Writer Calibe Thompson | Photography David I. Muir
With a more than 62 percent minority population, South Florida is home to a significant number of ethnic groups. They are simultaneously united and divided into sub-communities by three dominant languages – English, Spanish, and French-Creaole. Christopher Dupuy, owner and operator of Pals Group and the Lakay Food brand, can navigate them all.
Dupuy’s Haitian Father and Salvadorian mother met in Cambridge, England, so he first learned the common tongue – English. Then, living in Haiti, he became fluent in French, Creole, and Spanish because of the family connections. Being quadrilingual is a pretty great asset when you run a business in South Florida. It opens you up to easy commerce with virtually everyone.
He started the packaged-food distribution company Pals Group Inc with friends, shortly after he moved from Haiti to Miami around 2006. Exporting to Haiti was a popular business at the time, and the group started that endeavor with cooking oil. However, Dupuy soon realized that there were no Haitian-owned companies providing food products for the Haitian community in South Florida, and right away, decided to capitalize on the opportunity. He would become THE Haitian supplier. “All the other companies are owned by Latinos, and so the focus started changing,” he shared.
Dupuy’s small team started sales in the local market with only one product: 25-pound bags of rice, a Haitian staple. He speaks with pride about how the company got off the ground. “From there, knocking on doors, I was a sales person, I was a truck driver. We had a very small warehouse. That’s how Lakay came to be.”
A few Presidente and Bravo stores were early supporters, and little by little over the first year, they built up to more stores, more sales people, and more drivers. They diversified the rice products first, offering different sizes, then about a year later, they moved into beans, sardines, and mackerel.
A Strategic Approach
Dupuy thinks strategically. For example the government’s WIC program, a supplemental nutrition plan for women and children, allows for the purchase of 16-ounce packages of beans, so he made sure to have that specific size available, giving him access to the widest possible market.
The needs of the community inform his product offerings. In the beginning, his distribution strategy was local, and was laid out by trial and error. Today, Lakay Food products are available throughout the state of Florida, with additional distribution in Georgia, New Jersey, and New York. His footprint has grown significantly because he’s taken the time to get to know his customers, both the shoppers and the stores they buy from.
Some of the other secrets to his success are:
- Developing relationships with store managers and listening when they tell you what works for their customers. Recognizing how busy they are, and doing what you can to help them help you.
- Creating a game plan before you even set foot into a store. Seeing what they’ve bought before and pitching a few new products each time.
- Taking pride in your shelf space. Clean it, they notice.
- Picking up the flyer when you walk in, and seeing what your competitors are doing.
- Making sure to share your current promotions with the store manager.
- Walking the stores to see where there are gaps that you can fill. When your competitors are missing, there’s an opportunity for you to add more products and capture more shelf space.
A Grassroots Plan for Long Term Domination
His long-term goal is to reach beyond the Haitian community, but that’s his home, his grassroots, so that’s where he always starts. “I’m truly fascinated with our culture, I love our food. And who better to serve the Haitian community, or the Caribbean community, than another Haitian. I speak the language, understand the mentality, so that, in some way, has given us a big edge over competitors that have been around for many years before us. Being able to communicate with [our Haitian customers], find out exactly what their needs are. So this is still one of our focuses when we’re looking into entering new markets. I always try to look for the Haitian community, where they primarily shop, and from there I’ll start branching out. I’m trying to also diversify our products not solely for islanders or Haitians.”
As the company grows, it’s expanding to represent other Haitian brands as well. He hopes to do much more of that going forward. “I would love Lakay to eventually be the main distributor for any product coming from Haiti.”
Twelve years after he began driving his truck and knocking on doors, with only 25-pound bags of rice, Dupuy now leads a team of five sales reps, offering 60 Lakay branded products, as well as products from the other brands they represent. He maintains a group chat with his salespeople, offering daily motivations and reminders to stay sharp, but he appreciates how much they’ve taught him, too. “I have to give a lot of credit to the salespeople that we’ve had over the years. I have taken a lot of tips from all of them, all the good, so over the years it’s given a lot of polish to our strategy.”
Within the next 10 years Dupuy plans to grow into nationwide distribution, starting where the Haitian population resides, and expanding. And he’ll get there “little by little,” he says. “ Baby steps.”