SOLO DELIVERY TRUCK (1964)
The trucks were Bedford cowl-and-chassis units, being fitted out with local bodies made of wood.
Aerated drinks have been made locally for a very long time since the 1870s when small carbonation plants made by Bratby and Hinchliffe of Manchester England became available in the Caribbean, being distributed by Alexander Russell of Georgetown, Demerara (now Guyana).
These were basically small hand-cranked dynamos which infused plain water with carbon dioxide in a swift and cheap manner, costing only 38 pounds to buy. Flavoured syrups –orange, cola and red- were added to create a variety of drinks. At the dawn on the 1900s in Trinidad, there were many smaller operators including McShine’s, Laing’s (closed in 1914) and the popular Serrao’s Cola Champagne. In outlying districts , large shops owned by Chinese merchants manufactured their own brews such as with the Austin family in Cedros and the Kongs in Siparia. The distribution of these drinks was largely confined to the locality of manufacture. Only Serrao’s and Cannings (the popular grocery store of Ernest Canning which also later acquired the rights to bottle Coca Cola) had true national networks with some exports to British Guiana and Tobago. In 1924, Sheik Mohammed Jaleel established a bottling plant on Keate St. in San Fernando which grew into a successful enterprise, parlaying the Red Spot brand throughout the Caribbean. This was the origin of SM Jaleel and Co., which is known today for its Cole Cold drinks among other beverages.
Another Indo Trinidadian to make his mark on soft drinks was Serjad Makmadeen who was born in 1910, one of eight children of a Punjabi indentured labourer. He moved with his parents from Icacos to Dibe outside Port of Spain in 1922. In order to help the family make ends meet, Serjad worked as a gardener and then as an assistant in a bakery in St. James where he was soon entrusted with sales, visiting customers with bread on a bicycle. He would at his own expense, add an extra loaf to clients who bought more than a dozen. He worked at the bakery into the 1930s when he used his savings along with a small loan from the hardware merchant Nagib Elias to purchase a hand-operated soft drink plant from Mrs. Bajnath of St. James , makers of the brand Delaware Punch. Serjad and his wife Khairoon ran the entire operation, washing old beer bottles and setting up a return policy . Orange and Cola Champagne were the first flavours. The red soft drink was particularly popular amongst the Indo Trinidadians who were always ready for “Lal-wallah”. The drinks were sold to his bread customers at the rate of about two cases a day. The plant was moved to his home at Patna St. In order to shield himself from the discrimination of colonial society and the business world, Serjad Makmadeen became Joseph Charles.
Another bottling plant was added and Charles became a fulltime soft drink maker. Bottles were an early problem and in short supply so when he read about a manufacturer in Canada about to close down, Charles bought all their bottles and shipped them to Trinidad . These were heavy glass bottles with the white-embossed image of a spaceman, and the brand was SOLO…..and thus a Trinidad brand was born. In 1949 the firm moved to Tragarete Rd. where an improved plant was installed with the capacity of 72 cases a day. Charles re-engineered the works himself and streamlined operations incredibly to up production to 144 cases. A nationwide distribution network was established with familiar red trucks leaving the plant at the crack of dawn. These were time-tried Bedford trucks from the UK purchased from Neal and Massy. A large number were simply “cowl and chassis” models which meant that rearward of the windshield , there was only a bare frame.These were fitted out with local wooden bodies which exposed the cases to view. They had no doors so delivery drivers and loaders had a “step on-step-off” speedy arrangement. Joseph Charles died in 1965 being succeeded by his eldest son, Vernon who in turn was bought out by his brother , Ken. Under the stewardship of Ken Charles, new brands came to the fore like the award-winning Apple J and the plant moved to the Churchill Roosevelt Highway. Ken Charles kept the dominant status of Solo in the market and moreover became famous in his own right as the owner/driver of the formidable line of powerboats, Mr Solo, which year in year out have been the terror of the Great Race. Hayden Charles, grandson of Joseph, is today at the helm of the company.
Serjad Makmadeen aka Joseph Charles
Like any young businessman on the brink of a breakthrough in the early 1930s, Makmadeen saved his money and by the age of 20 was thinking about his own business. He was able to accumulate the tidy sum of $350, borrowed another $250 from a friend and purchased a small soft drinks plant at St. James.
