- September 1st, 2023
- in History
The Story of The Gunter Family & Sunny Caribbee Spice Company
On the occasion of its 40th anniversary this November, we look back on the pioneering artisanal spirit of Robert, Susan and Gregory Gunter, founders of Sunny Caribbee Spice Company; a BVI success story that sprouted from an entrepreneurial family’s zest for diverse island cultures and rich Caribbean flavours, with a history spanning three generations that is today still one of the Caribbean’s most iconic brands.
The story of Sunny Caribbee Spice Company actually begins in the Spring of 1972 when Americans Robert (Bob), Mary (Susan) Gunter and their three children Mark, Gregory and Lisa were invited by friends to sail through the Caribbean.
Starting out in St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the families chartered a Morgan Out-Island 41 and set sail for points south, island-hopping all the way to Grenada. It was there that they were first introduced to the world of Caribbean spice plantations, colourful outdoor fish and produce markets, exotic spice mixes, Caribbean basketry and local handmade crafts and traditionally distilled rum, made from sugar cane.
Bob remembers the farms of fresh produce in St. Vincent. They took notice of the abundance of peppers and pepper sauces throughout their voyage which would become a staple later on in their business, just as it was throughout the Caribbean. Chili peppers, one of the earliest domesticated indigenous plants in the region, was used for flavouring food and as an aid in curing illness. Susan especially couldn’t get enough of learning about (and burning her tongue on!) the different types of hot pepper sauce.
Eventually, they worked their way back up the island chain to the British Virgin Islands before returning the boat to St John.
“On every island we visited we were exposed to the beautiful produce, spices, basketry and handicrafts of the Caribbean” says Bob. “It was an unforgettable trip for our family” he continues.
The following year, Susan suggested they visit Tortola again as it was one of her favourite stops on their previous trip. Bob reserved a room at Long Bay Resort and after they arrived Susan suggested they have a look at some real estate. Local agent Pam Romney said she had the perfect little West Indian style house for them and sure enough the couple fell in love with it. “The house was poured concrete with a flat roof and a giant guinep tree in the middle”
Bob remembers. “We called it Villa Santa Ana”.
They made a few additions and in 1981 upon completion of the house, Bob said “Susan, this is such a beautiful place – we’re going to want to spend more time here. But we need something to occupy us, otherwise we will just sit under a palm tree and drink rum all day!”
Susan said she had been thinking about all the spices and handicrafts from their Caribbean sailing trip so suggested they start a business producing spices, sauces, seasonings and craft work for BVI tourists.
Bob and Susan met with the Chief Minister at the time, the late Hamilton Lavity Stoutt, who agreed that the couple’s idea was excellent and issued them with a Trade License. “But there is one thing missing, do you have a name for your business?” he said.
When Bob and Susan were on the small 7-square mile outpost of Bequia, one of the islands in the Grenadines, they visited a sweet little West Indian hotel called Sunny Caribbee – and so they borrowed the name for their new spice company.
The couple were soon joined by their son Greg, who worked in the culinary and hospitality industries, first in Maine and then in Florida, until 1981, when he moved to Tortola. Greg’s love of music and the guitar would continue to be a big part of his life in the British Virgin Islands.
Greg became General Manager, Bob was Business Manager and Susan was Designer, Product Developer and Artist-In-Residence. The trio began with one part-time employee, the Gunter’s housekeeper.
According to Susan’s blog “We burnt our tongues tasting and perpetually exuded an aroma of exotic, tropical fragrances”. At their home the Gunters experimented with numerous island-inspired concoctions.
She goes on to write that “Villa Santa Ana was a production centre for Spicy (or “Spicee”) Catsup (another name for Ketchup), Rum Peppers and Pure Vanilla”.
Sunny Caribbee Spice Company officially opened in November 1983 in Raffy Stoutt’s Cosy Inn building near Road Town’s ‹big roundabout’.
At that time, Road Town was still very much an agricultural community, trading goods with the US Virgin Islands and tourism was on the rise. Susan’s blog continues “The big roundabout was the location of an open-air fish market where cows, donkeys, chickens, horses, goats and other wildlife made a daily parade through town”.
The first product range for Sunny Caribbee consisted of a collection of various seasonings, spices, bush and flavoured teas, sauces and craft items, sourced throughout the Caribbean and the BVI, packaged and branded for market featuring the iconic West Indian house with a red tin roof. Real Estate agent Maritha Keil fondly remembers drawing their first logo for them.
In the early 1980s Greg met Ruth Theresia (“Tessa”) Olsson who founded the BVI Humane Society which was her life’s work. Tessa and Greg married and in 1986 welcomed their beloved daughter Jocelyn Maria “Baby Spice” Gunter.
