Mother and son, Allana and Logan Steuart talk about the business they are developing based on her husband Bertram “Bertie” Steuart’s pepper sauce.
Allana says, “I always wanted to have my own business,” but raising a family of four delayed the opportunity. “We were fortunate that Bertie started making pepper sauce when he did; I was ready and the family had all grown up.”
Logan followed his parents into sales; and although he showed a keen interest, he didn’t join the business until 2015: “My best schooling was on the road selling, meeting, and understanding people everywhere on the ground level. I took a Dale Carnegie course, and still recommend it. My first stomping ground was downtown POS, stores on Charlotte and Frederick Streets and later, on the Point Lisas Industrial Estate.
Allana says, “Logan has always been self-motivated. He wasn’t pushed to do homework but sport was a big part of our lives: I played hockey, he played cricket. We are sales people and Logan has an entrepreneurial brain.”
Logan is a member of the rock band Fishbowl, and his wife is an artist and teacher. He shares his mother’s enthusiasm about owning their business. “I’m glad for the last five years, being in the business 24/7,” he says, but now he has to spend time more time home with his son River born in 2020.
AS: Bertie used to make pepper sauce and give to friends and family. By 2009, we were encouraged to go to the markets, UpMarket, Bits and Pieces. It was when we were invited to supply Tony Roma’s that we realized that we could go into mini marts, Artie’s, maybe even Massy. We continued with the “private sales”, personal deliveries to offices. I was the basket lady, making the rounds. We were home-made in St Ann’s. We responded to requests all the time; someone called we delivered.
LS: A friend at Maritime called and wanted to know why he couldn’t go downstairs to the supermarket for a bottle of Bertie’s; we got into Food Giant. It helped that our family had a large social network. We are very sociable people; Dad played sports and was a cricket coach at the Oval. Everyone knew and loved Bertie: he and I were both wicket keepers. Mum also played sport and was well known though her Sports and Family Day company and being on committees and organisations; she was the president of AFETT, and of course we were salespeople.
Selling can be a missing ingredient for small businesses when they start up, who are you selling to? Friends and family are your first customers. Are you comfortable selling to people you know?
It must be said that we wouldn’t be here without my mother’s work and drive to push the business. She is the real reason we are where we are now.
AS: I made the first commercial invoice in 2006; it was a milestone. We were switched on to the idea that this could be more than a side hustle. The quality of the product had opened doors by word of mouth; and we could get to another level. In 2011, a request to supply TGI Friday’s – another international chain – led to their advice about quality assurance and labelling. We heard that people used to “takeaway” the bottles of pepper sauce from TGIF.
LS: Mum got us into Massy Stores (HiLo at the time) and sometime later Xtra Foods called. It was a good feeling.
LS: The flavour profile of peppers grown on our islands is fantastic; this is what we bottle, as fresh as possible. The natural colour palette - greens, yellows and reds - allows a great looking product. Peppers picked at their peak are the best colours for processing.
We made contact with farmers directly, to be assured of regular supplies of pepper, chadon beni and other fresh ingredients, especially if we are being approached by chains to supply larger quantities than we were accustomed to. We work with dedicated suppliers. Our pepper sauce uses fresh produce grown in Trinidad and Tobago.
Some of the packaging is manufactured locally: glass bottles and cardboard boxes. The plastics – bottles and caps - are imported and always likely to run out or be delayed.
LS: Once we started seeing some profits, we put it back into the business. There was demand but also the fear, what happens if… We had some uncertain times, in 2017, bad weather and floods decimated the crops. We had to juggle orders. If a retailer wanted four cases, we would deliver two with the promise to be back within the week with the other two. We made sure that supplies could be spread to all our customers. This means daily monitoring when conditions are challenging. We have to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances.
It was a learning experience to do everything in the business even driving the delivery truck; and then things happen. I was making a delivery to one customer. Her husband said I know a farmer and provided a contact – we are always be getting contacts that way, being out there “in the field.”
AS: We made many mistakes and learned on our feet. We supply to PriceSmart: that meant meeting their standards with specific labels, packaging and quantities. We were fortunate that when they were deciding to approve us as a vendor that Logan had some savings. We had to move quickly and take some risks: we could not seem to be a small company that wasn’t ready. We needed capital to be ready for their first order, sourcing bottles, special labelling. We delivered.
These days, Allana attends export-ready courses: at CARIRI, ExporTT etc, labelling according to international standards and learning about all the different (and difficult) requirements; all while getting the production facility up to standards, having SOP’s, GMP’s, HACCP in place.
AS: In 2013, Bertie’s was incorporated: the registered name is Bertie Steuart Sauces T&T Ltd. Logan said we need an accountant; we might have all the skills to make and sell pepper sauce but none of us was a qualified accountant. We had to pay for what we didn’t know. I baulked at the additional cost; but it was one of the best decisions we made.
When we decided that cutting the living room in two was not enough – we had boxes everywhere – we moved out of home, initially to a place in Woodbrook which was not cheap. Each decision had to be balanced against cash flow, immediate and potential. These were big financial risks.
In 2014, Logan still had a full-time job as a sales manager working for a company that sold safety equipment. I worked out how we might be able to afford him and made him an offer. In October 2015, Logan came on board as Bertie’s Sales Director. We have a professional relationship: differences of opinion are always settled. In 2016, we moved into the warehouse in Aranguez, for production and storage. At that time, Maritime provided customised personal mortgage and equipment financing services; innovation and service were big benefits.
LS: People say to us all the time, where can I get Bertie’s in London, or New York, or Miami? Export is a big jump. If we consider the region, each island has its own pepper sauce, the local taste that they are accustomed to. As we learned from supplying international chains in Trinidad, we have to secure a steady supply of fresh produce as well as packaging materials. Once you get into chains, you need to be able to stock container-loads. That can be scary for a homegrown business. We have to find a manageable approach to scaling up.
LS: We produce four flavours, with heat levels from zero to four: Pimento is all flavour; Slight is mild; Original Bertie’s; and Scorpion which caters to a very niche market. Of course, Original sells the most. In all, we make and sell about 1000 cases a month with 13 employees including Allana, Logan and sisters Anya and Laura.