In the 1950’s, chicken was still a luxury item in Jamaica. The birds were raised mostly in small backyard coops and sold live to neighbours, family and friends. The idea of buying a chicken that was already plucked and cleaned—‘dressed’ and ready for seasoning—was generally unheard of.
Levy Bros. Ltd, an import/export company co-owned by five Levy siblings (Sydney, Dudley, Karl, Eric and Ivan), had been working to establish a substantial trade in ice-packed broiler meat imported from the United States. Unfortunately, in 1957 this activity was fraught with problems. There was difficulty coordinating flights, pick-up, delivery and final marketing. Planes often did not arrive on time with the unfrozen birds, the waiting game was horrendous and shrinkage and spoilage were high.
Against this background Sydney Levy, managing director of Levy Bros. sought to establish a local solution. His idea was to import baby chicks, instead of the finished poultry from America, grow the birds here in Jamaica, then process, bag and market the ‘dressed chickens’. In order to achieve the kind of production Mr. Levy envisaged, he planned to line up contract farmers to grow the chickens. He intended to provide them with the baby chicks, the feed and the technical support to ensure the best possible grow-out flocks and he would further guarantee the farmers a market for the grown birds, as he would reclaim them all and pay the farmers for their service. This would provide a steady stream of birds for processing.
Mr. Levy began conversations with Byron Coombs, proprietor of a wholesale and retail meat operation and Larry Udell, distributor of chickens to hotels in Miami and businesses in the Caribbean, towards establishing a partnership that would get his idea up and running. The brave trio of gentlemen discussed this innovative enterprise that they instinctively knew would revolutionise the agricultural and culinary landscape in Jamaica. Despite scant encouragement and even downright skepticism from public and private sectors, they pressed ahead to establish Jamaica Broilers Limited.
The company was incorporated in 1958 with offices and store rooms set up at 15 Hope Road, Kingston, Jamaica. The first broiler flock (3,000 chicks) was imported from Birdsey Flour & Feed Mills, Georgia, USA and placed on Byron Coombs’ farm in Spring Gardens, St. Catherine. Processing the birds was a rudimentary exercise undertaken at Mr. Coombs’ warehouse on Bond Street. The operation was primitive at best, but the market response was encouraging, so the Company expanded its production to 6,000 broilers a week by the end of that year. The brand name “Jamaica’s Pride” was fitting at the time as this was truly ground-breaking for the agricultural sector.
By 1959, our entrepreneurs were bullish in their pursuits. A small processing plant was set up in Old Harbour, utilizing second hand equipment to process up to 1,500 birds per hour along with adequate cold storage to manage supply. The Company also set up a small hatchery on Hope Road with two second hand incubators and employed an experienced hatchery manager from the USA to train local personnel and manage the operation. Hatching eggs were imported from Birdsey Flour & Feed Mills and chick placement grew to 12,000 each week.
In the meantime, more and more Jamaican farmers were discovering the profitability of partnering with the Company’s contract programme for “growing-out chicken”.
Consumers had started asking for the “dressed chicken” giving birth to the rebrand “The Best Dressed Chicken”.
The first wholly owned subsidiary of Jamaica Broilers Ltd. was “Jamaica Eggs Ltd.” The Spring Valley Farm in Temple Hall was leased from the previous owners in 1962 and 15,000 egg-started pullets were imported to commence production. The Company entered the market with its own table eggs under the brand name Hen Maid Eggs. The second cycle of production saw increased numbers of birds being brought in as the company began to offer the twenty-week-old started pullets to other commercial farmers.
Poultry feeds were being imported from Central Soya Ltd., Indiana, U.S.A. to feed the growing flocks. By 1969 the company entered into a joint venture agreement with Central Soya for the construction of a feed mill in Jamaica to produce animal feeds.
The company expended much effort in trying to find a suitable location for its new feed mill venture. Finally, in 1972, the facility was built at the junction of the Port Esquivel and Old Harbour-to-May Pen roads. Production began in 1973 with a rated capacity of 80,000 tons per annum. The mill produced a wide range of animal feeds which were marketed under the brand name ‘Master Mix’.
The processing plant had gone through continuous expansion over the late sixties and early seventies, which a number of upgrades to equipment, facilities and technology. By the end of 1972 Jamaica Broilers was producing 100,000 broilers a week in competition with six other producers, with its share of about 45% of the broiler market. Productivity stood at a whopping 8-10 birds per man-hour, which was an impressive feat at the time. In 1973 a rendering facility was added to the processing plant. This section of the operation pressure-cooked the feathers and offal from the birds into a high-protein, high-fat meal which went into the production of animal feeds.
The Company continued to explore ideas towards expansion and in 1978, established a pilot project to test the feasibility of producing breeder hens locally. This was undertaken at the Spring Valley Farm in Temple Hall, St. Andrew, with a stocking capacity of 18,000 hens.
In 1979, Jamaica Broilers bought out Central Soya’s 55% interest in the feed mill.