Posted on Monday 17 October 2011 by Ulster Business
Levi Roots is a formidable character. Dressed in a smart Ozwald Boateng suit he displays the charm which makes it easy to see how he was able to win over two of the ‘dragons’ on the BBC entrepreneur programme Dragon’s Den.
Back in 2007, Levi went on the show with the idea to market his family recipe barbecue sauce, named Reggae Reggae sauce. He used his love of music to show his passion for the product and to his delight, received financial backing and support.
Four years on and Reggae Reggae sauce has become a multi-million pound business. The number one selling Caribbean brand in Britain, stocked by all the major supermarkets and with spin-offs with companies such as Domino’s Pizza and Subway, is big news.
He’s in Northern Ireland as guest speaker at an event organised by SIGNAL, the Economic Development Initiative for North Down. After the event I ask Levi how he would begin to describe his journey in the past four years.
“There’s a saying in Greek mythology that goes something like: On your journey there will be people and obstacles in the way and it’s tiring, but the end of that journey is just the beginning. That’s exactly how I would describe the last four years,” he says with a grin.
“I always thought something special was going to happen to me. I prepared myself for it. I remember in 1986 when I was enjoying a stay at ‘Her Majesty’s pleasure’ and I purposely made the effort to change my name (Keith Graham) from who I was before when I got in a lot of trouble. I realised that your name actually determines who you are and so I wanted to find out, who I was.
“I chose the name Levi because I needed to find out who I was and I knew something special would come to me. I just had to stand at the bus stop long enough and the bus would arrive.”
That ‘bus’ came in the shape of hit BBC programme Dragon’s Den. Prior to the show he’d been selling his sauce to friends and then at the Notting Hill Carnival for years, yet he couldn’t secure financial support to undertake his plans fully.
“It was very disheartening as I could see the plan and I could see the vision, everything was in my head, I had created the dream and it was so vivid in my mind, that this Levi Roots, who I am now, could do some real serious damage in business. But no one else could see this at all. It wasn’t until I ended up on Dragon’s Den that Peter Jones saw that picture as well. He didn’t see just one bottle of Reggae Reggae sauce, he saw a whole range of products and he gave me the opportunity to tell him about my dreams that I’d had for years before. He also gave me the help needed to set up my business without having to sell out,” the entrepreneur explains.
“I think a lot of people thought that a black Rastafarian going into the market with a reggae reggae sauce meant it was going to be localised, that I was going to stereotype myself and that it would be difficult to sell to ‘middle England’ and the mainstream.
“But I refused to believe that, I just think that you have to be yourself. If you don’t believe it don’t expect anyone else to believe it and I think that’s why people believed me when I said I didn’t want to sell out, I didn’t want to sell my integrity , that being at the forefront of what I was about. I’m a Rasta man.”
As someone who has built up a multi-million pound business from a family recipe sauce, what advice would Levi give to any would-be food entrepreneurs?
“The one key piece of advice I could give would be the one that I was lacking and that was planning – always plan long term. I think with social media and today’s society we are always told we can have everything now. You turn on the TV and you see your favourite celebrities and rappers lording it in some hotel with all the money and girls and you see the footballers wives and young girls think they’ll just marry a footballer, bypass all the hard work and get what they want. Young boys are the same and I was no different. But then I realised that you’ve got to have a plan, a long term plan, it can’t be just short term because you live today but what about tomorrow? You’ve got to plan for that tomorrow,” he says.
“There are so many good products out there. Nowadays everyone is trying to be the next Levi Roots from Dragon’s Den but what a lot of people don’t understand is it’s not the product that is Levi Roots, it’s the man himself and there is only one of me. What I’m saying is that you have got to be the best you that you can be and make the business about yourself as opposed to just the product,” he adds.
“When you build a brand you’re talking about long term future so people will always be looking for the next big thing but you have to work on yourself first.”