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AML Foods expects to sign a contract for a second Carl's Jr. restaurant within a "couple of weeks", after "locking in" plans for a total of five locations with the international fast-food chain.
After around two-and-a-half years of planning and a $1.25 million investment, AML Foods opened its first Carl's Jr. to customers on Saturday, located in the parking lot area of Solomon's Super Center, off Robinson Road. The company hired an additional 65 people to staff the restaurant.
AML Foods Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and President Gavin Watchorn said that the company, which owns Solomon's Super Center, Solomon's Fresh Markets and Dominos, is "very confident" the U.S. burger brand will do well for them and their shareholders. The Bahamas operation is Carl's Jr.'s third in the Caribbean and 31st worldwide.
The franchise investment comes as the company is seeking to reduce the proportion of its sales made up by price-controlled grocery items, on which it loses $20,000 a week, noted Watchorn.
It also allows AML Foods to spread fixed costs.
"We have a lot of synergies in our franchise, so we're able to open this without a lot of costs. We have the commissary, so we didn't have to build that. We have a team there, so we didn't have to add to our accounting or HR, so we're now able to take fixed costs and spread them further around the group. This alone contributes to Dominos profitability, because we're now able to take costs from the Dominos system and charge them against Carl's."
While there is obviously major demand in The Bahamas for fast food, some have pointed to the difficulty of opening and sustaining new franchises outside of the traditional favorites: Wendy's, KFC, McDonald's and, to a lesser extent, Burger King.
Given the challenges traditionally seen in making new brands in this sector work in The Bahamas, some local observers have questioned AML Foods' decision to move further into the franchise business, rather than focusing on solidifying its grocery retailing operations, considering the company's greater expertise in the latter area.
Asked about AML Foods' strategy to mitigate this challenge and why Carl's Jr. would be a good brand, Watchorn said: "I think Carl's is the right brand because it's a brand that appeals to young people. It's an exciting brand - a young brand - and we have a very young population who enjoy fun and like to eat out and eat good food. So when we were looking for another franchise business, we came across Carl's, and pretty quickly we thought it would be a good fit with us.
"In terms of businesses coming and going, it's about how you run it. Opening it is the easy part. Actually running it and focusing on the detail is key. We've got a good team and it's managing the numbers and keeping track of what you need to keep track of and acting when you need to. Anyone can open up; it's maintenance, and that's what we have to do."
Watchorn said that increasingly the company's investment will move toward opportunities to reduce its reliance on price-controlled item sales.
"As a business, you have an obligation to provide those goods for your customers, but our investment dollars are going to go towards items that will generate higher returns for us, and this is part of that strategy.
"Therefore, over the medium term, our investments will be focused on projects that will improve our energy efficiencies, improve our store efficiencies and increase our sales, both in food and franchise, in areas that produce higher gross margins."
Ron Coolbaugh, vice president of International Franchise Operations for Carl's Jr., said the company is confident about its decision to enter the Bahamian market.
"The fantastic thing about The Bahamas is that there is a clear demand for quick service burgers. That is very evident. It's very encouraging when you come here and see how much demand there is for such products. It makes The Bahamas an attractive market because there's clearly a demand for the product, and then we're very fortunate to have partners like AML Foods, who are here. They know the food service industry - who are here with Dominos, who are here with markets, who know how to do business here - and they know the retail thing, and they know how to do business in The Bahamas and have that entrepreneurial spirit. So when you combine the strength of The Bahamas as a market and the strength of a great partner, it makes The Bahamas an attractive decision to make."
Lucayan Tropical, a top food producer, is rising to the government's pledge to ban certain imports if the same products can be produced locally.
Tim Hauber, the general manager, said there is "no doubt" his operation could supply the entire country with cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers. And to prove it, the leading agriculturalist will be leading V. Alfred Gray, the minister of agriculture, on a tour of his farm in the next two weeks.
Last month, Gray told Guardian Business that the government will ban or impose high tariffs on any food item that can be produced locally in sufficient quantity, and at the right price.
Hauber believes there is now a renewal of interest and confidence in the industry since those comments.
"There are a handful of products that we could without a doubt supply to the entire country," he told Guardian Business. "At least while they are in season. I can supply all of the country's needs of cucumbers and sweet peppers. Hands down."
The chief at Lucayan Tropical, one of the new food producers in the country, stands as a strong example to others in the sector. The Bahamian food bill has remained persistently high over the years, hovering in the $500 million range, with the vast majority imported from the U.S. or Mexico.
Hauber pointed out that it will take a time to realistically bring the local industry up to a standard that places a noticeable dent in that bill. He encouraged other producers, however, to step up and focus on specific foods.
"The Bahamas is not going to produce its own food. But we need to take key products and get that going well, achieve some profitability, and then you'll see the momentum going," he said. "We don't need to get super theoretical about it. We just need to get that ball rolling."
Calling the minister's latest remarks on the industry "balanced", the top farmer speculated his current weekly production to be 400 cases of cucumbers, 800 cases of colored peppers and 500 cases of tomatoes.
Lucayan Tropical now sells to various supermarkets in the country, as well as hotels, but he said it is still a common sight to see a cucumber from the U.S. or Canada.
Much of the country's produce ends up going unused and wasted, he noted, which is a common source of frustration among farmers.
And that's where Amanda Wells comes in, the agricultural officer at the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation. Her role in the "Buy Fresh. Buy Bahamian" campaign includes collecting data from farmers on what they are producing.
That role will become increasingly important as local food producers attempt to meet the government's expectations, and ultimately, curb the influx of foreign products.
"I am on board with that. If the numbers are good, I would endeavor to do something about it, and submit it to government," she said.
The BAIC now offers free consultation services for would-be and current farmers. Wells encouraged those interested in the industry to stop by, as the organization offers complimentary business plans for those looking to get off the ground.
Gray, the minister of agriculture, has acknowledged that "it's not an easy situation out there".
"So I am certainly willing to do what I can to assist the industry. We have to consider the consumer. If we can't get enough of the product, that's a problem. But I am prepared to consider banning certain things from imports."
Colour Red, thanks for Red Splash!
I hear others complaining about all those posters of me being put up around this island. They must have had a change of heart since 2002 and since 2007 when they plastered our town with life size posters of Perry Christie declaring him to be “the Right Man for the Job”. Now that he and the Bahamian people know that he is NOT the Right Man for the Job, he wants to protest who’s putting up posters of whom.