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Sunday 26 January 2020
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‘Tis the season for small business

Specialty pastelles and banana leaves prove profitable

Sonya Hernandez's delicious specialty saltfish and baghi pastelles are high in demand this Christmas. -
Sonya Hernandez's delicious specialty saltfish and baghi pastelles are high in demand this Christmas. -

WHEN Sonya Hernandez started her business three years ago, making specialty pastelles, she did not expect it to expand the way it did.

“I started it as a hobby,” Hernandez told Business Day. “When I started, I didn’t go out there with plans to sell, but because there wasn’t much work that year I did it.”

But her business, selling cassava pastelles with a selection of minced meat, bhaji, and bhaji and salt fish, has grown to the point that next year she may even have to consider hiring people to meet her demand.

Whether it is through making cakes, pastelles, or even supplying the goods and items to make traditional dishes – like selling banana leaves – people all over the country make extra money for the Christmas season operating small, seasonal businesses.

Hernandez's pastelles are vegan/vegetarian/pescatarian (seafood), except for the minced meat of course. Most of the oil is coconut oil, and there is some butter as well.

She sells her pastelles for between $20 and $23, depending on the filling. Speaking to Business Day she said the majority of production – the boiling, mashing, pressing, flavouring, filling and wrapping of the pastelles – is done by hand.

“It is a very tedious process. You can rustle up cornmeal in a day but to boil, peel and mash the cassava takes a lot more time. Plus, wrapping them is a little more time-consuming, and I do everything myself, with the occasional help from my neighbours.”

She said she gets all her supplies locally. The cassavas, she gets from a woman named Giselle, who supplies peeled cassavas to groceries. The fillings come from other farmers and local fishermen. Even the banana leaves are sources locally, by a company called Mobile Kitchen Ltd.

Sonya Hernandez -

Banana leaves are big business

Director of Mobile Kitchen, Winston Borell, encouraged people to use the Christmas season to operate a small business, and look for ways to make extra money for the new year.

“There is a wide range of opportunities to benefit from the things we see and enjoy for the Christmas,” he said.

Borell has been operating Mobile Kitchen Ltd for ten years. The agri-business company produces commodities like coconut oil and banana leaves and distributes to groceries. Although banana leaves are traditionally associated as the package of choice for pastelles, he said the business and demand is year-round, with the seasonal spike during the holidays. For the Christmas season, banana leaf production makes up for 100 per cent of his sales, with demand from groceries, restaurants, and caterers.

He’s even trained people to produce the banana leaves and supply it to his business on a contractual basis.

“We started off doing it ourselves, now we have a family in Sangre Grande and another in La Fillete that supply the leaves to us.”

Borell said demand this year was even higher. “We are getting more this year because the Venezuelans are also buying for their traditional dishes beside pastelle. Some people come from Barbados and take leaves back with them to make traditional dishes as well.”

For people like Sonya the supply is well needed, as her business grows from strength to strength.

“Now the clientele is getting bigger and bigger. I even have regular pastelles, but no one really orders them. Everyone loves my specialty pastelles.”

In the first year, she experimented with her recipe.

“Everyone was making pastelles. I wanted to be different. I didn’t want to use cassava flour either so I had to come up with my own concoction involving real cassava.”

Many of these seasonal businesses are easy to start and promote. Hernandez, for example, only advertised through Facebook and by word of mouth, which was enough, so much so that she couldn’t keep up with the demand by herself. This year, she solicited the help of family and neighbours.

So far, she is turning a small profit, she said, which she is reinvesting into the business.

“This year I bought some tables so I would not have to do everything in a small space in the kitchen,” she said. “I am buying presses and food processors. Not everything can be done in one day.”

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