While ice-cream is an indulgence with sweet rewards for entrepreneurs who can negotiate the unyielding challenges, competition for a significant share of the local frozen dessert market is hotter than ever. For starters, limited grocery shelf space restricts the variety offered, tariffs for local manufacturers outweigh incentives and the price by volume formula imposes a disadvantage for homegrown product. Katherine Bethel, 46, and her husband Anderson, 50, founders of B’s Homemade Ice-Cream, have been serving flavourful blends for 26 years and are charting a course to be a leading franchiser.
B’s Homemade Ice-Cream, based in Champs Fleurs, employs roughly 50 people, supplies 40 branded independent outlets, and has rolled out two franchises. These accomplishments are a long shot from their days of selling ice-cream from carts. “My husband was known as the homemade punch man,” recounted Bethel. “He used to whip up peanut and beetroot punches at home for our family.” When construction work evaporated, Anderson applied his welding skills to convert freezers into ice-cream carts. In 1986, the couple used a $3,000 loan from Eastern Credit Union to acquire a ten-quart ice-cream pail, blender, milk and fruit. “Our first cart was around the (Queen’s Park) Savannah. It wasn’t fruitful,” shared Bethel.
They soon realised serving their home ground was a better strategy. “We grew up in San Juan/Barataria. Our first strong location was Curepe junction.” At the time, the Willie’s chain was establishing its brand in central Trinidad, so Bethel and Anderson trained their sweet teeth on the East/West Corridor. They soon operated carts in Arima and Dinsley. The cart business assisted in developing brand recognition throughout the community. They endured robbery at gunpoint and leased carts to staff who failed at cash management and attracting customers. The Bethels saw all the signs: it was time to ditch the cart business. “We were operating downstairs my mother-in-law’s house,” added Bethel, B’s managing and finance director. “It was just after the (1990) coup when we acquired factory space. We were young people going to buy a building; our parents were sceptical. We had to increase production capacity and improve equipment.”
Bethel said they surveyed the market and researched the industry leaders, and cultivated the mental resilience to take on “a heavy piece of financing.” In 1994 they opened retail outlets in areas they had nurtured a customer base.
The Bethels worked with Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri) to ensure their initial formulation was developed to maintain that homemade ice-cream texture and improve quality assurance. Where they notice weakness or oversight they move like calculating cougars. When one competitor pursued exporting and focused less on the local market, the Bethels seized that opportunity to serve home. “Who is B’s Ice-Cream compared to Haagen Daz? I get that question from fete and event promoters,” admitted Bethel. “Haagen Dazs is a premium brand. It’s a quality product. What’s the next best choice if you want local ice-cream? It must be B’s because B’s offers flavours that Haagen Dazs does not.” Bethel is modest, observant and a total-local advocate. She knows consumers want healthier ice-cream that “isn’t bombarded with artificial ingredients.” Coconut is their fastest growing product, but dried nuts are scarce. Bethel says the coconut water industry cuts nuts before they dry and there is a pest the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs is trying to exterminate. Still, she is committed to not using coconut powder. She applauds Hi-Lo for its Buy Local initiative because every ounce of promotion helps local producers endure unreasonable industry standards.
On the other hand, Bethel is critical of the price by volume system.
“How can we compete when you have a four-litre foreign product, priced at a two-litre, from a local (manufacturer)?” When the consumer see a B’s, Willie’s, Flavorite or Munch Kings two-litre priced at that, what will they buy based on volume, they’ll pick-up the four-litre (import). Then you have megastores, like PriceSmart, there are no local ice-creams in there. Their members don’t have the choice of having local ice-cream. Why?” Bethel, a certified accountant, feels “it wasn’t a bad decision” to give 40 independent proprietors rights to use the B’s image without a license fee obligation that finances marketing and advertising costs, and provides royalties for the brand’s custodians.
“Just by scooping up some ice-cream, it’s income coming into those households throughout the community.” Now, B’s charges qualified applicants $40,000 to franchise their business model. If Bethel wanted to sell a new franchise every month, she likely could by just showing franchise candidates the Sunday frenzy at her stores. “It’s (packed) like a Jouvert band.” When you consider taxes on imported equipment, the product’s shelf life and dependency on electricity, then do the math, your perception of the ice-cream business may shift. A scoop of B’s savory ginger coconut, passion fruit or beetroot ice-cream can cost $10. “You pay $210 for a 9.5 litre tub of our ice-cream, that tub offers 100 scoops. If I can get scoops sold on a consistent basis, you seeing dollars and cents,” explained Bethel. She estimates B’s overhead is in the ballpark of $750,000, that includes importing branded freezers, packaging and soursop. The company estimates that its quarterly revenue is between $2.5 and $3 million, which is between $10 million and $12 million.
“We took up the challenge of distributing. That requires cold storage vehicles to get product to Pt Fortin and Rio Claro and still maintain competitiveness with imported product.” To snag publicity is an uphill battle for a small operation competing with global brands with million-dollar ad budgets. Bethel and her road crew rely on one-on-one marketing opportunities, such as the Ministry of Health Fight the Fat expo, and Carnival band launch events to introduce their home-style frozen desserts. Last May, Bethel enlisted Facebook to support customer relations and product marketing. The B’s Homemade Ice-Cream page attracted 3,000 likes in three weeks. “We have a really engaging page. We use it to sensitise people to local fruits,” shared Bethel. To measure Facebook’s impact on in-store traffic, Bethel has her customer service representative submit customer question reports. Those reports reveal that, “customers come in and say they saw us on Facebook. Then they post that they’re having B’s ice-cream for the first time.”
Social media buzz can be priceless. Bethel had reservations about Facebook because, “it can make or break you.” She has staff devoted to managing B’s page. “You need to respond to posts, depending on the issue,” she added. “We discuss what to push on the page, like a flavour of the week.” But it hasn’t been all roses. A customer used Facebook to pepper B’s for an unsavory experience. “I apologised,” said Bethel. “We learn from mistakes. B’s Ice-Cream is continually improving our customer service. I took a chance and Facebook was a step in the right direction. When I look at the comments, I feel a sense of pride, that this is how people feel about B’s.”