Twenty Questions with Marie Sharp
BELIZEmagazine.com: Please tell us where and what year were you born. What was it like as a child, growing up in your home town? How has the town/district changed since your youth?
Marie Sharp: I was born in 1940 in Belize City. Actually my parents are San Pedranos, my parents migrated to Belize City the same year I was born. They were originally from San Pedro, Ambergris CayeMy parents were separate when I was 8 years old, I came to live with my father , he migrated from Belize city to Dangriga and I came to live with him when I was about 9 years old for better education, because out in San Pedro most of the people only spoke Spanish and the schools were not very good, so for my educational purposes, my mother decided to send me to my dad so I can go to an English speaking school.
Growing up was okay, even though I was with my father and my stepmother. My father was a merchant, he had a general store, I had a good childhood.
Dangriga has changed a lot. When I came here almost 55 years ago it was only like a very small village, we had two paved streets, front street and middle street, all the back streets were just dirt roads. But it was very very very nice being in Dangriga at that time. People were so friendly, we knew all of our neighbours, it was just like one big happy family. I even learned to speak Garifuna. I was very good at learning languages, I spoke Garifuna very quickly.
BELIZEmagazine.com: How did you get started in the business that made you so successful?
Marie Sharp: I married my husband, he was the farmer. His parents owned this property that is a 400-acre farm – Melinda estates limited. We used to spend all our free time on the farm, planting things, all the fruits that could grow in Belize, we planted some of. One of my sisters said, why don’t you plant some peppers for Dr. Gordillo? He was a medical officer and at that time he was making a habanero pepper sauce that he was selling on the local market. He said he had a lot of difficulties finding peppers. I said, this is not a problem at all, so I came to the farm and planted peppers.
Unfortunately when I took my first load of peppers to Dr. Gordillo he said “Ai hija, my daughter, I will only use a little bit”, and I got stuck with all this habanero peppers, no market, nowhere to dispose of it and I had to bring it all back home. You have to take into consideration that I had a full time job as an executive secretary with the citrus company of Belize at the time – I worked with them for over ten years. I had a full time job and this was only done in our spare time, on holidays and weekends. So I came back home with the peppers, took out my little home blenders and decided to mash peppers like crazy. I went trough a couple of dozens of those blenders and I started filling up my garage with drums of pepper mash. My husband said, “What are you going to do with all the peppers, the cars can’t even fit in the garage anymore. What are you going to do with all of that?” Then I started coming home and playing around with sauces at night. After I fed the family and got them out of the way, I stayed in the kitchen and I started making my own sauce. I had about six different varieties of sauced that I made. I had even one made form cabbage, one from cho-cho, and I had this carrot base and I had one from papaya. I gave them away to friends, and one of my friends said to me, this is the carrot base one he was talking about, he said “Marie why don’t you market this? This is better than anything we have on our local market. You have to market this product.” I said, “You think so?” He said, “Yes this is going to sell!” I started to think about it, but he planted the little seed there. Then I just went out and bought myself three tabletop stoves with four burners and a pot to fit each four burner, one pot per stove, and I started to cook carrot sauce and make pepper sauce. I would cook every night three big pots and in the day I’d have a girl coming and fill bottles with a little measure cup, fill the bottles and seal them. Then I stared filling up my veranda with boxes of sauce. I had the veranda up to the ceiling with boxes. And that’s where it all started. I started going out and I would make my own tortillas and refried beans and I would go to all the stores and have them taste. I made everybody taste it. “If it is good, put some on your shelf”. I had to go there and fight my way through all the stores. Believe it or not, Belize was one of my hardest markets.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What was your first commercially produced hot sauce?
