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9745: Tasting Success (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Published Monday, November 19, 2001

Tasting Success: Harvard law school grad hopes to build market for 
traditional Haitian drink

Growing up in the Port-au-Prince sector of Diquini, Harry Hjardemaal used to 
look forward to Tita's daily house call.
Peddling AK-100, a sweet Haitian concoction, Tita would make a two-hour-plus 
trek on foot from her village. A portly, older woman, she would round into 
Hjardemaal's neighborhood by 7 a.m., supporting a large container of AK-100 
on her head. She then proceeded to sell the drink door-to-door.

``Tita was always in a good mood,'' Hjardemaal, now 34, recalls. ``The name 
represents the best of Haiti.''

Hjardemaal is hoping the name will one day also represent the best of a 
popular new drink.

Operating out of a small, bright pink building in a dingy, industrial area 
of Miami's Little Haiti, the Harvard law school grad has joined two siblings 
and a niece to create The Hjardemaal Corp., maker of the cornmeal-based 
drink AK-100 Tita. In their 3,400-square-foot space, filled with 50-pound 
bags of corn, they have the capacity to make 1,000 gallons of AK-100, 
pronounced ``akassan.''

Already, the drink is being sold in more than 50 local stores, and the 
family hopes to soon add Haitian markets throughout the United States.

Their plans may seem ambitious, but the family is no stranger to business. 
Hjardemaal is a former marketing manager for American Express and the Arthur 
Ashe Foundation. Until she sold it last year, Hjardemaal's sister Ketly, who 
is the company's chief operations officer, owned Lolita, one of the largest 
sugar packaging businesses in Haiti.

Meanwhile, Hjardemaal's brother Hermann is the chief financial officer. He 
retired earlier this year after 20 years in the Coast Guard working in 
information technology and intelligence. Hjardemaal's niece Valerie Bleus -- 
a former Miami TV personality on Channel 10's By Kids for Kids -- will help 
with marketing.

And the family members are not strangers to the product line, either. 
Hjardemaal's late father Fritz exported bottled AK-100. Hjardemaal didn't 
work at his father's business, but he has tapped into that distribution 
network. His father sold AK-100 up and down the U.S. coast and throughout 
Canada. Now Hjardemaal is using his father's contacts -- more than 200 in 
all -- as a stepping stone for AK-100 Tita. He says the vendors are warmly 
receiving the new product.

``We always talked about resuscitating the business, but here in Miami,'' 
said Hjardemaal. ``We're ramping it up a notch. To do this with my family is 
. . . a dream come true.''

The four family members pooled $75,000 to make and market the traditional 
Haitian drink. The money has gone toward paying for equipment, renting 
space, and designing and producing bags, labels, business cards and 
stationery. The company's logo, reminiscent of Tita, shows an older woman 
walking through a field of corn, crowned with a barrel of cornmeal.

Hjardemaal wants to use the drink, which is sweet and thick like a 
milkshake, to promote Haitian culture globally.

At the moment, AK-100 Tita's competition consists of a company that sells a 
canned version of the drink, and two companies that sell flour versions, 
which are mixed with water or milk, Hjardemaal said.

Among the competitors is Boca Raton-based Jacqueline French, who started her 
AK-100 business in 1970 in Queens, N.Y. Making the drink herself, French 
started the company as a family business, with her daughter and husband 
delivering the product to customers' homes.

French says her business is doing extremely well, with revenue of about $1 
million a year. She thinks the local market is strong enough to support 
several versions of AK-100. Furthermore, she says the drink is proving 
popular with Latin Americans because of their familiarity with corn-based 

To compete with existing AK-100 makers, Hjardemaal is counting on what he 
calls an ``authentic'' processing of the product. To make AK-100 Tita, the 
corn is steamed and ground, then water is added. The substance is sifted to 
remove large particles. Then, the water and flour ferments overnight. On the 
second day, the water is drained and the wet flour is put in an oven at 200 
degrees before being ground again. It is then added to water and boiled 
until thick. At that point, milk, sugar, honey, fruit or cinnamon may be 
added for flavoring.


The authentic brew is what appeals to Gerald Jean-Piere, a student at the 
Florida International University School of Hospitality. Piere, a Haitian 
native, specializes in food and beverage and grew up drinking homemade 
AK-100. His parents prepared the drink with vanilla and nutmeg, and Piere 
remembers smelling the sweet aroma as a child.

``AK-100 is very special,'' Jean-Piere said. ``I believe it will sell well, 
especially in Miami because of the Haitian population and Caribbean culture 

It's already selling at The Sandwich Mill in Miami Shores to a predominately 
non-Haitian clientele, says store owner John Rossetti.

Along with fresh lemonade and sweet tea, Rossetti is marketing it as a 
natural alternative to sweet sodas. A former beverage director at the 
Fountainbleu Hilton, Rossetti is offering customers a free tasting of the 
drink and says he sold out of two cases in two weeks.

``Everyone is saying `Wow,' '' Rossetti said. ``They're tasting it and going 
ahead and buying.''

So far 52 local stores and markets have committed to carrying AK-100 Tita, 
Hjardemaal said. The company's goal is to market first in Haiti and in U.S. 
cities with a significant Haitian population, including Miami, New York, 
Boston and New Orleans.


The distribution strategy consists of a five-part plan. First, food markets 
of all sizes are approached, especially those in Haitian areas. Next, 
Hjardemaal will focus on restaurants, then caterers and companies that own 
lunch trucks. Finally, he will speak to beverage distributors about selling 
the product beyond the Haitian market in South Florida.

The Tita concept could be very successful in Miami, says professor Greg 
Fairchild, who teaches at the University of Virginia's graduate business 
school. Fairchild is an ethnic marketing expert who has focused on 
immigration and entrepreneurship, and has worked in brand management for 
Kraft and Procter & Gamble.

However, to be successful Hjardemaal Corp. needs to first establish a base 
within the Haitian community, Fairchild says. Then, after the company 
enlarges that base to include other groups, it could move on to a broader 
national audience, possibly with the help of a large distributor.

Hjardemaal acknowledges that he and his partners have a difficult job ahead 
of them. Yet he is confident that Tita will be a success with Haitians and 
non-Haitians alike.

``Quite honestly, once I see our first ad on national TV in prime time, I 
think we'll all feel pretty good about how far we've come,'' Hjardemaal 

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