Want a dictionary definition of 'high-achiever'? Meet Ryan Black, a former NFL player and surfer who went on holiday to Brazil in his early 20s in search of waves and came back with the germ of a business idea that is now worth more than $100m in retail sales. And he still hasn’t hit 40… Elaine Watson caught up with him to talk about Sambazon, super fruits and social justice.
Today, so-called ‘super’ fruits - from the Amazon or anywhere else - barely raise an eyebrow if they appear on the menu at a smoothie bar or in a juice blend in your local store.
But wind the clock back just 13 years, when Sambazon founder Ryan Black first checked out the local cuisine on a holiday in Brazil, and açai berries were most definitely not on the menu in hip juice bars - or anywhere else in the US - he recalls.
“I first tried them in Brazil in an açai bowl, a frozen sorbet-like concoction. But while they were an overnight phenomenon in the south of Brazil, no one had heard of them in the US.
“But they tasted great, and as soon as I found out about their nutritional properties I knew they had the potential to be a global success.”
The Starbucks of açai bowls??
Initially, Black - armed with a degree in finance and business administration from the University of Colorado - envisaged building “the Starbucks of açai bowls”: a chain of juice bars specializing in his Amazonian super fruit.
However, he soon realized that he didn’t want to go into the restaurant/retail trade, and instead changed tack to focus on creating a wholesale distribution business supplying frozen açai puree to juice bars.
At first, Black bought in frozen açai puree from manufacturers in Brazil, and focused on building up a customer base in the US. He also sold retail packs to natural food stores targeting consumers making juices and smoothies at home in their blenders.
As sales started to surge, however, he began to look more closely at where the wild-harvested fruit he was buying was actually coming from, and found a complex, inefficient web containing multiple middlemen and no standards.
It soon became clear that the only way to ensure that everyone in the supply chain, particularly the farmers harvesting the berries, would get their fair share of any profits, was to get his hands dirty, stop relying on middlemen and build a vertically integrated operation, says Black.
“We wanted to have real transparency, to guarantee the origin of the berries, and certify the puree as organic and Fair Trade, so we had to build a direct relationship with the farmers.
“In 2005, we also built our own manufacturing facility in Brazil so we became completely vertically integrated.”
We’re not putting it in beer and shampoo
Things really took off in 2005/6 when the firm first introduced ready-to-drink beverages under the Sambazon brand and açai became a household name.
By this time, açai was established as a bona fide super fruit and retailer buyers were very receptive to new products in the juice aisle, says Black, who went on to develop a whole swath of açai -based consumer products from smoothies and powdered supplements to energy drinks, sorbets and smoothie packs.
In 2008/9, however, the berries became a victim of their own success, as con artists attempted to cash in on their super food status and market them as miracle weight loss pills.
And while a growing body of clinical evidence suggests the free-radical-scavenging berries can deliver exciting cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory and other benefits, they do not help you to lose weight, observes Black.
“Açai berries are the most nutritious of all the fruits coming out of the rain forest, with high levels of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, and the science behind the health benefits is getting stronger and stronger. But they are not a wonder potion that will make you lose weight.
“Overall sales of açai actually dropped after the diet pills were exposed as a hoax. However, our business kept growing as I think people saw that we have always under promised and over delivered when it comes to açai . We’re not putting it in beer and shampoo. We’ve always had integrity.”
He adds: “It’s taken a long time to re-educate people, but we have kept going while others have jumped in and then fallen out of the market. We were the first to market and the last man standing.”
How to outwork everybody else
But why has Black succeeded where so many other entrepreneurs have failed - especially in the fiendishly competitive beverage market?
Lots of reasons, speculates Black, who still maintains that running Sambazon “never felt like a job”.
A touch of serendipity, a phenomenal product, good people around him (chiefly his brother Jeremy and a clutch of mentors in the natural foods space) and the support of angel investors willing to support the business certainly helped, he says.
However, hard work and determination have also played their part, says Black, who reckons his years playing competitive football have also given him the edge in business.
“It taught me how to be relentless, how to go the extra mile, how to outwork everybody else.
"However, while you could say I’m married to the business, I do try and keep perspective. It is just a business, and it’s not who you are, it’s what you do.”