Volume 14 Number 2
From Walkerswood to the World
01 April 2001

Since we last wrote about Walkerswood, Jamaica, in 1994, its cottage industry has burgeoned into a company with a £2 million turnover. Mary Lean reports, and (below) visits its London showcase, Bamboula restaurant in Brixton.

The shopper in New York, London or Johannesburg who picks a brightly-labelled bottle of Walkerswood jerk sauce off the supermarket shelf has little idea of the story which lies behind it.

Walkerswood sauces and seasonings are produced by a remarkable company based in a remarkable village in Jamaica. Set in the hills above the north coast resort of Ocho Rios, the village has a tradition of community action and self-help which dates back to the 1940s (see For A Change April 1988 and August/September 1994).

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods can trace its roots to a two-person operation, grilling marinated pork for local bars. From the start its aim was to create local employment, and so discourage people from leaving the village for the city. It started exporting jerk seasoning through an American tourist who picked up a bottle in an Ocho Rios supermarket and wanted more. Today, some 23 years on, the company employs 60 people and its 15 hot sauces, exported around the world, bring it an annual turnover of £2 million plus.

The company is proud of the fact that wherever possible it uses raw materials produced in Jamaica. 'Our jerk sauce, for example, is probably 98 per cent Jamaican,' production manager Johnny McFarlane told The Times Higher Education Supplement in May 2000. 'What isn't Jamaican is the bottle cap and the nutmeg.'

Originally all the company's suppliers were local farmers. In 1997-8 the area was hit by drought and the price of escallion, a form of spring onion which is a basic ingredient of the sauces, rocketed from J$5 a pound to J$100. 'We had to continue to supply the market and take all these losses,' says the managing director, Woody Mitchell. 'One of our competitors decided not to continue to export and lost its market to Costa Rica.'

The company weathered the crisis and, thanks to the way its staff rallied round, managed to raise productivity by 60 per cent. In 1998, so as to spread its risk, it set up its own farm in the south of the island and entered into an arrangement with a large farm in St Mary, to the east of Walkerswood. But they continue to buy produce from some 100 local farms, some of them very small.

When the company celebrated its 21st birthday in 1999, the guest speaker was Jamaican economist Norman Girvan, whose parents helped to set up the original 'Pioneer Club', from which the village's self-help initiatives stemmed. The teamwork which ensued between the villagers and the local landowning family testified, said Girvan, to 'the critical role of religious faith in bridging the gap between the materially privileged and the materially less privileged'.

The deeper spiritual and human values which motivated Walkerswood's pioneers live on in the ethos of the company. 'The Walkerswood team speak of the strong bonds of faith in God that unite them,' Girvan said. 'They speak of constant communication--talking through problems of human relations, of debt and drought as they arise. They speak of a constant effort at meditation, reflection, self-criticism and seeking guidance from above. They speak of the importance of community rootedness, of partnership and of equity.'

The company is owned by 12 partners, mostly from the community, and none of them owning more than 17.5 per cent of the shares. It has 23 shareholders, and has just opened up the opportunity to buy shares to employees of five years' standing.

Walkerswood's spiritual roots help when it comes to the hard graft of building teamwork between the partners, says their chairman, Roddy Edwards. 'There's a continual need to talk honestly, not to sweep things under the carpet, and to admit one's mistakes,' he says. 'When people are prepared to talk openly about such issues as jealousy, we can come to new unity.'

When the Prince of Wales visited the factory last year, his spokeswoman said, 'It's a good example of local people getting together and proving very successful in an area where people find it hard to make a living.'

And what of the future? Walkerswood Caribbean Foods has just published a cookbook* to show customers overseas what to do with the spices and sauces it supplies, and, says Mitchell, plans to add a new pepper sauce to its repertoire this year.

Its most ambitious plan is to build a new processing facility which, when fully operational, will raise productivity 'at least four-fold' and increase employment correspondingly. The hope, says Mitchell, is to break the ground this year and complete construction over the next two years. 'We are excited by the possibilities,' he says. 'We continue to live the dream that started from a small seed years ago.'

*'Walkerswood Caribbean kitchen' by Virginia Burke, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, London, £7.99 (US price, $12.00)

Visit their web site at: www.walkerswood.com/

When I arrive at Bamboula, London's pioneering Caribbean restaurant, manager Paulette Pryce is deep in conference with chef Obrie Blasse. This gives me time to admire the decor. The idea, Pryce explains later, is that someone looking in on a cold winter's day should be drawn into the warmer brighter world of the Caribbean.

