Business

Tortuga Rum Cakes — born in Cayman, grown in Jamaica

BY HANNIFFA PATTERSON
Business reporter
pattersonh@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, December 22, 2017

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A flu virus and a heart transplant are an unlikely combination to inspire something meaningful. But at Tortuga International Holdings Limited – the company that produces Tortuga Rum Cakes – it has helped to build a multimillion-dollar rum cake business that's still going strong after three decades.

You may have seen the product in your local airport in the US or the Caribbean, or even more likely on a cruise ship – an authentic Caribbean rum cake nestled in its distinctive hexagonal-shaped box. After 32 years, the company has grown from strength to strength, expanding from its birthplace in Cayman to its current production home in Jamaica.

HISTORY FULL OF HEART

The Tortuga brand was born from a keen eye for what the customer wants, and continues to be a brand of innovation and strategy. Creation of the brand was inspired in 1984 by an observant Jamaican pilot living in Cayman, Captain Robert Hamaty, and his wife Carlene, a flight attendant. They noticed that tourists would often leave with memorabilia and products, none of which were authentically Caribbean. This then inspired the idea to provide tourists with an authentic Caribbean rum cake.

Carlene was also well known for her delicious cakes soaked in rum, the fruit of a recipe that spanned four generations. Her friends eventually encouraged her to share her gift with the world, and so something new was born – Tortuga Rum Cakes.

Though the couple had discovered this wonderful product, not many companies wanted to sell it. In a last-ditch effort, Robert rented a small space in a store where he sold his branded rum along with the rum cakes. By 1990 the demand grew exponentially, and they grew from that single store in Cayman to eventually over 18 stores a few years later – a great accomplishment on such a small island.

Initially, the rum cake was sold simply wrapped in cheesecloth. But as the business grew, Robert searched for a new way to preserve the delicious dessert and increase its shelf life. He then bought a book on Modified Atmospheric Packaging – a food preservation technique that the company still employs today, but only with more advanced technology.

“He explored it before anyone knew what it was. I'd like to think it was his pilot's problem-solving ability” states Marcus Simmonds, Chief Executive Officer of Tortuga Rum Cakes, and himself an experienced pilot.

However, it was when disaster struck that things truly changed. Robert suffered from a flu virus that affected his heart, forcing him to have a heart transplant. As a result he lost his pilot's licence, but the business literally 'took off' thereafter. “He had to reinvent himself and put all his energy into the project,” shared Simmonds. “This was the true reason behind his success. He literally 'put his heart' into the business. ”

Today, years later, Robert Hamaty is still deeply involved in the brand he created. He sits on the board and runs the retail business in Cayman.

It was in 1997 after his surgery that the Barbados franchise was opened and a distribution outlet in the US started, led by his daughter Monique Hamaty- Simmonds and her now husband Marcus Simmonds.

TO THE US AND BEYOND

The young couple took on the project of taking the Tortuga rum to the US to better handle worldwide distribution, mail orders and online sales. Fresh out of university, Monique, the marketing major, and Simmonds, the accounting major and pilot, were the perfect mix for this next stage of the Tortuga Rum Cakes journey.

Through tons of hard work, strategic negotiations and after many rejections, the couple managed to broker a deal with a key cruise ship buyer to sell their rum cakes. Within a week, the product sold out.

“From there the business grew very rapidly. The cruise ships were the catalyst for Tortuga's growth,” said Simmonds.

He sites that one key to Tortuga's success has always been that “Tortuga is a company where opportunity met preparedness. You've got to be prepared for the opportunity as it comes.”

Currently Tortuga's main markets remain the US and the Caribbean. In particular airports and cruise ships. And for now, this is strategic.

“We do have aspirations to be in Asia and South and Central America. We also plan to penetrate the Spanish-speaking Caribbean more…” But, for now, they remain focused on their current markets as they “want to finish the job in the Caribbean first.”

