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SAN JUAN, PR -- There’s a quaint little shop that will make you feel as though you have just stepped into your grandmother’s kitchen. Wicker chairs and benches, embroidered dish towels and pot holders, and hand-painted teacups.
Then, the sweet yet piquant aroma of blended herbs and spices, chutneys, jams and hot sauces, laced with soft tropical music playing in the background, transport you from your grandmother’s kitchen straight into paradise.
Hold on. We are in paradise.
Spicy Caribbee, at 154 Cristo Street in Old San Juan, was established 22 years ago by Nereida Williams. A former elementary school English teacher, Nereida received much of her inspiration from her mother, a hard-working woman who put her culinary talents to work, in order to satisfy the palates of her nine children.
“I have always loved the kitchen,” Nereida says. “And, my mom is a terrific cook. We’re not just talking rice and beans here. She is really creative.”
Seven years into her teaching career, Nereida met Mark Williams, who made a living by transporting perishables to the Caribbean islands on his airplane. After some time, Nereida began accompanying Mark on these business trips, and it was during a delivery to Tortola that Nereida got her inspiration.
Walking into a shop called Sunny Caribbee, Nereida was captivated by the aromas that surrounded her, and decided then and there that a spice shop was exactly the type of business she wanted to own.
“I really didn’t think that I could do it,” she admits. “But Mark was so supportive, and the shop’s owner told me that he would help me set up my own business.”
In 1987, Nereida opened the doors to Spicy Caribbee, selling hot sauces under the label of her Tortola associate. With time, however, she knew that she wanted to wholesale, but in order to do so she would have to create her own product line and label. She and Mark, by then married for several years, began attending trade shows and food expos, looking for a source that would be willing to work with them in developing their own product. With an investment of $7,000 on Nereida and Mark’s part and an additional $8,000 financed by their new supplier in St. Lucia, Spicy Caribbee became a private label and the business began selling two types of hot sauces –red and yellow-- manufactured in St. Lucia, but adapted to Puerto Rican flavors.
Today, Spicy Caribbee sells 29 products under its label. Although its top sellers are the red, yellow and green hot sauces, the business is also known for its mango and passion fruit sauces, in addition to guava and pineapple jams, mango chutneys, and even banana ketchup, among other varieties. Spicy Caribbee also boasts a line of dry seasonings --which are blended locally by Nereida and Mark themselves—and its own coffee, a dark chocolaty roast grown in the mountains of Jayuya.
“We want everyone who comes to visit to take with them the flavors that are reminiscent of Puerto Rico,” Nereida proudly says.
Millions of tourists arrive in Puerto Rico each year, and Old San Juan is a favorite place to visit. It should come as no surprise then, that close to 80 percent of Spicy Caribbee’s customers are tourists. The shop’s products can also be purchased online or by phone. As a matter of fact, 10 percent of the shop’s sales are conducted that way, mostly by tourists who come to visit or by people who receive a bottle of hot sauce as a gift from someone else who purchased it during a trip to the island. Spicy Caribbee has customers as far away as Canada, Spain, England and Austria, and, of course, many all across the U.S.
As good as business has been for Spicy Caribbee in its two-decade existence, sales suffered a bit in the past couple of years, due to the economic recession. And though they managed to maintain their credit and their suppliers, Nereida and Mark realized that they needed to improve their cash flow. During a conference sponsored a couple of years ago by the Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce, Nereida had learned of the Puerto Rico Small Business & Technology Development Center. Operating in Puerto Rico under a cooperative agreement between the SBA and the Inter-American University, the PR-SBTDC provides management and technical assistance to existing and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Nereida made an appointment to meet with business counselor Ivette Pinto, who worked with her and Mark on writing their business history, improving their management skills and preparing financial projections. Ivette was the person Nereida called for assistance this second time around as well, and soon after she and Mark were applying to Banco Santander Puerto Rico for an SBA-guaranteed loan made available last year under Economic Recovery programs. With the proceeds, they were able to retain their two part-time employees, pay their suppliers, purchase inventory, and create a three-ounce hot sauce sampler that allows tourists to easily stow in their carry-on luggage. And, of course, they have improved their accounting systems and made adjustments to other aspects of their operation.
