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Why acai? Ask the Sambazon guys

By Marc Gunther
Posted: November 25, 2010

Jeremy and Ryan Black, with acai

Sometimes, for an entrepreneur, not knowing what you are getting into is a blessing.

If brothers Jeremy and Ryan Black had known what they were up against back in 2000 when they started Sambazon, a company that makes juices, sorbet and smoothie packs from tiny purple berries that grow in the Amazon forests of Brazil, they might not have bothered.

Few Americans then had heard of acai, or knew how to pronounce it. (It’s ah-sigh-ee.) The little berries from tall skinny palm trees can be harvested only once a year, they must be frozen right away to retain freshness and then shipped to the U.S. It’s a cash business, so importers must pay farmers long before the products are sold. And who, for goodness sakes, would sell them?

Harvesting acai

Nor did Jeremy or Ryan know much about the food business. Jeremy, the older bro, who’s now 37, was a financial planner. Ryan, who’s 35, was pursuing a professional football career as a defensive back, hoping to get to the NFL, after a season in the European football league.

All they knew was one thing. “Acai is amazing,” says Jeremy. And they had an idea that if they could figure out how to turn acai into a real business, they could not only do well for themselves but do some good for farmers in the Amazon. Says Ryan: “If this berry became a household word, it could be a really strong force for sustainability in the Amazon.”

It’s taken the Sambazon guys a decade, but things are looking up these days for their company. The No. 1 producer of organic acai, Sambazon doesn’t disclose sales–they were reported at $25 million in 2008–but the company says it is profitable. It employs about 150 people, half of them based in Brazil. You can find its products not only at smoothie bars and Whole Foods, but at mainstream retailers like Safeway and Giant. And the investors in the privately-held company include savvy food guys like Steve Demos, who founded White Wave and put Silk soy milk on supermarket shelves, and Gary Hirshberg, the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms. They also secured investments from Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that’s intended to support sustainable livelihoods in the developing world, and from the EcoEnterprises fund run by The Nature Conservancy.

It all began with a turn-of-the-millenium surfing trip to Brazil by Ryan and a friend, Ed Nichols, the third co-founder of the firm. They tried acai in frozen form with some local surfers. “We had a purple slushy bowl of goodness, and it gave you a bit of a buzz,” Ryan told me during a video chat over Skype. They returned to Brazil the following summer, visited the Amazon, and eventually raised $50,000 to buy and ship a container of frozen acai back to California. The distribution plan was simplicity itself, said Jeremy: “Let’s go find every juice bar in California and go door-to-door.” They thought about opening their own chain of acai smoothie bars.

Much of what they’ve accomplished since then has happened behind the scenes. They were the first to sponsor USDA organic certification for acai and got their supply chain certified as Fair Trade. They worked with WWF Brazil and other NGOs to make sure that the berries were harvested sustainably, and that farmers (who had been separated from markets by middlemen) were fairly paid. They built a factory in Amapa, Brazil, that today buys berries from more than 10,000 independent family growers, Ryan told me.

Because the company was always cash-short, Sambazon relied mostly on in-store giveaways and word-of-mouth marketing to expose the product to customers. They toured with musicians, and won friends in the surfing and skateboarding communities of southern California, where the company is based. Today, they have a group of “brand ambassadors” known as Team Sambazon that includes world-class surfer Rob Machado, NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez, beach volleyball star Holly McPeak, and singer Brett Dennen.

Their success has brought competition, some of it unsavory. You can find all kinds of outrageous health claims for acai on the Internet. The Sambazon website makes more modest claims:

Laboratory tests show that açaí is a rich source of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are the same phytochemicals that provide the healthy benefits of red wine. Analysis also shows that açaí is packed with unsaturated healthy fats that have a fatty acid ratio similar to olive oil, which is considered to be a contributing factor to the low incidence of heart disease in Mediterranean populations.

…So simply put, açaí combines the best of the Mediterranean and French diets by having more antioxidants than red wine and an essential fatty acid profile similar to olive oil.

Worse, according to Ryan and Jeremy, some competitors market acai drinks that contain very little acai. Sambazon’s website says that its Sambazon Original™ Juice contains twice as much acai as its next competitor. “We knew we’d have competition, and that’s fine,” Jeremy said, but he’s concerned that the acai industry not be tainted by others’ false claims.

I first tasted acai during my visit to the Amazon last summer. It’s delicious. Since meeting Jeremy at Greenfest in Washington, D.C., I’ve become a fan of Sambazon’s smoothie packs and sorbet. I don’t know if acai (or anything else) can rightly claim to be a superfood, but I have no doubt that the Sambazon guys are trying to align their business with goal of a sustainable Amazon.