Marie Sharp: Melinda, because this property here is Melinda estate and this is where I was growing the peppers, so I though that the most suited name would have been the name of the farm, so I gave it the name Melinda. I changed the name in 1991, when my first distributor in the United States trademarked the name, and I lost the name to them. We were working with them and at that time I was not prepared for what I was doing at all. I though everybody was honest. We were working on that kind of relationship and the next thing I knew they had trademarked the name for themselves, and when I started questioning, because they were making all these products with the name Melinda, I said “What’s going on here?”, they said, well the name is ours! I said, “How come?”. They answered, “Because we trademarked it”. I said, “But it is not yours where did you get it from, the name is mine, it’s my farm, it’s my product”. At that point I think they realized that they had done wrong and that they had made a fool of themselves. But they are still in business, because at that time, when we hit the American market, we were the only habanero producers in the world. We could have had that captured market we could have been pretty well to be, both of us working together.But I think he got to greedy, and he messed up, because he killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. He thought he had my formula, so by having my formula, he found the cheapest source of mash in Costa Rica, but the Costa Rican mash is not as good as our mash, they make a fermented mash, I don’t make a fermented mash. And this is where he made his mistake, because he found out now that he is still nowhere. I came back to the market with a new name, set back about five years in my marketing plan, because naturally I am coming back with a new name, I am starting over from scratch. So it took me about five years to really come back on the market. By the time I came back there were hundreds of other people out there with habanero sauces. Not the same as mine, but it is still habanero and it is still a sauce. That first time when we came out, we had very little competition, only the people in Louisiana, the Tabasco and the other Louisiana sauces that were out there. Now there were hundreds of people making sauces, so it was that much more difficult for me.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Did you consider taking legal steps against them?
To take the legal litigation route, fighting for my name Melinda, would have been long, costly, and require trips back and forth which I could not afford, so I just gave up. I did have a lawyer in the States and he eventually said, “Marie, the best thing to do is throw in the towel. Give them the name, in exchange for braking a contract with them”. They were my sole distributors, so while we were fighting, I could not sell to anybody. So I had to give them the name, to break the contract so I could start all over again.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Have you signed an exclusivity ever since? No. Never.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What was the biggest challenge you had to face to achieve today’s success?
Marie Sharp: My biggest challenge was really when I had to come back with the ‘Marie Sharp’ and recreate a market for that product all over again. I also lost quite a bit of money over the whole thing. A considerable amount of money I lost, and at that time I thought about just giving up.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Where are the ingredients for your product grown – the peppers, vegetables and fruits?
Marie Sharp: They are all locally grown. Certain times of the year the Belizean farmers cannot produce onions and carrots because of the heat. During the very hot season we cannot produce carrots. As long as there are local onions and carrots, everything comes from the local producers here, nation wide. Certain time of the year I have to import onions and carrots from Mexico. The peppers I had to import from Mexico maybe about once or twice.
Naturally everything would be cheaper to produce in Mexico. We do have a joint venture over there and we do produce the sauce over there where it is still under the name Melinda. I had trademarked the name in Mexico.
BELIZEmagazine.com: We understand that your hot sauces are now also being sold at Wal-Mart stores in the USA. How did this opportunity come to you?
Marie Sharp: Actually out of the blue. Somebody called me from the United States and they said that they were asked to find out about pepper sauce by the name of Marie Sharp. When he found out he was talking to Marie, he could not believe it. After he spoke to me he came on the plane and the next day he was here. He came down and said he had to see if the product was market ready. He went back and reported. Then I went up and I spoke to the buyer and he said he knows that the pepper sauce is very good quality, he’s had it himself and he loves it very much. And they want to carry it in the stores. So that is how it came about, they came to me. For years I have been fighting to get into the supermarkets in the United States, unfortunately I could not afford to, because of shelf spacing. You have to pay to get in, US $ 3.000 per product. Or free placement: you give them one case of the product. But it is not like you give them one case, if that chain has 80, 100 stores, than you have to give them a 100 cases of the product that you want to put on the shelf. But it does not end there, you have to go in and do demos and cook-ins. It is my responsibility to move the product. Because if they do not sell at least 15 cases per month, than it is thrown out, and then you loose everything. So it very difficult for someone that is not living in the United States to do something like this. We have always tried just the gourmet markets and all the other markets that we could get in. That was our target market, because we could not afford to get into the supermarkets. Now that they have come to me, I do not have to pay anything. I think this has really come about because of the quantity of tourist, the tourist trade has really grown tremendously in Belize [rem: 15,000 in 1998 to over a million in 2003] and there is not one person that visits Belize that does not take something back from Marie Sharp.