Opening Bamboula--the name comes from an African street-dance--in 1997 was something of a risk for Walkerswood Europe and its partner Island Grill (Jamaica's spicy answer to Kentucky Fried Chicken). Eighty per cent of new restaurants go bust in their first year. But three and a half years on, the venture is beginning to pay off. The restaurant is '95 per cent' self-sufficient, its turnover has quadrupled and it now serves as many people a night as it used to in a week.

Time Out, London's weekly entertainment guide, describes it as a 'fantastic Caribbean restaurant' and the menu is mouthwatering and exotic--flamed jerk chicken, escoveitch fish, callaloo lasagne and chicken rundown. To Blasse's chagrin, there is only table space for 22 customers at a time. 'If we had bigger premises,' he says, 'we'd really be doing good.'

Caribbean food is becoming increasingly popular in Britain, but it's usually only available as a takeaway. Pryce is used to customers telling her what a relief it is to find a Caribbean restaurant where they can sit down and talk. She was working for Walkerswood Europe, promoting the products of Walkerswood Caribbean Foods at food shows, when she spotted the gap in the market. 'We'd have a pot with small pieces of chicken with jerk seasoning on it. The smell would attract people. They kept on asking us, "Where can we find a really good Caribbean restaurant?" '

It's unusual for a small company to 'bring the food from the field to the plate' in the way Walkerswood does at Bamboula, says Ian Cook, a lecturer in Cultural Geography at the University of Birmingham. 'It seems incredibly ambitious for a company that small, that young and from that far away to even consider opening a restaurant in London. Grace Kennedy, a long established and much larger Jamaica-based competitor, has just one UK-based employee working from a small office in the City.'

The restaurant works well on a number of levels: not least as a showcase for Walkerswood products. 'They bring the buyers for supermarket chains to Bamboula, rather than just waving a bottle under their noses in an office,' says Cook. 'They get the smell, the music, the decor and then they taste the food. Walkerswood are canny, they know what attracts people.'

Walkerswood Europe chose Brixton as the venue because of its large Caribbean community. 'The customers who had helped us get where we were at the time were the people of our own community,' Pryce says. 'We wanted to put something back.' She gets a kick out of the fact that the community come to Bamboula to celebrate their birthdays, weddings and promotions.

Wherever possible, Bamboula employs local people. Obrie Blasse is a case in point. After 27 years as head chef at the University of London Union, he has been working at Bamboula for three years and doesn't miss the commuting. He enjoys the interaction with customers--'People come right into the kitchen and say thank you'--and is getting used to apparent strangers recognizing him in the street.

The biggest challenge, both agree, has been finding staff. 'The people we have now are very good, they actually "own" Bamboula,' says Pryce. 'But I remember thinking that one year had been the longest of my life because of the things that happened: we had people who didn't turn up or just left without saying they were going.' After disappointing experiences with government employment schemes and the local job centre, Pryce now recruits through word of mouth and a sign in the window--and has a waiting list of people interested.

The restaurant now employs ten people. The staff's sense of ownership is encouraged by monthly staff meetings, where issues--such as how often to offer Sunday brunch--can be discussed.

Like all small businesses, Bamboula has faced constant challenges. 'We were lucky that the manager of the local HSBC bank caught Paulette's vision and stuck with us,' says Roddy Edwards of Walkerswood. 'The VAT people and Inland Revenue have been very patient with us too, as we attempted to honour all our debts. For small businesses to survive they need banks and officials with that sort of attitude.'

Bamboula tries to do its bit too. 'We were late in paying one builder because of our cash flow problems,' says Edwards. 'Later, when we were doing better, we added interest in recognition of the problems we had caused him.'

Although she jokes that she 'must have been ill' when she came up with idea of Bamboula, Pryce was so convinced by the venture that she put in her own money. Friends tell her that if she could bottle her determination, she'd be a rich woman. 'When things are not working I say, "Dear Lord, give me the answer"--and I think he does, often without me even realizing it.'

Pryce is proud of the celebrities who have eaten at Bamboula, including the West Indian cricket team. She believes the restaurant has given the community something to brag about. 'Brixton should be proud that we have a Caribbean restaurant that's been around now for three and a half years. And it's going to be around a lot longer if I have anything to do with it.'
Mary Lean