In 2022 Chris and Dolly Punjabi, owners and operators of Veg Out Distributors in Montego Bay, St James, manufacturers of a wide range of vegetarian frozen foods in Jamaica, received a video from a family friend in Barbados.
The video had been created by a Trinidadian living in Montego Bay, who filmed a very complimentary review of one of the Punjabis' products, Veg Out Trini Doubles. Trinidadian doubles is a street-food sandwich of curried chickpeas between fried flat breads.
The review went viral on social media in Trinidad and Tobago before making its way to the Punjabis in Jamaica via Barbados.
"If you have a product like this, hey, you could get that feeling of home, that taste of home in Trinidad, [right here] in Jamaica, with this product," the vlogger declared in his review, later adding, "I am ecstatic about it, so definitely a thumbs up."
This pleasant surprise for the entrepreneurial couple was testament to the hard work and positive results of a business venture that started four years earlier in October 2018, when they began producing three varieties of meatless veggie burgers namely: chickpea, black bean and vegetable.
Now five years later, their line of veggie creations now encompasses 17 products including the aforementioned Trini Doubles as well as vegan balls, homestyle roti, a range of vegetable samosas, falafel, vegetarian croquettes, Szechuan spring rolls and more.
The home-based business eventually expanded to another location for a more efficient operation that could keep up with the growth.
"We moved to Claude Clarke Avenue [in Montego Bay] and we have two units down there amounting to over 1,300 square feet," Chris Punjabi revealed. "A full entire line with a kitchen for cooking, processing room and a packaging room. We imported quite a few machines so everything we do is pretty much semi-automatic. For example, machines that do packaging. So it is not quite as manual as it was before."
What started out as an operation that included the husband and wife team and two additional staff in 2018 has now expanded to five additional full-time staff and one worker who comes in when needed.
The move to a dedicated factory took place just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite the challenges of the global health crisis, the company kept increasing its products.
"I think when the pandemic started we had 12 or 13 products and we launched four or five during that time," Punjabi disclosed. "Working through the pandemic wasn't easy especially when there were lockdowns in Montego Bay. We had to arrange for a chartered taxi for our staff to pick them up and bring them to work and then come for them and drop them back," he continued.
Punjabi said the frozen food items which are being distributed in Montego Bay, Kingston and other locations across the island have been consistently well-received.
"All our products are successful, but our burgers are still the best sellers because they are very versatile," the producer explained. "People go for the quality of our burgers. There are no fillers, additives or preservatives. They are 100 per cent soy free and gluten free."
Looking towards the future, the couple is very interested in exporting.
"We've been getting calls from other islands for exports," Punjabi reported.
He and his wife have started doing the exploratory groundwork recently by attending Expo Jamaica to begin familiarising themselves with shipping companies. They have also been talking to airlines about the transportation of frozen goods and looking at the feasibility of doing business with other parts of the Caribbean.
"These are small islands, so people, when they are buying, won't buy from you bulk load, because they don't know your product and how it will do in their market," Punjabi explained. "So in the beginning they probably will go for a pallet or two pallets to try and see."
The Punjabis are both vegans who came to Jamaica 33 years ago from India and ran their own gift shop business. The challenge of high operating costs and a desire to pursue a business in line with their healthy lifestyle are what led to the creation of Veg Out. It was a change they embraced wholeheartedly with Dolly running the production side of the business and Chris handling the marketing.
Five years of successful growth is hard work, however, and while the married duo both enjoyed the journey, they now recognise the need to delegate some of their responsibilities.
Chris, who has been travelling across the island for years as part of his marketing and distribution role, is now looking for a distributor who can alleviate a lot of the tiring workload.
"We are looking for a good distribution company based in MoBay," he said. "There are a few people in Kingston who could do it but the challenge is to store products in Kingston. So we are looking for someone who could actually carry products from Montego Bay to do it for us.
"We are talking to a couple of freelancers who could do it, and we are negotiating to see how it can work while at the same time we are looking into some big distribution companies who are all over the place with their network and logistics."
They are also planning to recruit someone who can execute Dolly's managerial role on the production side of the business.
"We are both happy being self-employed in the job; yes, but it takes a lot out of both of us," the businessman admitted. "We need someone who can do what we are doing so that we can take more of a back seat, now."
In the meantime, expansion continues regardless with a new line of products already in development.
"The line we are thinking of doing should take another three to four months before being out in the market," Punjabi reported.
"It takes a few months of preparation and testing between us and BSJ [Bureau of Standards Jamaica]. We are working on quite a few things."