LEAVE it to National Baking Company Chairman Gary “Butch” Hendrickson to come up with a new product that captures the imagination of consumers.
His latest — Bulla Bites — was spawned four years ago while he was on a family working vacation in the Far East.
Hendrickson chuckles as he recollects the August 2019 trip, sharing that the China leg, for him, was more about looking at equipment to enhance his business rather than sightseeing.
“I went to this factory that I heard of, met the people and saw a little line — tiny in terms of what we normally run. I said, ‘there are certain things I could make with this’,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
The thought hit him that by making a small adjustment to the line he could “make a different bulla”, the well-loved traditional Jamaican treat which is most often complemented by ginger and which Jamaicans enjoy having with avocado.
Seized with the desire to further vary National’s already vast array of products, Hendrickson bought the equipment. However, just after he closed the deal in 2020, normal life and business suffered one of their heaviest blows in history — the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Thoughts of new products were put on hold as Hendrickson and his team, like businesses the world over, set about surviving the health crisis that, according to World Health Organization data, killed just under seven million people and affected more than 700 million over the past three years.
Eventually last year, with most major COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Hendrickson’s product expansion urge returned.
“We started talking about it and funnily enough, we had an end of year meeting with our overseas folks — got them together in one place because we hadn’t seen them since COVID — and they said, ‘Can you guys make some small bullas for us?'” Hendrickson related.
The request was like chocolate drizzle to the veteran baker’s ears.
“I said ‘yes, we can’, because I knew we could. Plus, I didn’t want to make the large bullas again; they’re very difficult to make. So we came back home and started working on it. Sent some up there, just for the fun of it. The response was, ‘This is so convenient’, and the rest is history,” Hendrickson told the Observer with a proud smile.
One of the great advantages of the equipment, he noted, is that it eliminates human contact with the finished product and packages them easily.
The bite-size bullas come in four flavours — ginger, banana, spice and coconut. Asked what influenced that decision, Hendrickson said the ginger was a natural choice as everyone is accustomed to bullas with that spice — “That is standard”.
“After that someone suggested coconut, then the other flavours,” he said.
While admitting that he was struck by the popularity of the coconut-flavoured bulla, Hendrickson reasoned that “They’re all pretty even…but the consumer is king.”
He’s correct, as a random survey conducted among Observer staff who have already had the product uncovered varying preferences.
Young mother Janice Richards said her eight-year-old son Liam told her that he loves the product, especially the ginger.
“He also said that because they are not big like the traditional bulla, they are easier for him to eat,” Richards shared.
The spice-flavoured is Michelle Daley’s favourite. “It tastes like the regular spice bun and it’s easy to handle,” she said, adding that her 21-year-old son likes them as well.
Sharla Murray said she prefers the coconut and banana, while Shane Reid gave a nod to the ginger and coconut although the latter, he argued, “could have more coconut”.
Elaine Gregory said that in addition to the taste, she likes the fact that the product “is different”. Additionally, she said, her husband likes them.
Kerry-Ann Armstrong also gave the products the thumbs up. “I like all of them. My favourites are banana and coconut,” she said.
Her colleague, Sherice McDonald, said, “I like the banana; it’s very soft and nice. I also love the coconut.”
For Kay-Ann Williams, the products is “the bomb”.
“I like them, especially the banana and the spice, and the bite size is perfect,” she said.
Natalie Chin, too, was effusive in her praise. “It’s lovely,” she said. “I like the spice, especially with cheese.”
That kind of feedback is more than enough encouragement for Hendrickson who said his team has “just started serious production” of the bullas, turning out “close to 7,000 cases per week”, some of which have already been sent overseas where it has already proven popular.