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For N.Y. Caribbean Beef Patty Co., Business Is Cooking

By Michelle Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page A03

NEW YORK -- Fifteen years ago, Lowell Hawthorne took a few months paternity leave and had time to consider his future in accounting. It didn't excite him.

So Hawthorne summoned a few of his 11 brothers and sisters and made his pitch. Every year, he told them, Daddy Hawthorne leaves his bakery near Kingston, Jamaica, and comes here to crank out Caribbean-style delicacies for compatriots who had moved north. He sold out every time. Hawthorne saw a market and told his brothers and sisters, if we want to make our way in this country, we need to go with what we know: Jamaican beef patties.


A worker carries dough for Jamaican beef patties at the Bronx plant of the Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery & Grill, which has expanded into a chain of 80 franchises. (Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

The Golden Krust empire was born.

"We're very much family orientated," said Hawthorne, now a suit-wearing 44-year-old. "I wouldn't have had the funds to do it on my own. I wanted everyone to bring their skills and experiences -- so I needed everyone."

They rode the wave of Caribbean migration, starting in a bakery the size of a one-car garage and expanding into a chain of 80 franchises mostly in New York. And now the entrepreneurial family plans to open 22 stores from Atlanta to Boston.

The humble beef patty, a palm-size spicy turnover, long has been an on-the-run staple for hurried and hungry immigrant New Yorkers from the hills of central Bronx to Crown Heights and Flatbush in Brooklyn. If the Hawthorne family is successful, they hope to add the humble beef patty to the list of ethnic foods -- the Jewish bagel, the Italian pizza slice and the Chinese noodle -- that have become thoroughly American fast food.

"The beef patty has always been associated with ordinary folk," said Michael Roberts, a columnist for the New York Carib News, a Caribbean newspaper. "You see people going home from work with their bags of patties."

The beef patty was born of colonialism and migration. The English introduced the turnover to the Caribbean, their East Indian indentured servants in Jamaica added cumin and curries, and African slaves contributed the cayenne pepper. The firecracker taste of the Scotch bonnet, a hot pepper indigenous to Jamaica, sealed the flavor.

Jamaicans packed their patty recipes as they moved northward in the 1960s and 1970s, when immigration gates swung open for non-Europeans. Often, women led the way, taking jobs as hospital orderlies, home health aides and nurses.

Lauris, 55, the eldest Hawthorne sibling, arrived in 1971, finding work as a nurse's aide. She became a U.S. citizen and purchased a house in the Bronx. Then she sponsored the immigrations of her 11 siblings.

"I'm the mother of all them up," she said, the conviction in her Jamaican accent leaving no room for doubt. "I had the house and everyone lived there.

"Then they would go on their own," she added, "and I would bring up another four."

His brothers and sisters loved Lowell's idea for a patty bakery. But when they applied for a business loan, one bank after another turned them down, calling the idea too risky. So Lowell and his sister mortgaged their homes.

"I was scared," said Lauris, who still runs and owns the first Golden Krust on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. "But . . . you have to take chances in New York."

In the early years, each brother and sister worked two jobs: They lived on one paycheck and set the other aside for the bakery. Brother Lloyd became a driver for a rival Caribbean food company, then moonlighted at the Bronx shop.

"There were a lot of times we didn't have any money," Lloyd recalled. In the beginning, it did not matter when a family member had to forgo a paycheck when expenses were tight. But the company soon was expanding and hiring more help, and "you have to find some way to pay them."

The Hawthornes' endeavor was well timed. The Jamaican population in New York stands at about 212,000, with 50,000 arriving just in the past 10 years, according to the city's analysis of U.S. Census data. Along with 400,000 immigrants from other English-speaking Caribbean islands, that made for a massive and loyal consumer base.

"Meh luv ya," writes one Jamaican immigrant on a popular food Web site in New York. "What else can I say about food that's as close to mama's as it can get?"

As the Golden Krust bakeries multiplied, so did the Hawthornes. To walk into their Bronx offices and distribution center -- which consumes most of an industrial block -- is to find a cross-generational corporate hierarchy, as sisters, spouses, nieces and children answer phones and work computers.

Lloyd brought his expertise as a driver to manage distribution and has since gone on to open an outpost in Miami. Sister Lauris heads up the cake and bread operation. Brother Milton, a mechanic, became plant engineer. Lowell's son, Haywood, heads up information technology and payroll.

And Lowell, with his business savvy, became chief executive.

"We let him lead. He has more college, more education," Lloyd said. "But the baking experience, I have more of that."

The corporation may be bound by blood, but everyone makes clear that it's a no-excuses operation. "I may be family, but I can also be terminated," said cousin Garnet Morrison as he watched the company's jerk chicken being prepared. "I still have to answer to Lowell."

Lowell lines his desk with books chronicling the franchising success stories of McDonald's, Krispy Kreme and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1996, he decided the family had to create franchises. They were facing competition from 100 Jamaican-owned bakeries and, as Lowell saw it, they had to break the bounds of the immigrant neighborhoods.

His brothers and sisters worried about losing the family touch. But Lowell argued that they had to professionalize. Besides, he said, "we ran out of brothers and sisters."

Each franchise receives beef patties from the plant and prepares in-store meals according to a Golden Krust-issued cookbook. Lowell has hired a research and development expert who has added spicy jerk chicken to the menu. And they have found a new clientele by getting city contracts to serve lunches to prison inmates and schoolchildren.

Now a second generation of Hawthornes is fanning out across the nation, taking with them bonnet peppers and jerk spices. Lowell envisions the Golden Krust's rising sun logo and brightly colored shops along highways and in shopping malls across the nation. And, he said, "We expect Golden Krust to go from one generation to another."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company