He became chief cook and bottle washer in real terms for he mixed the flavours, washed the bottles, filled them and was the sole salesman of the enterprise. This one-man operation worked well and he was able to produce almost two cases of drinks a day. But he worked manfully to achieve this and was still delivering bread to customers on the side.
When he decided to operate fully in the soft drink business he found out that an East Indian in those times attempting to breakthrough in such an enterprise had little chance of success. His first experience in that regard came when he was unable to get overseas information on that enterprise.
It was then he decided to change his name to Joseph Charles. This worked like a dream. He wrote overseas once more signing his new name and received the information he sought. It was all about plant operations and the then modern techniques that went with it.
The business was expanded with the purchase of a new plant with which Charles was able to produce eight bottles per minute. The war years of the 1940s were on and he struggled through with his efforts and by 1950 he bought property at the corner of Tragarete Road and White Street where a more modern plant was set up.
With the use of modern equipment from the United States, many facets being done automatically, the capacity increased to 72 bottles per minute and then to 144.
Charles’ personal efforts were remarkable. He worked for long hours and in the late 1960s brought in his two sons, Vernon and Ken, into the business as young executives.
It was all work and no play for Charles in those years as he sought further expansion. His first step was in 1959 when he moved the plant to the Beetham Highway, the first industry to be situated there.
New flavours were introduced and Solo beverages moved on challenging all others, even those which were the only ones the public seemed to recognize years before.
Joseph Charles remained a simple man even with success oozing out of his veins. He worked hard and kept, it seemed, just five close friends, all of them from boyhood.
But work took its toll and in 1966 he passed away, still a man many believed had enough in him to give to the community. On a plaque at the entrance of the Solo head office on the highway, is inscribed the words:
“In memory of Joseph Charles, whose kindness, generosity and service has only been exceeded by his humility. 1910 – 1966.”
Nothing, to be sure, is descriptively more emphatic than such a passage.
Serjad Makmadeen was born in Princes Town in 1910 and was the last of the eight children of Makmadeen, an immigrant from the Punjab, and his wife Rosalin Jamaria who hailed from Martinique.
When he was still quite young the family moved to Bellevue in St James, and he attended primary school up to the age of ten.
After this, economic circumstances forced him to leave school and he secured employment as “the gardener” at the large property known as Ellerslie in Maraval.
Life for young Serjad Makmadeen was extremely difficult.
Poverty stalked his existence.
Each morning he rose early and after his meagre breakfast of a cup of “cocoa tea” he walked across Long Circular Road to start the day’s work with only a short break for lunch which he had prepared and brought with him.
Serjad worked as a gardener until he was 13, when he got a job as a baker’s apprentice at the MI Bakery on Charlotte Street, in Port of Spain.
Soon he became involved in selling bread and cakes and would deliver his goods to customers on a bicycle.
To develop a large clientele, Serjad gave an extra loaf to anyone who had purchased more than 12 loaves, paying for this extra loaf out of his own pocket.
This allowed him to build up a substantial clientele in a short space of time and he soon became the bakery’s top salesman.
Having come from a situation of poverty, Serjad was determined to make a better way of life for himself.
He saved his small salary and began to look for opportunities of self-improvement.
In the thirties, whilst still working at the bakery, he learnt that one Mrs Bajnath had a small soft drink plant for sale in St James.
Having accumulated $350, Serjad borrowed $250 from his friend Nagib Elias, and bought Mrs Bajnath’s soft drink plant.
It was at this time that he got married to Khairoon Khan who worked with her husband in running the plant. Everything was done manually: She washed the bottles, boiled the syrup and hand filled the bottles, also adding the carbonated water and capping the bottles.
The plant produced one bottle of soft drink per minute.
Using old beer bottles, two flavours of soft drink were produced: Cola Champagne and Banana.
Serjad would make one or two cases of soft drinks per day after he finished work at the bakery, which he would take with him on his rounds the next day.
As he knew most of his customers well, he was able to convince them to buy his soft drinks.
The difficulty of an East Indian breaking into the soft drink business in a colonial society was evident from Serjad’s following experience.
