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Woman Entrepreneur Spices up Business with SBA Loan

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.

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