Karlene Dick always wanted to be her own boss.
It's why for 15 years, she ran her own small eatery, until "stomach issues" made her change course to find a solution to a healthier life and a new business. This was the catalyst for her to create her own yogurt brand, Tasters Premium Choice, chock full of healthy probiotics.
Dick grew up in Bagatelle, Diego Martin with her parents, Molly and Trevor, and her four siblings. After secondary school, she completed a culinary course at the TT Hospitality and Tourism Institute and hoped for a job on board a cruise ship. That didn't happen, so she took a two-year hiatus, and focused solely on being there for her daughter, Jourden Ollivierre.
Armed with a start-up of "$200 and the determination" to be her own boss, Dick operated an eatery – selling wings, fries, salads, hot-dogs, burgers, souse and gheera meats – at the corner of Crystal Stream Avenue and Morne Coco Road, Petit Valley,
The long hours, though, started to take its toll. Dick was neglecting her own diet and was forced to medicate against terrible heartburn and indigestion. She tried store-bought yogurt and they offered some relief, but only temporary. Then, she started making her own yogurt, and on a lark, offered samples to her customers.
"Word spread and friends of friends started calling and asking for and about the yogurt.They encouraged me to put it on the market." Fearing her eatery would become a liability, and worried about being a victim of crime, Dick decided it was time for another venture.
"After much prayers and no small amount of tears, I decided to go all in with my yogurt. My daughter has stood at my side through it all, many nights forgoing sleep with me to fill orders," she recalled.
The name – Tasters Premium Choice – came about when her friend and supporter, Joseph Gunpat, whom she affectionately calls Mr Bobby, agreed with her that her customers are "tasters" and they should be given ease of "choice".
Dick added "premium" in the middle because that's how she sees her product because of the uniqueness of her blends and her commitment to high standards.
"When I entered the market it was after TT grew up on Yoplait, Dannon and other well established foreign brands. I wasn’t scared because of how the business started, with me needing a solution to my own issues. I would take those established brands but they didn't work for me, but only offered temporary relief," she says, as she chatted with Business Day in between dealing with customers recently. She got a recipe and experimented on her own, and after tweaking the recipe to her – and her stomach's – liking, she was ready to launch her brand. "I worked with it (the recipe), did my research and developed a yogurt that I am proud to call my own. That was five years ago."
Dick's daughter has played an instrumental part in all her decision-making. It's no surprise, then, that the now 18-year-old Jourden, a "mummy's girl", is often at her side from preparation to packaging. They are assisted by employees, Shantelle Trimmingham and Ian Marcano, as they work out of Dick's Diego Martin home to prepare, package and label the over 14 flavours offered from Tasters Premium Choice.
One of these is hazel caramel. "I wanted a yogurt with a difference, not the normal flavours. Some people just love nuts so I chose hazelnuts and the caramel added a little extra exotic spin. At the end it tasted good and went to market. I honestly don't believe that there are any similar blends on the market like what I offer," she said.
Her blends bring to mind a decadence usually associated with yogurt's creamier "cousin," ice cream. And she welcomes converts. One of her most memorable compliments, she recalls, came from a little boy, who eagerly ate her sample, flashed a gap-toothed smile and unashamedly told her her yogurt tasted "like ice cream with a bit of yuck!" He's now a regular Sunday customer, with Blueberry being his favourite, she said.
Whether customer or friend, Dick offers health tips to anyone who visits and asks about the benefits of eating yogurt, especially the importance of introducing probiotics to one's diet.
"Antibiotics, particularly, kill all bacteria, including the good ones. Probiotics replace those good bacteria lost during that period of treatment. I often advise people to drink lots of water after completing antibiotics and quickly start probiotics. You can even get probiotics in the form of a tablet and not only in some yogurt, like mine," she said.
Her blends include fruits and flavours not usually found in the brands on the shelves, such as papaya, cranberry and sometimes nutty flavours like hazelnut caramel and butter pecan. "My yogurt is the real deal. It’s different from many of the commercial foreign brands in taste and texture. There is no gelatin, no corn starch, and even one flavour blend, the prune and almond (has) no added sugar. I use only real fruits, which I prepare myself. It’s hard work, but it’s a product I can stand by and be proud of," she said.
"I try to cater for a wide cross-section. One of my fastest selling flavours is the paw paw. It has been described as 'absolutely delightful.' Not to toot my own horn, but I was personally blown away when I first mixed and tasted it." She also offers more than the average servings in her eight ounce, brightly labelled containers.
Dick said while her interests have been varied, including taking classes in cake decorating, dressmaking, soft furnishings, draperies and crochet, her passion has always been for the kitchen, especially baking.
"Over the years, I have been employed with various establishments including a bakery, a pharmacy, a hardware, and various restaurants, where I was always determined to learn whatever I could from the job at the moment, because to me this meant I was looking at bettering myself. I believe we must always be able to look back and see forward growth in our lives in some aspect from year to year," Dick said as customers passed her mobile stall in Port of Spain.
Rather than incur monthly overheads including rent, Dick opts to take her brand to clients and potential customers. She can be found at set places in Port of Spain on different days, as well as at some markets, like the Norris Deonarine Northern Wholesale Market in Macoya on the weekend. Tasters Premium Choice can also be found at select groceries and stores nationwide.
Selling, offering samples and distributing her business cards helps offset her costs, she said. Being able to sustain herself solely through sales from shelved goods, will come with time, she stated confidently.
Additionally, Dick said, she is bent on promoting her brand, down to being able to tell her customers the nutritional content of each flavour blend. To do this, it will cost her upwards of $1,600 each, to have them tested privately.
However, this does not prevent her from having her product marketed on the shelves of supermarkets and mall stores in Diego Martin and Port of Spain.
She often faces the challenge of collecting monies owed, which she attributes to a misguided perception that local companies shouldn't be as respected as imported brands.
"The struggle has made me stronger and determined to keep at it. One very valuable lesson learnt is that when marketing any product there can be only two answers – yes or no, so don’t be surprised or discouraged by either, just trust in God and work hard," she said.
"My goal for this year is to work even more on my product and get what I need to make it even more marketable, all the while maintaining the high quality product and service I now offer.