Associated Brands brings US organic candy to local market 

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

OCHO Candy

A new organic-based candy has been introduced to the local market by Associated Brands Industries Ltd (ABIL), which has led to the creation of several jobs in the manufacturing sector.
ABIL recently acquired the US-based OCHO (Organic Chocolate) Candy and decommissioned its entire factory and moved it from Oakland, California to Trinidad and Tobago.

The acquisition was completed in 2020. In an interview with Business Day, ABIL CEO and deputy chairman Nicholas Lok-Jack said the move came from the need to tap into a new segment of the market with a product that was tasty as well as affordable.

“It is a company that we have bought into and taken a majority stake…the product has been available in the US for a couple of years in the natural food segment.

(L-R) Charles Chocolates general manager Ronald Sampath, ABIL chairman Arthur Lok Jack, ABIL group CEO/deputy chairman Nicholas Lok Jack, plant manager Vede Ramsaran and quality assurance manager Karen Maharaj at OCHO Candy factory line at Bhagoutie Trace, San Juan.

“The process started in 2019. The opportunity came about to take an equity stake…when we reviewed the company, we decided to take a majority stake and bring a lot more of our manufacturing capabilities to the company.”

So, he said, “We have moved the line to TT.”

The new line and factory at Bhagoutie Trace, San Juan, Lok-Jack said, have created employment, and while it was small, it has had a meaningful impact on the people it served.

“We have already ramped up our employment to about 50 people just for this line. We have engaged with local refrigeration and structural engineering firms within the course of the installation of the lines, so we have had a decent impact in a small way, as best as we can.

“What I am really proud of is the training that was imparted to the people we brought in and how they have been operating the line and how they have been operating in an organic environment with the highest food safety standard.”

Organic Chocolates (OCHO Candy Inc) from Oakland, California was recently acquired by Charles Chocolates. The factory was moved to Bhagoutie Trace, San Juan.

The company, he said, was also in discussions with local cocoa estates to boost its organic line and was ready to support local production.

“We know that there are a couple of cocoa estates trying to get organic certification right now, so we are always in discussion around what we can do locally and how we can assist in supporting.

“The thing that made us really go after this company and brand is that the products taste fantastic…We believe everything needs to be underscored by that in any food product. We always pay attention to taste and desirability, etc.”

OCHO Candy’s website said it realised it was outgrowing its Oakland production facility and needed to move. It pointed out that TT was the best fit for its unique candy line and would be best able to provide the required ingredients and financial investment.

The company said, “We looked around the US to find a suitable partner to move our very unique candy-making line to and found that if we moved closer to the equator, we would have a better supply of ingredients as well as financially benefiting those in the indigenous countries where the ingredients were farmed, or where the candy is made.

“So, in 2021 we took the large undertaking of moving all of our candy-making to the chocolate-origin country of TT.”

Lok-Jack did not disclose the cost of the undertaking at a time when shipping, freight and overall logistical prices increased because of the covid19 pandemic.

“I prefer not to talk about the cost, but the cost factor was certainly a lot higher than expected. The whole supply-chain logistics of trying to move the line was significantly more expensive and more time-consuming.

“Our intake and learning about organic production had to be included in that too.”
Lok-Jack explained that in 2020 it was difficult to move the line because it required decommissioning and crating equipment and, because of gridlocks at the Los Angeles port, alternative arrangements had to be made via Houston, Texas.

“We had to ship to Houston, then ship to TT and then recommission in TT, with our borders closed, and there were no engineers allowed to come in and help us.
“So we had to recommission the whole thing with our current plant management and engineering teams, obviously with some help on Zoom and phone, but it was quite intensive,” he said.

The product was officially launched last week, and the company has been on an extensive campaign to get the product to vendors and customers.

Not only is the product being sold in TT, but it is also being shipped back to the US market and Lok-Jack said the intention was to tap into other regional markets as well as Latin America.
“We purchased the company, brought the machinery to Trinidad, produced the candy and ship it back to the US to satisfy the US market.

