Levi Roots: From food markets to selling out Sainsbury's, the man behind Reggae Reggae Sauce reflects over a decade of success
Businessman, rastafarian, singer-songwriter, Reggae Reggae Sauce creator, Dragon pursuer…
Levi Roots has so many personalities, you would be forgiven for not knowing which box to put him in.
From London’s streets to selling out Sainsbury’s - Levi Roots reflects on over a decade of Reggae Reggae Sauce success But here’s the thing: it’s impossible to do so.
Levi - born Keith Valentine Graham in Jamaica, 1958 - may be a 59-year-old entrepreneur and hugely successful businessman, but he is also a father and singer that has fused his love of food and music together to create a product that has brought him great success.
On Friday January 26, he was a speaker and panelist at the North East LEP event in Newcastle. And in true Levi style, he introduced himself on stage by bellowing out his famous Reggae Reggae Sauce song.
When Bdaily caught up with him after the event (or performance, you might say) - launching the Scaleup North East programme helping regional businesses gain more potential - we realised Levi is everything you imagine him to be in person.
His hair was in true Jamaican dreadlocks; his style was smart but held an air of eccentricity. A wine-coloured suit was accessorised with a funky, paisley tie whilst thick rings and chains jangled heavily from his fingers and wrists.
With a heavy Jamaican accent, he sits with us to chat all about his incredibly successful business venture - from past, present to future.
So, how did it all begin? Well, Levi began selling his famous sauce at Notting Hill Carnival, London, in the early 1990s. He had moved from his hometown of Clarendon, Jamaica when he was just 11-years-old.
Previously, he had been raised by his grandmother while his parents lived in London. You could say Levi’s grandmother was the making of his success: “The original recipe was my grandmother’s, it was what I based my version on. Her’s was very hot!”
He laughs: “I knew that people [in the UK] couldn’t take that kind of spice - they just wanted the flavour.”
Evidently far too hot for an international market - I imagine it to be like the Jamaican equivalent of wasabi, and start sweating just thinking about it - Levi turned the sauce down a notch but kept its original Caribbean flavours.
In doing so, he attracted quite an audience at the Notting Hill Carnival, and after many years of selling his product at this annual event, a chance encounter at a food trade show would change his life indefinitely.
A BBC producer spotted him, and became the catalyst of his success. They wanted him to apply for Dragons’ Den, but Levi didn’t want anything to do with it: “I refused to look it up.
“I had never seen the show and I didn’t know you had to pitch to, like, Peter Jones! Then afterwards [when it aired], I said I don’t want to see any clips.”
But all of us know how Levi’s pitch turned out, right? Winning over Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh with his Reggae Reggae Sauce song made him admirable. Jones and Farleigh fell for not only his product, but his persona.
And that’s one of the key ingredients that Levi credits in making a successful business: “My mentor told me: ‘Don’t sell the sauce, sell you.’”
By showcasing his identity, he sold his two passions, food and music, and turned himself into a businessman with a personality.
After receiving £50k from the two Dragons, the next tricky thing was having it stocked in Sainsbury’s: “Getting that first order was tough, massive.
“I was still making [the sauce] in my kitchen! At the time, I knew Justin King [former CEO of Sainsbury’s], the most important man in business, was not going to wait!”
Levi had to go from making around 65 bottles of Reggae Reggae Sauce in his kitchen with his kids per day, to 250k bottles in bulk “pronto” to be stocked at the supermarket chain. How did he do it?
“It’s all about shelf space, and for them to put Reggae Reggae Sauce in the eyeline, they had to take something off. It was a big challenge. The buyer said it wouldn’t last more than six months, a fad… But that was 11 years ago!”
And in that time, Levi proved his worth by beating one of the top players in the game: Heinz Tomato Ketchup. His sauce sold out in Sainsbury’s within three weeks and beat all of its competitors.
Now some of you may be wondering, wouldn’t the taste be a little worse off due to the amount needed? Levi swallowed his pride for this one: “If you don’t accept it, you’re going to have problems with your business. I knew that and I was quite comfortable with that.
“But it was difficult. I was worried our people were going to notice the difference but they didn’t - it came out perfectly!”
Levi’s story is still told to this day, 11 years later. He admits he is incredibly humbled to have gotten this far, to be able to go to schools and universities teaching future generations all about business and entrepreneurship.
We did have to ask though: “Why did you market your products under Levi Roots and not your real name?” To which he laughs and jokingly replies: “I could never see someone saying: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, can I introduce you to Keith!’
But jokes aside, the reason is a rather personal one: “I read that 99 per cent of Jamaicans have Scottish names because of slavery - you just took the name of your master.
“I came up with the name Levi so I felt comfortable in my own skin. It’s an identity, a brand from my years in music. It started when I left school. I never felt comfortable being Keith.”
Despite the name change, Levi is himself through and through - he says that’s all you have to be to find success.
Now, he can boast eight books and counting, a music career, successful adverts and even his very own ‘Rastarants’ (his words, honest) serving traditional Caribbean dishes.
The first opened in London two years ago and, you never know, the North East might even get its own dosage: “I like Newcastle! A rastarant might be here soon,” he laughs: “That’s the next focus - a chain of Caribbean restaurants up and down the country.”
And if you’re wondering if Levi gets to travel back to his native country often: “I do! I always go back for inspiration. When you’re looking to pick something out of the air. that’s floating around. You have to be in a good place to find it.”
You can catch Levi Roots on the BBC’s new season of Death in Paradise, airing now.
The Scaleup North East event, in Newcastle, was held on Friday January 26. The programme works with businesses that demonstrate potential and desire to achieve considerable growth by 2021.
The Scaleup Programme is led by the needs of a person’s business; mentors invest time and resources into helping businesses to expands and grow. More information can be found here.