Patria-Kaye Aarons is a well-known face in Jamaica. Those in the corporate world will recognise her as a marketing guru, as 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, candymaker, 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 masters 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, “Aunty, 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. “I cold called him and 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.”
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 Jamaica consumers. Some flavours were axed immediately: testers said the Naseberry sweetie tasted like “dirty brown water,” and Otaheite apple was too bland. The five flavors 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
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 startup. We don’t really do startups 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 make fashion’: “I used the insurance cheque and started the business, and I 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.”
I Need An Angel (Investor)
Sweetie Confectionery had taken off in spectacular fashion, and was growing bigger and bigger each year—faster than Patria-Kaye’s pocket could handle.
Every order was bigger than the last, as she had gone from selling out of her car trunk to having Sweetie in 20 locations, then landing a local distributor that immediately catapulted them to 100 locations, followed by distribution deals in the US Virgin Islands, the UK, and the US in quick succession. “The business was growing and growing, and I was holding it back, because I couldn’t afford to purchase enough raw materials to make the production runs, or purchase enough packaging. I got to a place where I recognized that this business is bigger than me and I needed help,” she recalled.
By this time, the banks that had initially refused to give her a business loan were now courting her attention, but she wasn’t interested as their interest rates were “ridiculous.” She also knew she needed more than financial assistance, as a newly minted CEO just trying to swim. “I’m a marketer, and I love to spend money. As a CEO, my objective has to be extremely different. Part of the success of Sweetie was going to depend on the support and expertise of people who have been there, who succeeded, who failed, who can caution me, so angel investing was attractive to me in that regard. And I also knew that in five years, I wanted to list on the Junior Stock Exchange, and there’s a kind of governance structure that’s required to be able to make that transition,” she explained.
Through the Branson Centre, Patria-Kaye began to pitch Sweetie to potential angel investors. She first approached FirstAngelsJA last September, and the pitch was successful, but the signing process was delayed as she had recently been selected as one of eight Jamaican fellows in former US President Barack Obama’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) and had to leave the island for the six-week programme. “The Angels loved Sweetie and they got it. They got who we were. They got me. They got where I wanted the business to go. And I think it helped that I knew my business. I wasn’t moonlighting in Sweetie. Sweetie was my primary focus and had been for two years, so I knew what it needed to grow, and I was very clear about that,” she said.
Sweetie is the newest company on the FirstAngelsJA roster, having finally inked the deal in April this year, so there is still a lot of ground to cover, especially from the governance standpoint. The company does have a board of directors in place, which includes chairman Michael Ranglin, who formerly headed up the food arm of GraceKennedy; Ann-Marie Smith from the SRC, who was instrumental in Sweetie’s R&D process; advertising maven Kimala Bennett, Managing Director of The LAB; and Kareem Tomlinson from Jamaica Money Market Brokers (JMMB), who handles the numbers—the latter two directors representing the angel investors.
The cash inflow has already made a huge difference, as Paul Lue-Yen finally closed his doors permanently last November, so Sweetie needed a new production home. Also, the machinery at Miel was from the 1980s, and being old, it would often break down, leading to postponed orders. This was costing Sweetie both in terms of dollars and reputation. With the angel investment, Patria-Kaye has been able to get Sweetie its own factory space with brand new machinery. “I’m able to do the hard candies in a way more efficient, first world manner. I’m able to provide 500 per cent more jobs. I’m able to double my offerings, because the machinery that I used to use before could only do hard candies, but now I can put a stick in some of those hard candies and give you a lollipop. I now have the freedom to do research and development in my own space. It’s really given me the flexibility to grow exponentially, and the confidence to chase new markets and new customers,” she shared.
Come Out Of The Silo
Having experienced the benefits of angel investment, even though it’s early days yet, Patria-Kaye believes it is something other entrepreneurs should seek out. “Entrepreneurs often operate in these silos. It’s a very lonely journey sometimes and the sharing of information, I’ve found, is very helpful. The angel networks have a way of knowing what’s out there, what grants are out there, what training facilities might be out there, what opportunities for exposure might be out there and the ability to share that within the networks,” she said.
To entrepreneurs who feel they might be ready to take the leap and approach an angel network, she offered this advice: “Know your business very well. Know what you want. Don’t go in there saying, ‘Beg yuh an investment’ and not be sure what you would do with that money if you get it.
Be very clear how you would use that money to make money for yourself and those investors. Don’t get it twisted: this is still a money making venture for them and they need to have the confidence that they will get their money back. I would also say don’t be afraid to give up some of the business. We love our companies, but if you don’t let go a piece of it, you’re going to stagnate the growth of that company. You’re going to slow down what it could be, so be willing to let go.”
The Next Five Years
“Come 2021, Jamaicans should be able to buy into Sweetie, and I’m readying the company from now,” she stated. Part of that getting ready process is expanding product lines. By next year, a new assortment of sour flavours such as tamarind, passion fruit and Jamaican cherry will be available, as well as taffies and gummies—or ‘juju,’ as Jamaicans call them.
Being proudly Jamaican is a key part of Sweetie’s identity. “I am first and foremost a marketer, and before I even made the first sweetie I was very clear about what the identity of my brand was going to be: execution, excellence, Jamaica first. So throughout that R&D process and even today, I still think anything that needs to be done or purchased or executed, can I get it in Jamaica?”
The only ‘foreign’ element you will find in Sweetie Confectionery’s candies is the natural fruit flavoured oils that give them their taste. There is currently no local entity commercially extracting oils, and Patria-Kaye doesn’t want to take up that aspect of production. “I just want to make the sweetie,” she said. “I’m encouraging somebody out there to go and start a business extracting oils from local fruits. As much as I can use it, the cosmetics and lotion people and the aromatherapy people can use that same oil. There are business opportunities waiting for people to tap into. I found mine. I’m begging other people to go out there and find theirs.”