In 2012 the Jamaica Producers Group acquired controlling interest in Tortuga International Holdings. Since then the company has undertaken a series of restructuring steps in an effort to make the business more scalable and efficient. Prior to consolidation, Tortuga comprised several franchises – Cayman,Jamaica, Barbados, and the US distribution.

However, “…since acquisition, we've evolved into a more strategic entity. We are now setting sights on locations we would have not been able to reach out to before,” Simmonds explained.

“The JP Group, led by Jeffrey Hall, has taken the time to guide the business. This has been good for the business in terms of creating operational and financial controls and creating a platform for scalability,” he continued.

“We have doubled our productive capacity since 2016. We went from groupwide capacity of one million pounds of cake annually to two million pounds of cake.” This Simmonds also credits to the talent and care of Florence Reid, head of Manufacturing Operations.

The company now hires over 80 staff members, 40 of whom are at the Jamaican office.

Additionally, they have since been able to improve safety standards. “We have become the second food manufacturing company in Jamaica to be certified to the safe quality food SQF level-two certification for food safety and quality,” explains Reid.

“Which again opens us up to new markets,” Simmonds adds.

Though the Tortuga brand had its birth in Cayman, even getting its name from “Las Tortugas”, in honour of the turtles Columbus saw upon discovering the island, the brand also has a very strong Jamaican connection -- starting from its founder Hamaty being Jamaican himself. In addition, the company has continued to build a solid foundation, finding fortune and favour on the island.

“Tortuga rum cakes have always been baked in Jamaica, the head office is in Jamaica, and all our export is done out of Jamaica. We chose Jamaica, even our most substantial shareholders are Jamaican.

“We sat as a business and as a board and looked at the various options as to where our core manufacturing business could reside. Our business has always had a regional footprint…but we chose Jamaica. Or, in some ways, Jamaica chose us…”

NEW PRODUCTS

Tortuga's traditional golden rum cake, the one they initially started out with, continues to be their top seller – the product they are best known for. They also offer other cakes inspired by tropical flavours, such as banana, pineapple and coconut. Most recently, they have embarked upon a few newer initiatives, namely a Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee rum cake and a “Great Cake” which is a traditional fruit cake from Barbados. They have also repackaged some products to add more modernity and flair to the brand, while endeavouring to maintain the authentic island feeling that has come to be associated with the Tortuga brand of rum cakes.

Also available are a variety of other products, such as Caribbean sauces, chocolates, coffee – even coffee or chocolate-flavoured rum balls. The product range is available for purchase on their website, by calling the toll-free number, or from gift and specialty food departments in North American and Caribbean gourmet stores, and in onboard gift shops of almost 100 cruise ships and across 70 countries.

With the current growth and confidence in the quality of the product, they are not as concerned about competitors as others may think they should be. “…In every jurisdiction we have a local competitor, but we were the first to the party. So as long as our intellectual property is not infringed upon, we welcome competition,' affirmed Simmonds.

For Simmonds, the long-term vision for Tortuga Rum Cakes is clear…”To make Tortuga the leading, globally recognised, Caribbean gifting and travel results brand for rum cakes.”

And it's not far off…

The Tortuga Rum Cakes brand has become a staple within the Caribbean, with tourists and cruise ship passengers alike, thanks to their presence in gift and specialty stores. They have even been named the “Best Cruise Souvenir” by Porthole Cruise Magazine for 13 consecutive years.

Alongside their new updated packaging and new product additions, Tortuga has some new items in store, but the CEO is keeping them hush-hush for the moment – only stating that their “innovative pipeline will be yielding some fresh fruits in the 24 months to come.”

He is hopeful that with the new support of the Jamaica Producers, the new strategy, continued innovation and perseverance of the brand, Tortuga Rum Cakes will continue to grow and further expand into new markets and horizons. He believes there is room and time to grow.

“The brand is still a relatively young brand. It's only 32 years old,” argues Simmonds. “…compared to a J. Wray and Nephew or a Tobblerone which is 110 years old, we still have so much room to grow. We are still young.”

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