If you’re like me, you know the story (or at least some of it) of Levi Roots, the appearance on Dragons’ Den, the Reggae Reggae Sauce, the cookbooks, the restaurant, and that’s about it. You may have picked up the odd little titbit elsewhere, but other than that, the overnight success that took nearly 50 years! – the rest was a mystery.
Earlier in July I had the pleasure of meeting him. He took us back to the beginning when he was a small boy growing up in Jamaica. His parents joined in the ‘Windrush’ and left their children behind to come to England for a better life. Once settled and working, every year they sent for one of Levi’s siblings, and every year he stayed behind with his beloved Grandma who taught him how to cook. At the age of 11, he, too, was sent for, and he’d never see his grandma, the woman who brought him up, again.
At school, he struggled. He couldn’t spell his own name at the age of 11. But he loved music and cookery lessons. Discovering Bob Marley led him to believe his future lay in music, though, eventually he realized that it wouldn’t be the career or pay the bills that he hoped it would be.
Thankfully, he had another passion, food, and it was a chance meeting at a food fair at the ExCeL Center that led to Levi’s appearance on Dragons’ Den. Two Dragons, Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh, invested in him for very different reasons. Farleigh believed in the sauce; Jones, the brand, Levi. Jones introduced Levi to Justin King, the CEO of Sainsbury’s, and spotted a gap in the market for Caribbean food, and capitalized on Levi’s TV appearance, ordered 750,000 bottles of sauce.
At this point, Levi was still making it at home to his grandma’s recipe, and he made 65 bottles per batch. Clearly, he’d need some help. Jones was instrumental in ensuring this order was met. Today, 10 years later, they remain friends. They even share an office in Knightsbridge. There are 50 products, 10 licenses, and 1 ‘Rastaraunt’ in the brand.
Asked if he’d change anything, Levi said he wished his beloved grandma had been alive to see his success. Success appears not to have changed Levi. He still lives in his flat in Brixton with his same friends. He just wears nicer suits. His one top tip, his one key piece of advice? Just be yourself.
Today, he spends his time going to primary schools, helping educate children about healthy eating. Worryingly, whilst they cannot all identify a tomato, they all know McDonald’s. Working with the Prince’s Trust, training youngsters how to cook at the Levi Roots Cookery School, he’s finalized his autobiography, put in the next products to add to his range, ice cream and porridge at top of the list, and enjoying having a full life with his passions: food, music, and family.
His favourite quote comes from Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, and he lives his life by taking the currents that come his way. A lesson for us all.
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the food, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Caesar, Act 4, Scene 3, 218 – 224.