CHARLES KONG SOO
Bread is known as the "staff of life" and has been a vital food source for people for thousands of years around the world. Bread is more than just food. The term a person’s "bread and butter" means his or her main source of income, while bread or dough is the slang for money. When people "break bread" they share more than just a meal; they come together in body as well as spirit.
The Benjamin family from Sangre Grande has been making bread for more than a century. Benji's Bakery, at Guaico Tamana Road, is an icon and institution serving the community for that time.
The bakery's delicious coconut turnovers, currant rolls, pone, and garlic bread finish early. Its pastries go back with Trinidad expats and tourists alike to England, New York, Canada, Miami and other parts of the world. Customers in the East boast that the best hot cross buns can be found at Benji's.
For members of the family, bread has been their staff of life, providing them with their livelihood, profession, passion, the means to raise their families and to educate their children.
With the humble loaf of bread, the Benjamins have been able to give back to the community, helping residents of Sangre Grande and environs in their time of need, performing charitable works, and sponsoring community groups.
While many business empires rarely make it to the third generation without imploding, to reach five generations by any standards is worthy of commendation to any organisation in this highly competitive society. Many such enterprises have sprung up, flourished for a while and then vanished into oblivion.
This was not the case of the Guaico bakery which was founded by a young Scottish man, William Benjamin who migrated to Trinidad from Guyana and worked for a short while as an assistant chemist, termed a pan boiler at Caroni Sugar Estates.
The bakery supplied "one cent" and "penny loaf" during the early part and middle twentieth century.
Because of the price, hops bread was originally known as "penny loaves" and was affordable to many.
In its initial stages, the bakery supplied its products to Guaico, Sangre Grande and its immediate surroundings, but expanded its sales to other villages conveying its supplies to consumers by foot, animal-drawn carriages, bicycles and cars, to the custom-built delivery vans that they now use.
Business run by fourth and fifth generations
Today, the bakery is very much alive and run by the fourth and fifth-generation children of the matriarch of the family, Ancilla and her husband, the late Kenneth Benjamin.
At one time all eight children worked in the bakery. Trevor, the eldest, who was the managing director, unfortunately, passed away on February 7. Ingrid is the operations manager, Ronald aka Andy is the production manager, Derek does deliveries, Mona, Susan and Janice live abroad, and Wayne followed his own path.
Kristel, Andy's daughter, a fifth-generation Benjamin, is working to help preserve the family tradition. Daylene, Derek's daughter, who is part of that generation, is still in school but helps out in the bakery on Sundays.
Ancilla Benjamin, 82, said "When I was 16, I used to come and see my future mother-in-law, Virginia (Ms Sim) Benjamin at the bakery's present location, that was in 1953 and I went back and forth to Coalmine.
"It was a modest house in front, not very big, the bakery was at the back on one lot of land. In those days we used wood for the brick oven. Trucks used to come in and bring in wood, then you had to light the fire and tend it.
"We had no showcase or pallet then, at the time, we sold wholesale. A family who operated a parlour next to the bakery bought the bread and resold it. If you wanted a single bread you had to go to the parlour.
"While Kenneth and his brother Carl were still going to school, they delivered bread on bicycles to Tamana, Nestor Village, Valencia, in and around Sangre Grande, Toco, and Manzanilla."
She said when the boys' father, Donald Benjamin died, they had to stop school and help their mother, Virginia, with the bakery.
She said during this period, the bakery was rented out to Basdeo Sinanan, the father of Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan until the boys came of age.
Benjamin said Kenneth, who also worked at Red Store in Sangre Grande, at the young age of 15 for a salary of $3.50 per week to help his mother and brother, convinced the proprietress to give him a bicycle—he would later use this to sell the items which they baked.
Introducing technology and advancing
Benjamin said when she began working in the bakery, they made biscuit cakes, rainbow cakes, flannel pan, "Bajan" which was a square-shaped drops, hops bread sold for a penny, 12 cents a quart and loaves were six cents.
