In just four and a half years Aaron Johnathan Nerahoo has grown his customised coconut cocktails business, Johnny’s Young Coconuts, to the point where foreign clients come to T&T to seek him out. It’s because he is a problem solver and a hard worker, Nerahoo who is fondly called “Johnny”, insisted during a recent interview. Of course, the key ingredients of his specialty product, coconuts, do play a starring role.
In 2017 after he was retrenched from his job as a machine operator with an automotive battery manufacturer, Nerahoo filled two needs with one plan—he provided a valuable product to consumers and found a way to earn a livelihood.
An observation he made while heading to Maracas beach the same weekend he lost his job set Nerahoo’s life on an upward course. He saw a woman picking up a two-litre bottle in a grocery store and complaining: “Every week I buying this and it ain’t tasting nothing like coconut water.” He came up with the idea of making coconut water in its natural form easily available to customers.
Nerahoo approached several supermarkets with a pitch to sell them young coconuts with shaved-down sides exposing the husk, trimmed at the top and packaged in clear plastic with his name on the product. This was similar to how they were sold in the United States, but Nerahoo left some of the attractive green or yellow skin on the nut. His pitch was a hit and his product was soon in the beverage chillers at large supermarket chains, including Massy, Tru-Valu and JTA.
Initially, the young entrepreneur tried to source the machine to shave down the sides of the coconuts in England, but he ended up buying a more accurate one from China. By the second year of his business, he was making recommendations to the Chinese manufacturers about adjustments to make the peeling process smoother.
“I used to travel a lot and I saw something of its sort in England. It could peel the sides, but you still had to do plenty manual work, so I reached out to people in China,” Nerahoo explained.
“They sent me the one they had. I tweaked it because it still had plenty to be done. And the one that I’m using now is what I help create.”
He now has patents to shave the coconuts in different ways.
Apart from selling his product to supermarkets, Nerahoo did pop-up stands at Maracas beach. People started contacting him to supply his shaved-down, ready-to-drink coconuts complete with fancy straws at their events.
“So I started doing events, home by people doing little weddings and thing and they started asking for alcohol to mix in because they wanted to keep the coconut longer in their hands,” he said.
In order to allow alcohol to be slowly mixed into his popular handy coconuts, Nerahoo experimented with syringes, then funnels. Not satisfied with those time-consuming and cumbersome methods, he decided to try overturning mini bottles of alcohol directly into a cut hole at the top of the coconuts. He also customised an opener with the help of a local fabricator to punch an opening off the top of the coconut to match the size of certain mini alcohol bottle tops.
At his first major event at the Brasso Seco Food Festival in 2018, Nerahoo supplied 14 different brands of alcohol minis along with his specially-shaved coconuts. Fascinated by the novelty product, people “rushed it”, he said. He sold out even before the event officially started.
He recalled: “And that’s when I knew this was going to work.”
On the way back home from Brasso Seco, Nerahoo decided that with Carnival coming he could reach out to alcohol companies knowing they usually sponsored big fetes and events. He did exactly that, telling them he would brand the shaved coconuts with their logos.
Hennessy was the first to take up his offer. He launched engraved cocktail coconuts at a Beach House Entertainment fete.
“I have no words to describe that . . . all kinda 500-600 people in a line. I remember the second Beach House I did, we had to stop the lines because we couldn’t cater for everybody. I used to just walk down and tell people it didn’t have any more because people didn’t used to want to leave nah boy,” Nerahoo said.
On one such occasion he asked a man who was drinking one of his cocktail coconuts how it tasted. The man replied, Great!’ adding that he had attended the event just to try it out after hearing about the experience his cousins had the previous year and seeing pictures.
“That’s how I knew I had these cocktails how I want them,” Nerahoo said
His specialty coconuts are enjoyed by people who like the novelty of having the logoed coconut husk with coconut water supplied in its natural form, infused with either alcohol or non-alcoholic drinks.
