Original article from NEWSDAY, Thursday, August 31 2017
Before starting Perfect Peppers, she wasn’t a pepper eater herself, and inspected the ingredient listings of pepper sauces to come to her conclusion: “At the end, I was left with just pepper [as an ingredient], so I started there.” Leesa Ann Reize, Owner and CEO at Perfect Peppers (shopperfectpeppers. com), believes in taking pepper and traditional local and Caribbean flavourings to an elevated plane.
Her first creation after extensive research was the brand’s Pepper Chow – a blend of five different peppers that have either been fermented or roughly chopped. Proudly, she states, “The lack of fillers allows the individual to enjoy the flavours and textures of the different peppers – this is not a pepper sauce.”
At Perfect Pepper’s advent, she did not have any starting reference points for her business, which she believes was a positive inspiration. Lacking preconceived notions of a recipe archetype, her inventiveness was put to the test and flourished. “I had to rely on my ingenuity, my sense of adventure in trying new things, and a total lack of the fear of failure,” shares the business owner of some of the fundamental tenets of her business’ success.
“What I did know was that I didn’t want to create the same things, I wanted to be different and take an ‘old’ product and imagine it in a new way to attract today’s customers,” she further speaks of her brand’s inspiration. Her customers are persons who are aware of ingredient listings and package labels and people willing to try something new. Not all her products include pepper and not all the peppers used are spicy, so there is truly something for everyone in her lineup.
With a former career in currency trading and treasury management for both commercial and merchant banks in Trinidad, Leesa came upon Perfect Peppers much by accident. “Seven years ago, my husband retired and I bought him some pepper trees – he had decided to do container gardening in our limited space at home,” she says. “I started coming home to a table full of peppers with no idea of what to do with it as neither of us ate hot peppers at the time.” An ironic comedy of errors, but Leesa would not be stumped.
“For Christmas 2010, I gave my friends and work mates gifts created from our garden and was totally surprised by the positive responses! I didn’t know it yet but there began what is today Perfect Peppers,” she says brightly. With no official training in food production, she had a vision for her creations as well as the client base she hoped to attract, the story she wanted to tell, and a business plan. Today, she has completed courses at CARIRI and ExportTT, “learning the things that I did not even know I didn’t know.”
Leesa describes her business trajectory as fortunate; her former employer was encouraging and supportive at the start of her venture, and she has also made connections with other business owners who have offered advice and guidance. Her advice to hopeful business owners is “to simply ask; ask as many questions as you need to.” She says there is no fear to be had in asking for help when the knowledge escapes you, as in her experience others are always willing to help and offer their support in whatever way they can.
Her brand prides itself on a gourmet line of products that pay attention to quality, taste, and packaging. The company remains hands on; producing small batches of products to ensure consistent quality is maintained. “We maintain stringent control of the quality of our raw materials by engaging with our farmers; approximately 80% of our raw materials, which includes all peppers and fruits, are sourced locally or regionally,” she says of Perfect Pepper’s promise to their clientele. The main ingredient in their line of seasoning salts, kosher salt, is sourced internationally through a local supplier.
Leesa is the creative genius behind all lines of products, which include condiments, seasoning salts, pepper jellies, vinaigrettes, and infused cocktails. Her favourite creation to date is her Garlic Pimento Salt: “We slowly roast the garlic and pimentos, to which we incorporate kosher salt, which then goes back to the ovens to be slowly roasted.” The result is a fragrant salt that resembles coffee and “is great on almost everything.” She says this product is her favourite because it stirs childhood memories of her grandmother burning garlic on the stovetop to infuse the oil with flavour. “Before cooking, she would fish out the garlic and sprinkle it with salt and I would eat it,” she remembers, likening this treat to candy for her palette.
While challenges exist as a micro business, Leesa says her brand’s triumphs have been as many as they have been varied. Brand recognition and acceptance in a competitive market is one such triumph that she holds dear, as well as being featured at the Fancy Food Fair in New York City and winning the first ever CARIRI Fiery Foods Competition with her Fire Vinaigrette.
Perfect Peppers also offers hampers and gift sets, under the company name “Leave it to Leesa.” This company is responsible for the branding of Perfect Peppers, as well as gifts and corporate hampers. She understands that to get her products in the hands of customers, branding and strategy are equally important as quality.
She would like to see Perfect Peppers become the premier gourmet food production company in our region. “The name must be associated with quality and taste, with strong brand recognition outside of the Caribbean,” she says of her hopes for the future. Already, her brand’s recognition leaves her in amazement, with responses and comments from both friends and complete strangers who take the time to call or write. “Trinidadians are very proud of Perfect Peppers,” she says of the niche her brand has found. “Trinis have carried and sent our products far and wide. They post on social media asking questions. It’s been a fabulous ride thus far.”
Lastly, she reveals at the age of 20 she hoped to be an economist at the United Nations or an operative at the CIA – neither of which happened. “My point is that it’s okay as a young person not to know exactly what you want. Reinvent yourself as many times as you deem necessary, try new things, fail at something; I guarantee you that you will learn more from your failures.”
Her experiences have led her to this point, creating a legacy that she hopes will be timeless and revered. “It is my basket of experiences that has allowed me to create Perfect Peppers, and it is that same basket of experiences that has allowed to me appreciate every day since.”