BELIZEmagazine.com: How do you do your marketing nationwide? Your sauces are on every table!
Marie Sharp: We do a lot of marketing by radio, newspapers, we do food shows, we try to attend all the shows . One of my sons is in charge of marketing in Belize and I must say that he does a very good job.
BELIZEmagazine.com: How many children do you have?
Marie Sharp: I have three boys and all of them are in my business. Actually I have nine children, my husband was married before, I was married before. I have two boys from my first husband who died of cancer, with my husband I have one, so that are my three boys. He had seven children, we lost one to a ruptured appendix, so they are six. Six and three are nine and I had them all from when the youngest was three years old and the oldest twelve. I raised them all like they were my own. Two of them are girls. The boys are now all married and gone except for my three that are all working in the business, one is working the marketing nationwide, and the other two work directly with me in the factory. One of my boys is living in Los Angeles and a girl in Florida.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Can you tell us a highlight of your personal life?
Marie Sharp: I’ve twice been recognized – once in Düsseldorf, Germany, when we went there with a food show, we were given the 20th Golden Award for Food and Beverage in Germany. That was really one grand moment for me. It made me feel like I’d been really recognized for all the years I have been working, trying to market my products so much. Another highlight was when I got into the Japanese market. You know the Japanese are very strict and very quality conscious. So if you can work with the Japanese I think you have a feather in your cap. Once you get into the Japanese market and you can work with them it is a plus sign behind you. So I feel very good that we had been able to keep our Japanese market, we’ve been working with them for about three to four years now and that market has really expanded. The Japanese have now given us a contract and they have taken on Korea, Taiwan France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What do you do to keep in shape? What is your favourite past-time occupation?
Marie Sharp: To keep in shape you don’t have to do any thing more but staying in this factory as I do. I am here almost every day and you can see the size of this plant – it is up and down. Up and down all day. Apart from that, I do a lot of walking every day; my favourite past time is fishing. I am an avid fisherwoman. I love fishing, we have our own little island off the mainland here, so every opportunity we get, we try to go out there.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What is your greatest outdoor adventure ever experienced in Belize?
Marie Sharp: When we were younger of course, my husband and I used to take a pin and stick it in the map and that is where we are going to go this summer. We went as far as Quebrado de Oro, which is almost in Toledo and into the deepest jungle. Qubrado de Oro means a channel of gold. We found a huge Maya ruin back there, huge, huge, huge. That was a very good experience. The rivers are so pretty, it was something unbelievable, you have to experience it. When we went all the wild life back there, I guess they have never seen people before, so the wild birds were just eating on the road and they just flew away when we got near enough. We also saw Spider monkeys. The rivers had so much mollets, it was amazing. Very pretty. And we used to sleep anywhere night caught us, we never had a tent, we just pitched a camp on the ground and we slept there. We used to do that a lot.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What is your most favourite Belizean food dish? Can you offer the recipe?
Marie Sharp: Have you every had Cere? Fish cooked in coconut milk, that’s my favourite dish and you eat it with green plantain. You take a medium size snapper, wash it and clean it with lime, then you season the fish. What I do, I mix my own seasoning. I take salt, black pepper, seasonal, a little bit of garlic and I mix them all up together. And I season my fish. You put that in a pot and you steam it with a very little bit of water. You cut onion rings and sweet peppers and put that on top of the fish and you steam the fish with that. When the fish is almost done, than you use grated coconut milk that is the cream that you squeeze from the coconut and you put that on top of the fish. You season with salt to taste and you just cream the fish with the coconut milk. It does not take long because it was steamed already. As you bring that milk up to a boil, you put whole habanero peppers on top, you don’t break them, you just leave them there until the milk boils. Then it is ready. Separately you cook your green plantains, you can mix those with some that are almost ripe. You boil the plantains with a little bit of salt. Then you take them out of the water and put it in what we call a mater and you beat it with a stick. You beat it, you sprinkle it with a little bit of water and you beat it until it gets a smooth consistency like mashed potatoes. That is eaten along with that fish cere. Very nice!
BELIZEmagazine.com: What is your most favourite locally grown fruit, what the most favourite vegetable?