In the same year, the Sunny Caribbee Store which had outgrown the little space at Raffy Stoutt’s moved to H.R. Penn’s ‘Social Inn’ on Old Main Street (the first guesthouse on Tortola). It was a quaint little West Indian building that the team called the ”Spice Factory”.
In another of Susan’s blog posts she says “Coincidentally, the Social Inn closely resembles Sunny Caribbee’s logo and has a long and storied history vividly described by Martha Gellhorn (third wife of Ernest Hemingway) in her book Travels with Myself and Another”.
Sunny Caribbee was a must-see for tourists looking for authentic gifts and keepsakes from the BVI and was also popular with local foodies. From the beginning, their all-purpose Herb Pepper Blend Seasoning, a mixture of ground black pepper, onion, garlic, dill, sage and other (secret) ingredients was the best-seller.
In her Sunny Caribbee 30th Anniversary blog post from November 2013, Susan says: “Customers could come in and choose from some 80 different herbs, spices and teas, all sold by the scoop-size. A variety of hot sauces, from mild to ‹off the chart’ heat, formed the beginning of our continually expanding range of condiments and marinades”.
Originating from Susan’s notes, she created the Sunny Caribbee Recipe Booklet labeled Private & Confidential. The booklet, in Susan’s original handwriting and with many iterations and additional notes, was the recipe guideline by which the staff would mix and create the entire product range. It still survives today.
In the mid-1990s, the adjoining Sunny Caribbee Art Gallery opened. It offered the finest arts and crafts available from artists all over the Caribbean. Regional artists Lisa Etre and Karl Merklein produced works that are, today, still synonymous Sunny Caribbee, many of which Greg had reproduced on greeting cards, placemats, coasters and other Caribbean keepsakes.
Bob and Susan spent a great deal of time in Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic visiting artists and craftsmen who produced work especially for Sunny Caribbee.
“We would visit the artists in their galleries or homes and pay them directly for their work, rather than selling on consignment,” said Bob. “This meant they received the money immediately and could continue to produce more beautiful work, that we would purchase” he continues.
Sunny Caribbee Art Gallery proudly sold traditional hand weaved baskets by Mr. Darvin “The Gun” Scatliffe. Bob remembers him fondly as a good friend and a talented musician who played in a Fungi band. He also owned “Guns and Chicken” Bar in Huntums Ghut where some of his baskets hung at the entrance.
Susan by all accounts was a renaissance woman – an artist, innovator, chef, decorator, not to mention a loving wife and mother. She even wrote a cookbook, that has sold tens of thousands of copies and is still available online today, called Sunshine Style: A Sunny Caribbee Cookbook for Sunny Climes and Limin’ Times.
Over the years, numerous other products were developed such as the Sunsations line of fragrances, cosmetic products and natural soaps. Susan outlines in her blog that a number of the products were “credited to the fine cooks (staff) at Sunny Caribbee”.
Longtime staff member Bernadette Athanaze says that by 1993 when she began working for Sunny Caribbee, Susan and another staff member had designed a beautiful mail order catalogue. The demand for their products overseas was building as visitors took home their spice mixes and became true addicts of their recipes.
The Gunters were ahead of their time on Tortola when it came to e-commerce with worldwide distribution that began with this mail order catalogue when the internet was in its infancy. Hence, they were some of the earliest adopters of the world-wide-web in the BVI and were soon selling their products online.
Susan’s 30th anniversary post goes on to say that “there were ongoing adventures, challenges, misadventures, shipping problems, comedy and mishaps. One entails a shipment of nutmeg that arrived with bullet holes in the bags…….!”
Meanwhile, the third generation – Jocelyn, grew up and after completing her college education in the United States, returned to the BVI and trained in the business under her father, Greg.
With Bob and Susan growing older and now spending most of their time in the U.S., Jocelyn was destined to take over the business. After hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and not long after, the untimely death of her father Greg, Jocelyn picked up the pieces of the Sunny Caribbee operation and began putting it back together.
Sunny Caribbee Spice Company is today preserved by Annie MacPhail, the custodian of the brand and gate-keeper of the secret recipes, bringing Sunny Caribbee to the next generation and into its fourth decade.
“It’s my job to keep the company relevant for the grandchildren of the original Sunny Caribbee fans” she says.
“I can only do that thanks to Jocelyn and some of the original staff members such as Bernadette Athanaze and Walter Hall by my side.” she continues. “I am carefully and gently curating the process of updating for a new e-commerce and social media environment, while keeping the original Caribbean look and feel completely intact.”
To that end, Sunny Caribbee Spice Company will be moving back to Road Town on 1 November and into another historical building on the western side, right on Waterfront Drive. Look for them at Arosa House, one of Road Town’s original West Indian houses: complete with a red tin roof, coconut and banana trees in the garden and little front step, where the sun will be shining over their shoulder, just like the original logo from 40 years ago. •