“We are going to be able to continue bringing up our sales with the adjustments that we made and that we will continue making,” Nereida declares.
When asked about the advice she would give another person looking to start a business, Nereida says “they need to make sure they at least have taken some type of class on how to manage a business, and if they’re going to be in the same industry that I am, they need to have good people skills.”
Good people skills indeed. The best part of walking into Spicy Caribbee is being greeted by Nereida’s warm and welcoming smile, and that twinkle in her eye that comes easily to those living in paradise.
For more information on SBA’s programs and services, please visit www.sba.gov/pr.
DORADO, PR -- A couple of years ago, Kentucky-based BLU Pharmaceuticals’ president William ‘Bill’ Luster was on the lookout for a new solid dosage facility to manufacture generic pharmaceutical products as part of his company’s growth strategy.
Blu Pharmaceuticals, a certified minority-owned firm, focuses on the manufacturing and distribution of high quality generic pharmaceuticals at competitive prices.
Luster’s search for new business opportunities resulted in the purchasing of a 145,000 square foot production plant in Dorado, Puerto Rico that became available when generic pharmaceuticals firm Biovail decided to transfer its manufacturing operations to Steinbach, Canada, leaving hundreds of people unemployed.
“When I started looking at purchasing or building a manufacturing plant I looked in several areas of the mainland and internationally, such as New York, New Jersey, and Argentina and Brazil,” said Blu Caribe President Bill Luster. “When I considered building, I was going to build in Kentucky, but where is the talent in Kentucky in pharmaceutical manufacturing? I found Dorado through a facility locator. Candidly, I thought Puerto Rico would not be a choice because big pharma was the strong hold and felt the facilities would be too big and too expensive for our needs.”
Luster went on to explain that, as it turned out, purchasing the Dorado facilities was not out of reach financially, and that the company also looked at the tax incentives provided by the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company (PRIDCO).
“Those [tax incentives] are well published,” Luster said. “Those incentives are not ultimately what influenced our decision. Ultimately, the reason we chose Puerto Rico is simple to me, Puerto Ricans are passionate about manufacturing pharmaceuticals. In fact, I believe no one can do it better.”
In order to help finance the $10 million project, Luster obtained a $3.6 million loan under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 504 Certified Development Company loan program, which provides long-term fixed financing to purchase land, machinery and equipment and for business expansion. Designed to promote economic development in the community by creating jobs, a 504 loan originates through a CDC – a non-profit corporation that invests in its community’s economic development and helps generate jobs—together with a bank.
BLU Caribe’s loan was provided with the support of certified development company PYMES Financial Partners Corporation and third-party lender Banco de Desarrollo Económico para Puerto Rico (Economic Development Bank for Puerto Rico).
"The SBA’s 504 loan program is one of the agency’s best resources for job creation and economic development,” said SBA District Director José R. Sifontes. “BLU Caribe is the first pharmaceutical factory to open in Puerto Rico since 2007, and we are thrilled that the company has taken advantage of this program to foster job creation in an industry that has seen its share of difficulty on the island in the past few years.”
BLU Caribe began operations in April 2010, by re-hiring close to 100 of Biovail’s former employees and producing the first batches of the generic antibiotic ciprofloxacin for the U.S. market. Currently, the plant is producing three additional generic pharmaceuticals.
Since opening day, BLU Caribe has grown to 280 employees and plans to continue hiring. The company had sales of $17 million in 2010 and expects to close 2011 with more than double that amount. The plant also expects to have produced two billion tablets during its first year of operations, and plans to further increase annual production capacity to around four billion tablets by 2013.
BLU Caribe General Manager Sandra Rodríguez-Toledo, one of only three women in Puerto Rico leading a pharmaceutical company said “we have all put in many long hours, including weekends, to make the company what it is today.”
Luster attributes the company’s success to the high-caliber personnel with many years of combined pharmaceutical manufacturing experience. Currently the manufacturing activities have increased to double the capacity when manufacturing activities started last January. BLU Caribe operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For more information on SBA programs and services, visit www.sba.gov/pr.