Recently, The Camera caught up with Jo Campbell to find out what he’s been up to since he closed his popular JoJo’s Caribbean Bakery in 2000. This is what he told us:
These days, it is unusual for me to go anywhere in the city without bumping into a former customer.
The discussion almost always turns to baking – particularly “that hard dough bread” that everyone says they miss so much. Even phone calls with old friends always seem to conclude with the subject of baking, especially now that Christmas is just around the corner as we used to say in the Caribbean.
For Caribbean businesses in the GTA, Christmas season is a mixed blessing.
On one hand, it means increased sales. On the other hand, it means dealing with some customers who are a little bit disgruntled because they will not get the fresh Caribbean sorrel that has just sold out or the duck bread or black cake they neglected to order in time.
I still remember some of the exchanges of frustration in the lines at the checkout. Sometimes, when it got too loud, I would turn up the music. Before long, everyone would be moving to the rhythm. It worked every time. Amazing!
Over the years, I have learned to listen intently to what former customers tell me about the state of the Caribbean food market. It is quite clear they miss the wide variety of bakery products JoJo’s manufactured.
There were traditional products like tennis roll, currants roll, sweet bread, salara, pine tart, plantain tart, spice bun and, of course, our special hard dough bread.
They also miss the authentic Caribbean atmosphere and the customer service provided by our friendly and disciplined staff.
Several have communicated to me their frustration with the current scarcity of products, and have confessed that even though they miss the traditional taste, they now often resort to purchasing bread, cakes and pastries of inferior quality elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the small independent Caribbean business owners have their own frustrations too. Trying to please a diverse Caribbean clientele, whose shopping patterns often seem to change with the weather, is no easy task.
I remember many times when the bakery shelves were fully stocked and then it rained – or worse, snowed – and customers just did not show up.
Since we had a 24-hour freshness standard, you can imagine what happened there. Can’t blame the customer because “the customers are always right.”
Unfortunately, struggling small businesses just cannot absorb many of these kinds of losses: without loyal customers, the failure of these businesses is written on the wall. There is urgent need for a joint customer service / customer loyalty effort which, I am sure, would greatly benefit both businesses and customers in our community.
In light of all this, whenever I am encouraged by former customers to help solve the problem by setting up another true Caribbean bakery, my instinctive reaction is this: “At this time in my life, I very much prefer the simple order and peacefulness of days spent tending my vegetable garden. Thanks, but no thanks!”
Why? Frankly, Caribbean baking is truly hard work. It is not so adaptable to automation and thus requires longer production hours. It is a job most suited for a younger generation.
However, after recently witnessing a moving performance by some truly gifted young people at a local fundraiser, I felt compelled to help them in any way I could. Maybe a bake sale could raise some funds, I thought, but how much?
Next, I considered finding a facility where I could teach them to bake traditional Caribbean products. That would certainly be more sustainable. It might also provide many of these talented, yet often marginalized and unemployed young people in our community with some much needed job skills training and career opportunities.
I must admit the possibility of having a positive impact on the future of these youths is very motivating. Maybe even motivation enough for me to overcome my reluctance to set up another Caribbean bakery in the GTA!
In my garden, I grow my own callaloo, thyme, escallion and scotch bonnet pepper. I have even added cerasee for the past two years. These tropical plants, as you might imagine, need special attention during the short summers here in Canada.
I also grow my own garlic. Some weeks ago, while selecting and planting the best garlic bulbs in hope of a better harvest next year, the following suddenly occurred to me: investment by us in the future our youth is a practical and sustainable solution to the dilemma we face in the bakery sector of our economy.
Today, the Caribbean community spends more and more of its food dollars at businesses outside of the community. This is a lost investment. We end up developing other communities, while doing nothing for our own.
Now, imagine if our community were to fund the startup of a full-scale Caribbean bakery and also to commit to buying a minimum of, say, five dollars-worth per week of the quality breads, cakes and pastries it produces. What effect do you think this would have on our community?
Imagine a bakery with a paid apprenticeship program, where qualified high school students could be mentored into the business. The most promising students would be rewarded with a full scholarship to enroll in George Brown College’s Baking and Pastry Arts Management program, giving them a much needed jump start and hope for the future.
Well trained, certified and no student debt after two years of college. This would be a game changer – for the Caribbean baking industry in particular, and the community in general.
The quality, consistency and customer service our community demands and deserves would no longer be an issue! Furthermore, the bakery could be a lifeline for those in our community who are experiencing temporary economic hardship.
Each week, with the assistance of the numerous churches in our community, it could provide them with gift baskets of quality bakery products. To effect these sorts of changes in our community, I would be willing to garden at night, with floodlights if I have to!
As our families gather this joyous Christmas season, the discussions may once again turn to the dwindling number of stores in which we can shop. I believe the standard of service which the Caribbean community demands of their brave entrepreneurs is achievable but only after a paradigm shift.
It will require greater community participation – up to and including financial investment – for our businesses to be profitable and self-sustaining. “Ask not what your community can do for you; ask what you can do for your community.”
Honestly, I don’t know if the community has the will. If it does, it will be done. I hope we have not forgotten The Golden Rule that sustained us in the Caribbean, and brought us here.
I have made a personal commitment to spend five dollars per week at businesses owned by, operated by or that employ people from the Caribbean. I read labels to ensure I purchase products from the Caribbean first. Some might cost more but the cause is worth the expense. I am making a five dollar per week fair trade contribution to small businesses here or in the Caribbean. Some of us spend more than that per day on coffee. Imagine if half – just half – of the Caribbean population in the GTA adopted that simple strategy!
You can contact JoJo at firstname.lastname@example.org.