When he first acquired the plant he wrote several times to various soft drink producers in England enquiring on how he could make improvements.
He got no replies.
It was evident by his name that he was not an Englishman but an East Indian so Serjad recognising this, changed his name to JOSEPH CHARLES, which quickly led to communication between himself and the hitherto silent producers.
Joseph Charles soon started to have a problem with the availability of bottles.
His clientele was growing and he could not get enough bottles to satisfy the demand.
Moreover he did not have sufficient capital to buy new bottles.
He read in a magazine that a soft drink factory in Montreal was closing down and its assets were up for sale. He realised that this would be the source of empty soft drink bottles, which he promptly bought and shipped to Trinidad.
The bottles, however, had a brand name “SOLO” and a logo – a pilot drinking from a bottle of soft drink presumably after a solo flight – stamped on them.
Joseph made the expedient decision to keep the brand that has been maintained to this day, along with the distinctive heavy glass Solo bottles.
This acquisition of the brand, which later gave birth to the popular catch phrase “A roti and a red Solo”, was one of those happy accidents which is a combination of outside influences, business decision-making and sheer good luck.
After the Second World War and with demand for his soft drinks, Joseph bought an additional plant from the Dugar Brothers in British Guiana and went into the soft drink business as a full time occupation.
He relocated his factory to the area under his house on Panka Lane, St James.
This plant was an improvement on the old one and had the capacity to produce eight bottles per minute.
By 1950, a new plant was set up at the corner of White Street and Tragarete Road opposite the Queen’s Park Oval with new equipment imported from the United States.
This plant produced 72 bottles of soft drink per minute.
During the decade of the 50s, Joseph Charles sought to consolidate his business.
He was forever striving for consistency in flavours and paying particular attention to cleanliness and quality.
At his new plant he now employed 20 workers including his two sons, Vernon and the younger Kenneth, who would go to the factory after school and at vacation time to assist and learn from their father.
Joseph worked long hours to develop his business, beginning at 4 o’clock in the morning and sometimes leaving the factory at 11 o’clock in the evening.
He now hired salesmen to sell his products and made sure that they left the factory at 4 a.m. so as to be the first to get to the customers.
Despite his limited formal education, he ensured that he knew how the plant operated and single handedly modified his factory so that it produced 144 bottles per minute.
At this time he introduced four new flavours: Cola, Grape, Cream Soda and Orange; added a shift system and increased his staff to 65 people.
By 1958, the White Street plant became too small for Solo to service its customers efficiently and Joseph Charles was able to secure a loan from the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce for $1.8 million and in January 1960 constructed a new state of the art factory in San Juan on the Churchill Roosevelt Highway.
The new plant and machinery were purchased from the United States and were fully automated.
In 1962 he introduced the still widely popular SOLO APPLE J.
Joseph Charles died in 1965 and is succeeded by his youngest son Kenneth and his family who now own and operate the company.
Like his father before him, Ken has continued to buy new technology to increase efficiency and productivity of the factory and it is now a fully computerised plant.
Joseph Charles Bottling Works is a popular and well liked company.
It is involved in many community activities and sponsors the steelband Solo Pan Knights as well as table tennis and badminton competitions.
It supports power boat racing, and “Mr Solo” is a regular and popular champion.
The highest accolade for any brand is affectionate reference to it in popular culture.
The Joseph Charles company has achieved this with two of its brands, “DOUBLES AND APPLE J” sung in calypso, and its slogan “A ROTI AND A RED SOLO” included in a rap.
When Miss Universe, Trinidadian Wendy Fitzwilliam said publicly that she missed her “ROTI AND RED SOLO”, she confirmed that the company first founded by Joseph Charles had truly entered the Caribbean heart.
Joseph Charles was a good family man and imparted sound values to his children.
He was self-taught, read a lot and mastered the mechanical workings of his plant.
He was a man of integrity and charity – always helping the poor in many ways, and sponsoring dinners for them at regular intervals.
He looked after his employees, often providing houses for many.
He shunned publicity and was a most humble person.
The Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Industry and Commerce is indeed honoured to induct Mr Joseph Charles into the Business Hall of Fame.