Immigrant of the Week: Lowell Hawthorne, Jamaican Patties are the New Burrito

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When you see constraints as opportunities for ingenuity, you achieve amazing things..Calculated risks not taken are opportunities forever lost” – Lowell Hawthorne

The Jamaican Party

I grew up in Colorado, where West Indians were few and far between, so I had my first Jamaican patty in London when I was in graduate school. I went to see a one-day cricket match between the West Indies and Pakistan. I learned a great deal that day. First off, cricket is a brilliant game. Second, no one could hit a West Indian fast bowler. Third, Jamaican cricket fans share their food because to them a cricket match is not a sporting event – it’s a party.

The Jamaican patty has much in common with the empanadas of Latin America, and at a stretch, with parties from Britain. But each is unique, and the Jamaican (and here I include all West Indian) patties hold a special place in my diet.

Flaky crust, spiced meat filling, I’m already craving for a snack.

Fortunately, I don’t live that far from a Golden Krust restaurant in Queens, New York. It’s a regional chain, run by Lowell Hawthorne and his family, with about 70 shops in New York and another 50 along the East Coast. But you don’t have to come here to get a patty – they are sold in about 12,000 supermarkets across the US.

2016-cr01-1322.05.31Image Source: CBS

The story is right out of a TV show or a movie. Hawthorne grew up with 10 siblings in Border, Jamaica. That’s a little north of Kingston. Hawthorne is in his mid-fifties, so when he was growing up, there was no electricity nor running water in his 3 bedroom house. His preacher father owned a bakery, and that was how the family got by.

Golden Krust: “Tasting the Rythm of the Islands”

The Wall Street Journal tells it this way, “By 1989, half the siblings had moved to the Bronx. Their ranks included a nurse’s aide, a delivery driver, a bank teller and a mechanic. Mr. Hawthorne, who spent his first months in New York sharing a bed with two brothers, had an accounting job with the New York City Police Department and a small tax-prep business on the side. One night, when their father was visiting from Jamaica, they gathered to discuss his suggestion: Why not launch a bakery in New York?”

The idea would be to employ about a dozen family members, so that meant multiple locations. Golden Krust was a chain from the beginning, and that helped it get going. For about five years, things were great. They had targeted churchgoing West Indians in New York, and those proved to be loyal customers with a taste for home.

Like any good TV show or movie, though, you need a problem to overcome or there’s no real story. Golden Krust’s came when its patty supplier cut it off. The chain had become so successful, the supplier had come to think of it as the competition. That wouldn’t be a problem, but no one in the Hawthorne family knew how to fill a patty that people would buy in massive numbers. Patty recipes in Jamaica are guarded the way nuclear launch codes are protected in the US.

The Wall Street Journal says, “Mr. Hawthorne heard about a reclusive Jamaican cook known as Old Mel who was guarding an awesome patty recipe. He went to the islands, found Old Mel in a remote village and flew him back to the Bronx. The family eagerly watched Old Mel prepare a small batch of beef filling. Mr. Hawthorne, the first to try a sample, couldn’t believe his taste buds: ‘It was terrible’!

“Panic. But the clan asked the chef to try again. This time, they let Old Mel cook in private. ‘He had a secret he didn’t want to reveal,’ says Mr. Hawthorne. ‘All we had to do was step away from the pot.’ The chef was hired.”

Turning Jamaican Taste into a Global Experience

Retail-Ad-FairwayImage Source: Golden Krust Bakery

And close to 200,000 of the patties are produced each day in the South Bronx to be shipped. That’s 45 million a year, or around $80 million of the company’s $100 million annual revenue. The rest comes from other West Indian dishes like oxtail stew or cow-foot soup.

Hawthorne, though, has not fulfilled his ambitions completely. Think Chipotle with a Caribbean accent. He said some time ago, “Golden Krust exists to take the taste of the Caribbean to the rest of the world. Wherever there are social gatherings, we try to supply them with complimentary cocktail patties and treats. I never pass up an opportunity to talk about our concept with speaking engagements or at franchise shows. It’s part of a big vision we call our 2020 plan. Lots of products start in a core market and go mainstream, and we’re doing the same. We have a mission to make our patties mainstream across the U.S. by 2020.”

Time for lunch.

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