Nerahoo has created more than 300 alcoholic cocktails and over 40 that are non-alcoholic. His Feel Good cocktail with citrus is a non-alcoholic best seller, while his Tequila Rose and Hennessy is a number one seller for alcohol drinkers. The Island Feel is available in alcoholic or non-alcoholic versions with watermelon, mango, pomerac, pineapple or whatever is in season is also popular. He also uses peaches and strawberries, but prefers to work with fresh fruits.
For personalised events, Nerahoo likes to give clients something exotic.
If they are local, he goes for a foreign fruit combo and if they’re foreign, vice versa. His cocktail umbrella skewers embellished with fruits also add an exotic flair.
After working with numerous brands for corporate events, Carnival bands, and events in Grenada, Antigua and Barbados, Nerahoo decided to give his hometown a taste of Johnny’s Young Coconuts and started doing pop-ups on Manzanilla beach in early 2020.
In addition to the weddings, birthdays and anniversaries for which the business caters, people celebrating milestones also find the product appealing. Seeing their name and particular milestone or event etched on the novelty coconuts makes them happy, he believes.
Some clients change their wedding destination simply because they want his product as an attraction.
“So I have stories where people plan in Germany, Canada, wherever, and come to Trinidad to keep their wedding just to have the coconuts. We had people from Scotland, Canada . . . the UK is a big one. I had one couple from Australia,” he revealed.
The Sangre Grande resident wants to take coconuts—something he enjoyed seeing on the Manzanilla Stretch as a child on his way to and from school in Mayaro—to the top 25 events in the world, starting with the SXSW Conference and Festival and Coachella Music and Arts Fest, both in the US.
In his early years, after his parents separated, Nerahoo divided his time between his mother’s and father’s homes. His father, Steve, had a painting and straightening shop, while his mother, Deborah, sold delicacies, including pholourie and sugarcakes,. Most likely he inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from them.
“I used to never sit still. I used to ask real questions,” he said.
Nerahoo also had a knack for solving real problems. As a student at Mayaro Composite, he gravitated towards practical skills like metalwork and technical drawing. He later did painting and construction jobs, before landing a position as a machine operator at a battery manufacturing plant. He was very good with machines and was able to master all at his workplace.
He believes his machine skills are the reason for the longevity of his business which he operates primarily on his own. He calls on a team of up to six other workers depending on the type of event.
During the pandemic, Nerahoo pivoted to doing five and 12-nut packages with alcohol or non-alcoholic mixes delivered on ice in styrofoam coolers for small gatherings.
He said giving back is important to him and he does non-alcoholic giveaways to schools and others. He also participates in demos, expos and does motivational speeches at trade shows, UWI and schools.
“We go and spread the love man. Show them you don’t just have to be a doctor or a lawyer, you could be something else,” he said
Once an avid party-goer who would mix a particular type of Vitamin C into coconuts in-between fetes for himself and his friends to keep them going, Nerahoo feels his life has come full circle.
He commented: “When I started working as a youth, I used to real party and lime. Now when you see me in an event, I getting paid.”
Q&A with Johnny Nerahoo
What do you think people like about the product?
“Each coconut is customised to the person in front of them. We work with every type of alcohol, so once you are at the stand, your coconut is customised to you; what type of alcohol you drinking, if you want a fruity flavour, so you won’t go anywhere else and get that kinda drink.”
Where do you get your bartending skills?
Since school days, I was a beer maker, playing with different flavours. I was always mixing punches for parties, so the cocktail side for me wasn’t really hard. That’s part of me.
To what do you attribute the big brands being interested in you...your ability to market your product?
I think personality has a big part to do with it. I’m a people person. Everything around this is me. It’s something that represents me. The uniqueness of it grabbed the supermarkets one time. Some were asking if it was a peeled grapefruit, so no supermarket shut it down. Everybody was willing with open arms.
What would be your alternative dream job?
Something to do with travelling. When I was working at the battery plant, I wanted to know how things worked, so I always feel I have to see the world to know how things work. (Laughter)
Do you want to say anything to people out there contemplating starting their own business who may be fearful?
Yes. The more problems you solve, the further you go. Obstacles will come, you’ll face many trials, but with God first, you can overcome anything.