From Trinidad to Jamaica
IT has been a year since Michelle Sohan and her partner, Justin Marchack, established their business Treatz Bakehouse and Café (Treatz) at The Annex in Fairview, Montego Bay. The Trinidadian couple’s move to Jamaica, leaving behind a successful baking enterprise in Trinidad and Tobago, has been a life lesson in the ups and downs of starting a small business in another country.
“We fell in love with Jamaica and moved lock, stock and barrel here in the beginning of last year,” Sohan related.
This attraction began in 2018 with Sohan’s nomination for the Cake and Pastry Artist award at the 2018 Caribbean Wedding Awards, held at the Montego Bay Convention Centre. Their positive experiences during the awards and subsequent tours of venues, like the Rose Hall Great House, had a life-changing impact.
But their decision to move nearly 1,000 miles across the Caribbean was also motivated by Jamaica’s strong position as a wedding destination which suited their profession. They returned in 2019 to further explore the business potential of the island’s landscape.
“As a wedding cake artist the options are tremendous for the different types of venues that you have,” Sohan said. “We were back and forth a couple of times for the year and we were researching the economy.”
They soon realised that in addition to the wedding business, they could also exploit a gap in the market for finding quality desserts.
The couple eventually acquired a commercial space at Annex Plaza in February 2020, and they supervised the build-out of the bakery remotely due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sohan faced a personal setback with a cancer diagnosis in August. This led to a temporary shift in plans to receive medical treatments in Tampa. Despite these obstacles, they persevered, adapting their timeline and eventually arriving in Jamaica in January of 2022.
The current labour shortage in Jamaica did not spare Treatz as it began its operations in Montego Bay.
“Our biggest challenge here in Jamaica has been getting staff who show up to work, who are interested, who show passion, who are willing to learn,” Sohan lamented. “So that’s been a big fight. I actually did bring a couple of Trinidadians who stayed for a few months. But it is very costly. We have been running without the necessary hands on deck that we would need to be able to really be open seven days a week to the public and fulfill all the requests that we’ve been having. Right now we literally have one permanent staff member.”
Nevertheless, Treatz was able to quickly establish itself in the local market.
“We are on the higher end of the market which people appreciate,” Sohan explained. “It is not the regular price cake or croissant. So we have the people who come in just to get that experience. We have a lot of these chefs from different hotels who will come to get a break here.”
Treatz caters to a diverse clientèle, including individual customers, walk-ins, and businesses such as hotels and villas. The initial focus on wedding cakes was broadened to meet the demand for desserts within the market.
“Where we are excelling is we have a lot of requests to do desserts for hotels and villas,” the entrepreneur revealed. “And then our regular dessert cakes have brought some really good feedback. I actually just finished one of our most popular, which is the coconut lychee white chocolate cake.”
Treatz provides a diverse range of custom desserts, including mousses and cheesecakes with intricate designs. Currently, they are preparing orders for various villas during the Christmas season, offering a variety of treats for breakfast, tea time, and Sunday dinner.
Outside of the hotel market the bakery has collaborated with Sotheby’s for open houses and their launch in Montego Bay and worked with the Kiwanis for breast cancer awareness.
Despite the staffing challenges since the onset, Sohan acknowledged significant assistance in the initial stages of the business received from Jampro (Jamaica Promotions Corporation) who played a crucial role in helping them navigate permits and other requirements for foreign businesses to enter Jamaica.
The Trinidadian businesswoman expressed, however, that she would have liked this relationship to continue beyond the beginning of the venture as they adjusted to not just operating a business in Jamaica but adjusting to life on the island as well.
“Another challenge was being able to find the resources that we needed for the business and to find companies,” Sohan said. “It was just by word of mouth or going to the grocery and trying to follow up on labels.”
On a personal level, transitioning from one country to another also has its hurdles.
“Coming in as a tourist and investigating the culture and the business side of the country versus coming in to live and having to go through the protocols has been two totally different things,” she related.
At this point, Sohan recalls the unexpected challenges of acquiring the necessary vehicle certificates of which they were unaware.
“So we got charged very early because we didn’t know,” she laughed. “If I had to do [the move to Jamaica] over again, what I would have done was come and live for a while and not stay in a hotel, get a place and live and try to settle down and then look at business. I think it would have been an easier transition. But coming in to do both at the same time was rough.”
Sohan handles most of the marketing of the company through social media promoting the bakery’s products and special offerings on an ongoing daily basis. She has also highlighted her reputation that she built through 20 years of experience in Trinidad and Tobago.
Her achievements include winning awards for being the best young, small and medium-sized business in Trinidad as well as winning the Best Tasting Cake in the World award at the Cake Designers World Championships in Milan, Italy, in 2017. She has also worked with soca celebrities in her home country.
“When Machel Montano got married, I did his personal wedding as well as his huge wedding that he had in the National Stadium for 10,000 people,” she recalled.
Looking beyond their first year of operations in Jamaica, the couple remain concerned about the challenges of finding workers. Despite initial plans to hire 12 staff, the bakery has struggled with recruitment and the labour is divided between the couple, one permanent staff member and a young person who is receiving training.
Sohan’s partner is in charge mainly of croissants and breads while she does desserts, chocolates and custom cakes. He assists with managing the front of the retail while she handles administrative tasks, accounts and staff training.
The challenges are ever-present but they remain bullish about the future.
“I am an optimistic person and I do feel we will find the correct people one by one,” the business owner insisted.
Sohan also expressed gratitude for the positive response that Treatz Bakehouse and Café has received from the local market in and around Montego Bay.
“I really couldn’t feel more appreciated,” she said. “We got a message from somebody who picked up a cake on Monday and it’s really heartwarming to be so appreciated. I don’t think I had that in Trinidad or probably I got complacent because I was just everywhere and everybody knew me. But it’s been by word of mouth here and we even had people who were coming in for the holidays who were referred to get cakes from us and they have told other people and it has been really nice.”