Inside Marie Sharp’s Pepper Power Plant
Marie Sharp is probably one of Belize’s best promoters because everywhere she goes; she shares the spicy side of local life in the Jewel. Sharp’s exquisite brand of pepper sauces is making its own journey to different continents. Today, Sharp went on an excursion that will lead to South Korea where she will have an opportunity to grow her brand in that region. Prior to her departure, on Thursday News Five Isani Cayetano paid a courtesy visit to Sharp’s factory to find out the secret to her best sauces.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
In the sweltering mid-afternoon heat somewhere deep within a four hundred acre plot, just a few miles north of Dangriga Town, a trusty team of farmhands is busy gathering peppers. It’s a seemingly continuous task, redundant by all means; nonetheless, the yield of habanero chili is most important to the operation of this food processing plant. After all it is the active ingredient in Marie Sharp’s flagship hot sauce. The idea of a locally manufactured condiment came at the suggestion of Sharp’s family and friends a little over three decades ago.
Marie Sharp, Proprietor, Marie Sharp’s Fine Foods
“I made eight different sauces and I started just giving them away to friends. [I would] get feedback on what they think, you know, and so on and I [got] started. I made the carrot-based one which is the one that I have and believe it or not the carrot-based one was the one that everybody went for. So one of my friends said to me, “Why don’t you sell this? This is good. It’s better than anything we have on the market.” I said, “You think so?” and he said, “Yes this will sell!”
…and with that seed being planted Sharp began flirting with the thought of going into business.
“I went out and I bought myself three tabletop stoves, the one you put on a counter, and three pots, one per stove, right. So every night I come home from work and cook three pots and then during the day I’d have a girl come and fill bottles. I’d go to work. And I started doing that and I started filling my veranda. Then my husband goes, “Now the garage and now the veranda, make sure you leave the bedroom.”
That was back in 1981. Since then the company has grown considerably, shifting from a domestic venture that began in her small kitchen to an operation worth an estimated three and a half million dollars.
“As you can see here this is our filling process and the pepper sauce enters the filling room from the storage tanks. When they are ready to bottle what they do is inform the supervisor in the crushing room and he passes, he opens the valve and allows sauce to pass into the filler. The filler has a small tank there that holds about twenty gallons of sauce. From there it’s filled [and] the operator, as you can see there, is filling the bottles and they full twelve bottles every time the filler comes down. We can get, at this rate, about sixty bottles per minute…”
It’s a completely mechanized procedure, one that has seen the business evolve from manual to automated in order to meet the growing demands of the market. Along with that upgrade came a need for greater exposure, as well as the capture of a larger market share. The first consignment of Marie Sharp’s pepper sauce arrived in the United States in 1986.
“The U.S. market is a very difficult market and so are all the [others]. Every market is the same. When I went in in 1986 you can’t afford to get into the supermarkets in the U.S. because they wanted three thousand dollars per product per store and you get three faces on the shelf. Just three face, that’s three thousand dollars. If that chain [of stores] has sixty to eighty chains [then] how would you ever accomplish paying for that space?”
Indeed, it was a mammoth expense that Sharp avoided at all costs until word of mouth advertising caught the attention of the world’s eighteenth largest public retailer corporation.
“One day I got a call, “Is this Marie Sharp?” [I said,] “Yes.” [They asked,] “Are you the owner of the pepper sauce Marie Sharp?” [I said,] “Yes.” [They said,] “We are calling from Walmart’s. Can we come and see you?” I said, “Sure. Please do” And they were here like a couple days afterwards and they came and they bought, they started buying from me. I didn’t go to Walmart so it didn’t cost me to pay for those shelves.”
But what the newfound publicity on the foreign market brought with it was legal trouble for the Marie Sharp brand.
“Tabasco wanted to bring forward legal action against you for the use of the diamond on the label. What was your position back then, did you choose to have it removed? Did you choose to take it to court and see if it would be fruitful for you to challenge their suit?”
“No. It’s just the design, just the design that I had on the label that held my peppers and my vegetables together. So what they did do is just that I had to take off and change the label and then I put the heart and then I just put slogans all over the stores ‘The whole world loves Marie Sharp’.”
And that advertising phrase couldn’t be any truer. As testament to its high demand tourists visiting Belize often leave with several gift packs of pepper sauce and jams. Here in the factory, usually an off-limits area for cameras, workers labor diligently and methodically, thorough in bottling, capping, labeling and packaging each container for export.
It is currently being shipped to Japan for distribution to as many as three thousand, three hundred McDonald’s restaurants across the island nation. If successful Sharp’s product will be introduced to other countries within the Asian market by attending an annual food expo in Seoul, South Korea.
“This is a great opportunity for me. I’m hoping that I’m going to meet people from all over the world because it’s one of the largest, or second largest food shows in the world so I am hoping that I’ll get some good results from being there.”
“From 1981 to 2012, you’ve grown significantly since then. Did you in your wildest dreams ever think that your product, as simple as it is to the naked eye and as Belizean as it is to us, did you ever imagine that it would take off and be introduced to various markets across the world?”
“No, I never did. Never in my foggiest dreams did I ever think that we would be where we are today.”
Marie Sharp is well on the way to becoming a powerhouse on the foreign market, having established her namesake pepper sauce as a force to be reckoned with on many dinner tables across the world. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.