Founded in 1958, Jamaica Broilers Group of Companies has grown and diversified over the years thanks to quality brands such as Best Dressed Chicken, a popular choice for supermarkets, restaurants and consumers in the Cayman Islands.
Sydney Levy, one of the founders of the company, turned it into a family business when he bought out his two other partners, Larry Udell and Byron Coombs. His grandson Christopher Levy is now the CEO, and his goal is to continue the high standards his grandfather set over 50 years ago that made Jamaica Broilers a household name.
Vicki Wheaton: Was your grandfather a farmer? What got him into this business?
Christopher Levy: Well he used to import a lot of poultry and meats originally, and he [basically] said “You know, we could grow these out here”. So he got with a partner from the US and got another gentleman out here in Jamaica by the name of Mr. Coombs and the three of them started the business, a third each. Like most startups it struggled but eventually got going; and then my grandfather bought out the other partners and the company has been growing and developing ever since.
VW: I just imagine some of the partners looking back on it like the poultry version of Apple saying “Oo, we shouldn’t have sold!” [laughs]
CL: Well, I don’t know [laughs]. Apple is a big comparison; we’re a very small company, but we enjoy what we’re doing. I do know what you mean, absolutely [laughs].
VW: Best Dressed Chicken – where do you supply to? I see you have five locations in Jamaica so I presume you are the main supplier of most of the island’s poultry?
CL: Yes, we supply pretty much island-wide to a wide cross section of customer types, from fast food to hotels to fine dining restaurants to the guy who sells the drum chicken or jerk chicken on the side of the road, so it’s allowed us a great diversity of product line. What we’re doing now is working on developing great relationships in Cayman. It’s quite exciting to see the reception we’re getting there.
VW: When did you start shipping to the Cayman Islands?
CL: We started shipping there about 10 years ago. We’ve been shipping there in small quantities for a while, but what we’ve really been able to do is diversify our customer base over there. We’re into some quick service restaurants; we’re into a couple of hotels…it’s just really cool.
The other thing that’s doing really well over there is the free range line we’ve developed, and this free range line [is certified by] the same folks that certify poultry for Whole Foods [in the US] for example. The same folks come to Jamaica and certify our farms and our feed and everything, so it’s really a great product.
VW: So the free range line falls under Best Dressed Chicken, yes?
CL: Yes, it’s part of the brand.
VW: I know that as of right now the product can be found at some local supermarkets, in restaurants like Ortanique and at Popeye’s. Is there a particular market you’re trying to get into that you’re not in yet?
CL: Well we have good relationships on the ground there with distributor companies, which enables us to get our product out to a wide range of businesses, so we’re quite well established there.
VW: I would think that in this day and age the free range line would particularly appeal to a certain market where consumers are more aware of where their food comes from and are more conscious of how the animals are treated.
CL: That’s right. It’s a product they can identify with.
VW: Do you supply to any other Caribbean islands at the moment?
CL: No. We have opened an operation in Haiti, and we’re producing and selling poultry and eggs [there]. That’s doing pretty well.
VW: Do you find that the shipping routes restrict where you send your product within the Caribbean?
CL: Well what happens is that a lot of countries have their own poultry industry, and either you make a decision that you’re going to buy these guys out or you’re going to try and enter and compete in their market. We’ve made the strategic decision that what we’d like to do is work with them, leveraging the size of Jamaica Broilers to make them more efficient. So what we’ll do is sell them fertile eggs, sell them seed or feed ingredients, we’ll provide technical services, medication and chicken houses. That way we’re more in the background.
VW: So you’re more working with local producers than competing with them?
CL: That’s exactly right, and it does well for us.
VW: I see on the web site for Jamaica Broilers that you were one of the first companies to implement an employee share ownership plan.
CL: That’s correct, yes…back in the days. The ESOP plan was first introduced by us in Jamaica as a way for all the employees of the company to benefit and partake and have a real ownership in the company, not just a sense of ownership, but actual material ownership, and whilst the same thing can be achieved by going public, when we went public these folks had shares already so they were able to know the value of [them] and either buy more or sell. It was a great programme, and although it happened long ago, it certainly is still a very important cultural reference point for us.
VW: Do a number of them still own shares in the company?
CL: Yes, we have over 14,000 shareholders. We have the most shareholders of any traded company in Jamaica.
VW: Pretty impressive.
CL: That’s a lot of shareholders [laughs].
VW: That is indeed! So where is your main operation based?
CL: Just outside of Kingston, about 30 minutes drive in a beautiful part of St. Catherine, cookston. On the plains, on the south coast of Jamaica, we have a beautiful campus there.
VW: I see that beyond the Best Dressed Chicken brand you have a number of other brands, you started off with poultry, but you’ve gone into other meats now and even ethanol production. What is your next planned step?
CL: That’s right, we’ve definitely diversified over the years. Our business in the US is growing pretty aggressively, and so is our business in Haiti. I think we’re going to see a lot of growth come from the US, Cayman and Haiti over the next couple of years.
VW: And you have locations in Florida and Georgia, is that correct?
CL: Yes, and we produce fertile hatching eggs. Those are the eggs that hatch and produce chickens that you and I eat.
VW: You said that you’ve been shipping your products here for about 10 years. Prior to that, did your family or company have much of a relationship with the Cayman Islands?
CL: Absolutely. We have great friends down there; the Godfreys are close family friends, and we spend time with them, especially my parents. We grew up together, and it’s just been a wonderful relationship. From there we’ve really kind of expanded relationships in Cayman. Good diving! We love coming down there to go diving and eating.
VW: What percentage of your market does the Cayman Islands represent compared to the others you supply?
CL: Well I think compared to Jamaica it’s relatively small, yet significant for us. In terms of processed meats and poultry, Cayman is definitely our second largest market [after Jamaica].
VW: Final question, I have to ask – where did the name “Best Dressed Chicken” come from?
CL: Ha! [laughs] Well Mr. Sydney Levy, who started the company, that’s my grandfather, he was an impeccable dresser. Back in those days they were very formal in their attire, and he had a reputation in Jamaica for being an impeccable dresser – the best dressed chicken just kind of rolled off from that. You’ll notice that our logo has the top hat, the umbrella and the tuxedo. [laughs]