December, from Western Union International, which used the candies as part of an all-island Christmas promotion to 'treat' customers. Next up was the Ministry of Tourism's Christmas in July event in 2015.

"That was a phenomenal response. We actually got quite a lot of business out of that from corporate entities that have used our products, because it's something that you haven't seen," Patria-Kaye said. "Never discount the fact that Jamaicans want to buy Jamaican, and if you produce a quality product, they'll support you. My business has grown year after year because of the willingness of Jamaican people to support an excellent Jamaican product."

- Patria-Kaye Aarons needs an Angel. Follow this story in The Gleaner.