Words and Photos by Andrea K Castillo
Growing up in a Belizean-American household in Brooklyn, the staples of our cuisine and culture were preserved in our family’s kitchen: Fry jacks and guava jelly for breakfast on Saturday mornings, rice & beans and stew chicken for Sunday dinner. And, of course, Marie Sharp’s pepper sauce was in constant rotation, for that added kick. Marie Sharp’s habanero-based blend is not just an icon of Belize, it enjoys global renown. No less of a hot sauce aficionado than Hillary Clinton has even cited it as her favorite.
I recently took my first solo trip to my motherland with the intent of meeting and interviewing Ms. Sharp. Her farm and headquarters, located in Belize’s Stann Creek District, is just miles away from some of my family, so I asked them to take me there; no e-mails, no calls, no forewarning. It was an overcast day, and I was quite nervous, but I told myself it was now or never. I walked into the office and asked for Ms. Sharp. She was about to take her lunch break when I told her I came from New York to interview her, and she gladly obliged.
In 1981, one month before Belize gained its independence from Britain, Marie Sharp made her first batch of sauce. “It was just an experiment, really,” Sharp tells me, in the dimly lit office of Marie Sharp’s Fine Foods, Ltd., her husband and daughter sitting at desks a few feet away. “At that time I did not realize that I was going to be doing what I am doing today. I grew some habanero peppers for a person in Belize City that was making pepper sauce. Unfortunately, he was doing it on a very small scale and I planted a lot of peppers. I got stuck with a lot of peppers and no market.”
Carrots, the not-so-secret ingredient in Marie Sharp’s most popular sauce
This, of course, would turn out as a blessing in disguise. Sharp returned home, took out a small kitchen blender, and, like that, the seeds of a hot sauce empire were sown. “[I] start blending and putting into pails and adding salt, and blending and adding salt, you know?” she recalls. “And, of course, [I was] going through lots of blenders because I was asking them to do what they were not made for. I ended up with a garage full of pepper mash, and I had to find something to do with it. “ She began to experiment with different formulas, developing six varieties, including the bright orange, carrot-based variety the company would become known for. “It was actually one of my friends that said to me, ‘You should go bring this to market!”
At that time there were exactly three commercially-produced pepper sauces in Belize, making Marie Sharp’s the fourth in the line-up. “The [mild] carrot-based one was our first product,” she recalls. “And after a little while they go, ‘it’s not hot enough,’ so then we started going with more heat. Still here in Belize and the US, the most popular sauces are carrot-based, the first three ones, the Mild, the Hot, and the Fiery Hot.”
Not long after commencing production, Sharp added jams to her repertoire. She says this was from pure necessity. “I had to go out and do my own marketing,” she explains. “I used to use the weekends and take out my car, do my refried beans and tortillas and do tastings, and ask the storekeepers to put some on the shelves. I thought, ‘If I am going to be doing this, I need more than one thing to sell.’ I thought of all the bananas that go to waste after the shipments go out, and the mangoes that go to waste. The country’s population is so small that you have all the excess. Nobody really does anything with guavas. Little by little I started increasing the kinds that I was doing, together along with the pepper.”
Marie Sharp outside her company headquarters in Belize’s Stann Creek District
We spoke more about specific products, and as you might imagine, she does have her favorites. “Actually to be honest with you, in the peppers, I think my husband changed my lifestyle. He doesn’t eat [hot] pepper, so he always uses the Mild, and very little of it. And I found I started to use the Mild too. All I do is put a lot more than he does, but you get more flavor because that is the original and has the full formula, so it has more taste, more everything, and I just stuck to it. But any one that is on hand, I would eat.”
When it comes to jams and jellies, she has a fondness for pineapple and mango varieties. “All of our jams and jellies have a higher-than-FDA-required fruit content,” Sharp says. “We have no preservatives, no food color, we used unrefined cane sugar, so it is as natural as we can get it. All of them, once you open the cover, even if you are not familiar with the fruits, you get the smell of what it is.”
As the proprietor of my own line of Belizean-style beverages, I had to get in one last, self-serving question, and ask what advice she has for young entrepreneurs, both in Belize and abroad. “If you are going to produce a product, make sure you have really good quality, good presentation, and consistency,” she told me. “Don’t ever believe it is going to happen overnight, because it doesn’t. You have to get out there and fight for your markets, and get your product known. It follows if you have a good, quality product.”
In the early days, Sharp says, she sold her products at a discount to gain a toehold in the market. “We started very humble, because we had to find our niche. We had to make our presence known. Then you can think of a price that is worth your product, and still not a price that is crazy. Don’t give up, and you’re bound to be successful.”
Andrea K Castillo is the proprietor of Cas Rum Beverages, a line of Belizean-style rum punch, rum sorrel and rum popo.