Marie Sharp: I love Mangoes; I am not talking about the exotic mangoes, but the local varieties: number 11, the blue mangoes the common mangoes. We have one that we call “Chachui”, that is the nicest mango you can ever have. It is a very small mango and you can pop it into your mouth like a plum. The skin is very thin, and they are so sweet. They are green, very seldom they will grow with a little bit of red on it. I love my local Mangoes. I love all fruit, I also love craboo. A lot of people do not like craboo, because it is so high in aroma, but I love it. I eat all the fruits that are grown in Belize like bananas, papayas and pineapples. Vegetables? I love all my vegetables except tomatoes. I do not know what it is but I do not like tomatoes. And this is one of the problems I have with making any tomato products.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Have you ever had the luck to see any of Belize’s exotic wildlife such as a jaguar, tapir or the like? Have you ever been bitten by a scorpion, snake or spider?
Marie Sharp: I have seen a jaguar in the wild and tapirs. On our hunting experiences, we have seen them. We have been chased by a tapir one time, when the have the young ones, you better not try getting near them, because they will come at you. They are very protective of their young. Naturally, that’s just instinct. I don’t think I have ever been bitten by a scorpion, snake or spider. I came close to it with all our wandering in the mountains and the bush; we have done a lot of bush hunting. We have seen snakes. One close encounter I had, I was standing under the tree and the snake was coming down towards my head and my husband said, “Freeze” and he shot it off on top of my head. But that was the closest I have ever come to a snake. I am not afraid of spiders or scorpions. I am afraid of a roach. I do not know what it is but I cannot stand to see a roach.
BELIZEmagazine.com: How many of the Maya archaeological sites in Belize have you visited? Which site was the most fascinating for you?
Marie Sharp: I love Caracol. I went there in 2002 so I do not know how far they’ve gotten now. It is amazing to see that they had a football field, that they had a water reservoir. With the excavation that was going on it was amazing to see the size of it. Sometimes I wonder if that was not the one we came across on the way to Punta Gorda. I do not know, I could be wrong because I do not know the geographical location exactly. I have also been to Xunantunich and Altun Ha.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What is the greatest asset of Belize?
Marie Sharp: We have the second largest barrier reef. Belize is rich because of the barrier reef, it is unique, because the only other country that has a barrier reef is Australia, which is the largest. So one of our main attractions to Belize is our barrier reef.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What are the top five books we should all read in our lifetime? What books are you reading at the moment? Which book do you plan to buy the next trip to the bookstore?
Marie Sharp: I used to do a lot of reading but it is put into the background the more and more I got involved into this business. You must understand that here, I am chief, cook and bottle washer. I even sleep and work in my sleep so it is very difficult for me. I got to the stage where, if I am going to read, I read just nothing intense. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t really matter. I love court cases, mystery. Right now I am half way into Daniel Steel. Of course I did all the classics in school, like David Copperfield, because remember at one time we were more English. I also read Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell. Zee Edgell was actually one of my classmates; we went to school together in Belize City at ‘Holy Redeemer’. I have not seen her in a long time, maybe once or twice since then. Believe it or not, the book I want to read is the one by Bill Clinton, so the next time I am going to the States, that is what I am going to buy.
BELIZEmagazine.com: Who would be on your list of favourite Belizean artists, writers and musicians? Who would be on your list of favourite non-Belizean artists,writers and musicians? What kind of music do you like to listen to?
Marie Sharp: I like Spanish music, I like the Mexican style of music, I like more soft music. The artist that I like locally is Brother David. I also like Lord Rhaburn who composes a lot of his own songs. He did all those little bushsongs like bird-banqueting.
BELIZEmagazine.com: How would you answer the question “What is Belizean Culture?”
Marie Sharp: We have such a mixed culture. The Creole, the Spanish, the Garifuna, the Maya, now we have the other cultures, the Chinese, the East Indians, we have a whole big mixture that makes up those that are Belizean. In the cover of the Hospital Auxiliaries cook book it is put very well, they write, “Recipe for Belizeans: 4 Creoles, 1½ Garinagu (Carib), 1 Maya, 2½ Mestizo (Indian & Spanish Mix) also other nationalities, all sizes, all shapes and shades. Method: Mix well and bake slowly in a 80 degree sub-tropical sun, add salt water and let cool in an offshore breeze. The ingredients blended well but not stirred too much, makes up a population of 260,000 people Belizean.”