“We do intend to take the brand as globally as possible. Obviously shipping back into the US market will be a big segment of it. We are targeting Latin America as well as the Caribbean.”
Lok-Jack explained that OCHO Candy was fair-trade-certified by Fair Trade USA, which was important for the parent company, Charles Chocolate, because it was held up to international standards and best practices.

The fair trade certification body, he explained, “ensures everything is produced in a humane manner, meaning there is no child labour, no forced or slave labour – because these things still exist in the world today, unfortunately, in certain segments.

“It is important to us, because there are people who go through the books, go through the fields and make sure that things are actually being adhered to. So it is a third-party stamp of approval, and it changes as different topics become important, it is reviewed, and it is not static and always changing to become better.”

Additionally, Lok-Jack pointed out that the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) was kept abreast of the acquisition. While he did not disclose the actual input from the ministry, he said it was very supportive.

“MTI was not involved with respect to the acquisition, but obviously in a transaction like this there are non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements that we have to abide by. However, as soon as those were released, I did update the Minister of Trade of our status, where we were, what we were doing, what we were planning.

“They were really supportive and happy to see that we brought the manufacturing plant to Trinidad and play our part in exports and employment.”
He added, however, that the various government agencies and ministries needed to revamp their way of doing business to make it easier and more attractive for local businesses and potential investors.
“The ease of doing business could be better. Covid19 on the whole has really protracted a lot of different things that occurred, like the clearing of containers, which is now done by appointment.
“Particularly with today’s supply chain, the urgency to clear containers is not as it was before. The fact is, it hit all countries, and what I hope is that our departments and governmental agencies can really begin to use technology and use things to clear up the backlogs and really get up to speed in a different way of operating that is smooth and efficient and seamless.”

He believed the organic market segment had potential to grow and being certified organic and certified fair trade gave OCHO Candy a fighting chance.

(L-R) Charles Chocolates general manager Ronald Sampath, Associated Brands Industries Ltd (ABIL) chairman Arthur Lok Jack and ABIL group CEO/deputy chairman Nicholas Lok Jack shows off its newest product OCHO Candy.

“You don’t know what a market has until it is unlocked at an accessible, reasonable price. There are some other organic products on the market which are up to $100 and out of reach, I suppose, and we feel we need to meet all our consumers at whatever their self-identified segment may be.
“Previous target markets were defined by age, economic standing, etc, but now there are people who are vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, and people who have needs based on their contribution to the environment.

“So how you segment your markets now is different to how you segmented your market ten years ago. And even if the market is not huge, there will be a segment of the market who will like to buy organic products, and there is no reason why they should be priced out of that market.”

Lok-Jack said TT had the potential to become in the “big fish” in certain market segments because it possessed the skills in many areas, especially music, sport and manufacturing.

“We can be world-class. We can play in the entire market of the world. We have 48 years of manufacturing experience of good products; we feel our people are very capable of manufacturing world-class products, and we are trying to get access to go out there and fly TT’s flag as proudly as possible, as widely as possible. We need to realise mentally that we can be the big fish in certain markets.”

And as shipping and freight costs continued to be affected by the fallout of the covid19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Lok-Jack said the company was able to hold on price increases as best as it could.

He said covid19 protocols hampered output, especially during the curfew.
“The cost of shipping has quadrupled and quintupled, depending on where you are. I know there are some product categories where the cost of freight has become more than the cost of the product in the container.

“Hopefully these things don’t stay the way they are. We have absorbed a significant amount of price increases along the way. Some things can’t fully recover, but we have got to be able to make sure we make the right long-term decision. Price increase is not something we take very lightly; we really try to consider all aspects before taking it on.”

As for the future of Charles Chocolate, he said the company was exploring opportunities and being very innovative, while trying to stay ahead of the curve, giving consumers options at accessible prices and keeping the markets they’re a part of invigorated and fun.