She said back then only men used to do the work mixing flour by hand, sometimes mixing 300 pounds of dough for hops. Her husband would mix dough for the long bread while she mixed sweet bread batter or buns.
She and her daughters Mona and Susan used to get up at 3:30 am to grate 140 pounds of cassava and coconuts by hand to make pone. It was a tedious process where she recalled that they would often skin their fingers and knuckles. She said at the time, she was a seamstress and taught embroidery in the community but had to give that up to devote more time to the bakery.
She said when parlours bought bread from the establishment, they received a baker's dozen (13) or a quart instead of the standard dozen.
Benjamin said in those days people walked with their own cloth bags to put their bread in as paper or plastic bags were not prevalent then. Benjamin said her mother-in-law emptied rice bags from the shop or grocery to resell to customers.
She said she decided to buy paper bags instead from Marlay's General Store at a penny a bag, but she didn't charge customers. Benjamin said they bought sugar from a Chinese shopkeeper, Tankan, while trucks delivered bags of flour from Marlay, where they would sometimes get "trouble" for flour as the Chinese emporium supported Chow Lin On Bakery.
She said, however, flour was not as expensive like today, the bakery did not use as many chemicals and additives like now, and produced a natural, wholesome bread that tasted better and lasted long without refrigeration.
Benjamin said over time, technology took some of the tediousness out of making bread by hand; the brick oven and chimney gave way to LPG fired ovens, electricity facilitated modern lighting and mixers. It was Anvil Chin, a family friend, who owned a bakery in Port-of-Spain and who encouraged them to buy their first mixer in 1972. Those days, she said, they paid workers $16, $20, and $24 a week.
Bakery around since 1895
Benji's production manager, Andy Benjamin said when the bakery was being renovated in 1983 and the surveyors came to move a boundary picket, they found a cadastral sheet which showed a survey was conducted in 1895 and there was a brick oven already in existence on the property at that time.
He said the bakery's operations was easier now by 100 per cent because of automation, as it eliminated some of the stress.
Andy said as a young boy growing up, he and his siblings had to get up early to help his father mix flour by hand before going to school. He said their father trained every family member to do various jobs in the bakery so that if a worker called in sick or could not come to work because of an emergency, they would not be left in the lurch.
Andy said they learned by trial and error since many long-time bakers kept their secrets and hardly shared their knowledge and experience. But not their father, he was preparing his children to carry on the business.
He said while all families have squabbles and differences of opinion, at the end of the day, they get the job done.
Labour of love
Operations manager Ingrid Benjamin is the dynamo behind Benji's Bakery. Ingrid said her father told her that she brought good luck to the family as they built a new flat on the premises and she was the first to be born in the Guaico home.
Ingrid, 56, who has been described as the best negotiator and the one with shrewd business acumen, said at ten years she was entrusted with paying for the bakery's flour order at Marlay's before going to school.
Ingrid said she and her siblings had grown accustomed to the routine of getting roused by her father at 3 am and assisting with whatever needed to be done. They would be rewarded with money for treat or the school bazaar by their father for their dedication and hard work.
She said she enjoyed getting up and working. And when she recalled how her father had to get up early and work hard from a young age and the struggle they went through to succeed, she is even more committed to the family business.
Ingrid, like her parents, continues the tradition of doing charitable work as her family did before her—aiding clubs, schools, neighbouring communities, police stations, hospitals, churches and is involved with various organisations especially the feeding of three children's homes in the Sangre Grande area annually.
When there is a death in the family of a resident in the community, Ingrid would pack dinner rolls and sometimes cash to help the person.
The caring and giving do not stop there, she gives discounts to children daily.
Ingrid said children may have no money and nothing to eat when they get home for the night, so they would sit in front the bakery and ask for what they call "extras", meaning items that were not sold for the day.
She said sometimes mothers would leave to go to work and deposit their children in front the bakery, she would give them money to go to school and return and also give them something to eat and drink.
The bakery has been a proud sponsor of the US Boys Sports & Cultural Club for the past 25 years.
Even through the long hours and many days, Ingrid insisted that she will not give up as serving in the family business is a labour of love.