BELIZEmagazine.com: Belize is so ecologically diverse with natural beauty abundant. What do you consider the most beautiful spot in all of Belize?
Marie Sharp: I love where my husband was born in Middlesex. Middlesex is twenty-four miles up the Valley road here, going towards Belmopan. Right there in the last little village with little houses, there is a big citrus farm. There is a hill where they used to live and you can stand on that hill and look down and you look into that valley that is so beautiful.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What is your favourite vacation spot outside of Belize?
Marie Sharp: My favourite vacations spot? I never take a vacation now. But I tell you where I’d love to go, I’d love to visit Greece. I have not been there, but I’ve been all over. I’d love to go back to South America to Venezuela. I have been there once and I would love to go back. It has been very difficult for me to take a holiday, I work for myself, my husband works for the Citrus Company of Belize. He is supposed to have been on pension since he was sixty. He is now passed 65 and he is still working. Every time they ask him to stay on a little bit more, and a little bit more. This year I told him, “This is it, you quit now”. Because we are not getting any younger! I have never gone on a vacation, because when he can go I cannot, and when I can he cannot, I so we never go anywhere. I travel all over the world on business, I have been to Germany, Taiwan, Tokyo. But it is just for food shows and it is just work, work, work. I went to Venezuela and Argentina, but alone. After the work is done I never want to spend a couple of days more there, because I am alone. You want a companion to be able to appreciate everything you see. I really would love to go on a cruise through the Greek islands.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What do you consider the biggest challenge for Belize and Belizeans in the 21st century?
Marie Sharp: To become self-sufficient. In the 21st century we will be faced with a lot of funding aids that are going to be taken away from us, in the bananas, in the citrus. With the globalisation we are going to loose a lot of funding. The British always carried us with the bananas, and this is going to have to stop, because everybody is saying you can’t do that anymore. Everybody has to stand on their own legs. It is going to be very difficult for Belize. I don’t know how we are going to accomplish it, because where we are geographically, we have Mexico in the north and in the south we have Guatemala and the other Central American countries, and Belize is more expensive that any of our neighbours. I every way: for water, for electricity, for labour, for everything. How can we remain competitive, having both sides that can undersell us on everything that we? How are we going to accomplish that? Our electrical rates are tremendously expensive, our water very expensive, all our utilities, everything. And yet, we have to fight on the global market to be competitive. Also our interest rates are so high, they are 14-16%. To be honest with you, I have only gotten that far because I grow some of everything that I use in my process. We grow some of all the fruits that we use. I grow carrots, I grow peppers, I grow tamarind, pineapples, papayas, mangoes, summer ready coconuts. If I didn’t do that to lower my cost to be competitive, how would I stand out on the international market? So that is something we are going to face, I do not know how we are going to do it, how we are going to accomplish it, but it has to be done.
BELIZEmagazine.com: What would you most want someone reading this article to remember about what Marie Sharp has to say?
Marie Sharp: All this that has happened here really was beyond my wildest imagination. I have never thought I would have gotten where I am, because this was not even my line of work, so all this just happened by chance. I must say that I like cooking, and that is one of the things that probably started all this. I would like anybody who reads this article to know that starting your own business is not easy but if you stick in there and work with it, you’ll find a lot of obstacles that can be overcome. You just have to make sure to stick it and work hard. One of my goals here all the time and one of my foremost thoughts with every product that I added to the products that I have, is to make sure, that I produce quality products. So when somebody tastes it, they taste it and want to buy it. Sometimes people have the idea: If I am going to make this thing to sell, I am going to try to make it cheap. And then what happens? You come out with a mediocre product and than it doesn’t sell. So make sure whatever you are producing, you are producing at your best. Because you have something outstanding in that product and that is what is going to get you your customers. So to be a success, I think quality, presentation, and of course you have to be consistent. And as long as you keep those three things in mind you can’t help but become a success.