by Lary Smith
As the government pours millions of unaccountable tax dollars into a political porkbarrel project on Andros called BAMSI, the only two commercial food processing firms in the country have quietly gone out of business - putting at least 20 Bahamians out of work.
P W Albury & Sons, distributors of Champion brand canned products, announced the closure of its Centreville plant last month. And Sawyer’s Food Products shut its Claridge Road factory at the end of 2013. Both had been canning food since the 1950s.
In 1959 Paul Albury, a schoolteacher from Spanish Wells, acquired the defunct J S Johnson canning operation, which traced its origins to the early years of pineapple farming on Eleuthera.
Sawyer’s was founded in Nassau in 1957 by Wesley and Norma Sawyer, operating initially from a small plant in Oakes Field. Wesley had trained in food processing at Arthur Vining Davis’ Three Bays Farm on Eleuthera.
Both companies started out canning tomatoes and pigeon peas supplied by small farmers around the country. Over the years they expanded their product ranges to include beans, jams, sauces - and even items like conch chowder and pig’s feet souse (under the Sawyer’s label).
But for the past 15 years at least both were importing all their raw materials - including produce. In an effort to stay afloat, P. W Albury even began importing pre-canned products from the US to distribute under their own label.
Spokespeople for both families identified two major factors that led to the demise of their companies.
"Bahamians have totally changed their eating habits,” said Caroline Albury, Paul Albury’s granddaughter. “Most rely on fast food outlets now rather than cooking their own meals. That, plus the high overheads, made it impossible to compete."
And according to former plant manager Michael Sawyer, "it was difficult to source raw materials in the right quantities at the right cost. Import controls on competitive foreign products were dropped in the early 2000s, and high local overheads made it difficult to operate."
It boils down to the same old Bahamian story - a tiny fragmented market with low volumes produces no economies of scale. It’s cheaper and easier to import food products from larger countries with major agro industries.
Pineapple farming is a case in point. Exports of canned pineapples began in the mid-1800s from Eleuthera. And the J S Johnson company was formed in 1876 to can pineapples, tomatoes, guavas, grapefruit and other produce at a factory on Union Street in Nassau. Back then, newspaper reports described Eleuthera as “one big flourishing pineapple plantation."
The peak year for Bahamian pineapples was 1892, when more than 8 million were exported. But when Hawaii and the Philippines - with better growing conditions and distribution networks - started producing pineapples, the Bahamas simply could not compete.
By the late 1920s the industry had collapsed. J S Johnson closed its factory and set up an insurance agency. Later the factory was sold to Paul Albury, who moved it to its present site in Centreville. When Paul died in 1964, sons David and James took over and changed the name to P W Albury & Sons. When the sons died, David’s three children kept the company going.
In the 1940s, Wesley Sawyer worked for the Telecoms Department in Rock Sound. He met and married Norma Perpall, who was Arthur Vining Davis’ secretary. Davis - the legendary chairman of Alcoa - was a big developer and landowner on Eleuthera.
Wesley started working at Davis’ Three Bays Farm on a tomato and pineapple canning operation. He went to the US for training, and then moved to Nassau. After working with Carl Claridge, shipping okra in brine to the US, he set up his own canning plant on Crawford Street in Oakes Field, moving to bigger premises on Claridge Road in 1964.
Wesley Sawyer died in 1974, but his wife and two sons - Kenneth and Michael - kept the company operating until December 2013.