IN CONVERSATION with levi roots
Levi Roots is one of the most remarkable stories and it was such an honour to have the opportunity to visit his ‘Rastaurant’ and have this wonderful conversation spanning from his childhood and how his Grandmother shaped many of his experiences to future plans and goals.
Thank you so much for having me. I have been following your journey for some time now, so it would be great to take a step back and find out more about younger Levi Roots. Where did it all begin?
Thank you very much for being here. Well, I came to the UK when I was around 12 years old and couldn’t read or write. It was a complicated reality for me, going straight into secondary school at a lower educational level than my peers. I couldn’t even spell my first name, which only has five letters, so you can just imagine. I went into a school where everyone else was ahead of me, they had already completed primary school, and I guess, the typical educational route before moving into secondary school. However, I didn’t go to school at all before then, the only thing I knew, was how to cook. I knew a lot about food!
I knew all the different names of seasonings, mangoes, yams and how to cook curry goat; anything to do with food and music, I knew it. It all stemmed from my Grandmother, she was also a great singer who sang in our local Baptist Church.
I have such fond memories of standing right next to her and singing along while she sang, and I think everyone noticed that I had an ok voice from a young age, which leads to spending a lot of time in Church. As you can see, honestly, it was a journey that has my Grandmother sprinkled all over it; she taught me a lot about food, the music of her background and that was all I knew when I came to England, so it was very complicated.
Plus, I had never encountered snow or cold weather before, along with never having seen a White person or instead ever seeing someone as White. There was only one White person I had ever met in my entire life up to that point, and the funny thing was, I never saw him as a White person. He was from Jamaica, and he was a part of our family. I knew he was a lighter skinned elderly man, but I didn’t consider or even grasp that he was White until I came to the UK. My experience of racism came pretty much straight away, which was a shock to my system. There were always children chasing me after school, and this was about six or seven months after starting. My eyes really widened to the struggle at the time, and I truly realised that I wasn’t at home anymore. Also, the change of not seeing fruit on the trees, because in Jamaica there were fruit trees everywhere—that was a culture shock. Even the birds that I could shoot and eat in Jamaica, in England, I didn’t want to shoot and eat the pigeons.
It was like a nightmare, and I wanted to crawl right back under my Grandmothers arms or frock-tail, as we call it in Jamaica. I was so small out of all my siblings, they knew me as the one who would always cling to Grandma. So, I wanted to crawl right back there to be with her you know? Even after three years, I could not get that I was away from this beautiful place I knew as a child. It was all a tremendous learning curve for me, a lot of new experiences.
It sounds as though you were having to create a new normal for yourself.
Yes, a lot like a baby being born, you have the safety of being in your mother’s womb, then suddenly you’re propelled out into a world where you are seeing and going through things you’re not used to. Moving from this little place in Jamaica called Content to the UK was mind-blowing.
That was an intriguing transition from one country to another. After settling in and getting used to your new home, where do you think your interest in entrepreneurialism came from?
I think it came from my parents. They inspired me because my Mum and Dad had left Jamaica in their late 20s, leaving six children and within a few years having to get jobs and buy a house for us to live in. It was an enormous task because most people spend almost an entire lifetime trying to buy a property and our parents did it in such a short space of time, having not been in the UK for long.
They could then have us here one at a time, educate, clothe and feed us, that is very inspirational to me. They both had a drive that stuck with me growing up. Although I didn’t have a great time with my Dad, seeing how hard my Mother worked, having two to three jobs to keep things above water gave me the drive I needed when I found myself.
When I was in school, I kept wondering how I could ever repay her and my only thought at the time was music. I wanted to use music to compensate her for all the love and protection she gave me.
So, my entrepreneurial skills really came through because I wanted to do well for her. And I always wanted to succeed with my music. When I was with Coxsone Sound, and we went somewhere to play, I would head home and gift her something straight away, it was just the most beautiful thing to me. And now, I buy her much bigger things compared to those days.
How do you think it feels for her, to look at her youngest son, knowing he has achieved so much?
All I talk about are my Mum and my Grandmother and to even summarise how she feels, is honestly a matter of seeing her. I think anyone who sees and knows my Mum will know how proud she is, that she has had 6 children and yet, the one most people thought would not have amounted to much made it through. I was the kid who didn’t look as handsome as his siblings; I would wet my bed until well into my teens, everything was just wrong with me, yet she stood by me and protected me. So, I wanted to do well for her, and now I thoroughly enjoy seeing her smile. She is the happiest woman in Brixton— honestly, I can say that; she is!
I know you still live in Brixton after all these years. Why was it important to you to remain there?
People will always find something to keep them grounded, and it’s those who don’t, that you’ll see next year and say, I thought you were doing well? You should always have something to keep you on the ground and stop you from floating off. And you’ve got to find a reason to be, and I think Brixton is my reason to do that. I can’t walk around like a celebrity in Brixton haha! They’ve known me for a long time, I cannot do that. I walk the streets in Brixton like everyone else and actually, it feels incredible to do that every day. It took me about eight years before I bought a decent car to drive because I didn’t want to drive around seeming to show off or anything of the sort.
Even though I feel they would probably have forgiven me for behaving like the typical expectation of idea of a celebrity, I didn’t want to take advantage of the place that has been home. Whenever I go anywhere, however posh it may be, I am always itching to get back to this little place called Brixton and face these fantastic people who know the real Levi. The Levi that’s not this entrepreneur and celebrity that most people see. In Brixton, I am still the guy from Coxsone Sound who used to sing, and they love me because of my connection to music. I think it’s how I’ve kept myself grounded.
You have a lot of compassion and exercise a lot of mindfulness towards the people you grew up with.
Yes, it’s the sincerest thing about everything. It goes back to when people would ask me why I took the guitar into the Dragons Den—as no one has ever sung during their pitch, there has always been a format.
So, they expected me to follow the format and stick to the old faithful and right way of doing things, but I wanted to change things completely. I had to be myself, and you have to be you! It’s much more problematic for you to pretend or try to do something you’re not used to—your body will cry out for you to be you.
I had to go as myself, the grounded, rastaman from Brixton who sings, the Levi Roots who so many people loved, and mainstream people did not know. I wanted mainstream people to get to see the rastaman from Brixton, and that’s why I went into the den as myself. I wanted Peter Jones and all the other Dragons to invest in this man, not the sauce. I didn’t want that form of investment; I wanted investment into the Levi Roots brand, which I am lucky enough to have had.
What influenced your decision to go into the Den?
I was actually just trying to increase the market for my brand and after discovering I was onto something due to many years of selling at the carnival; I realised that there was a market that wanted my sauce more than once a year. After around 18 years, I finally accepted that they were prepared to buy my sauce, I finally spotted that I had a business opportunity. This realisation made me believe my sauce could go beyond just Brixton, it could go nationwide because my customers at the carnival were not just people from Brixton, they were from all over the world.
I was hopeful that Dragons Den would really propel things and introduce more people to what I have been passionate about for so many years.
You’re one of the most successful Slayers from the Den, but how has your relationship been with Peter Jones and Richard Farley?
When we talk about investment, again, we have to look at whether it was in Levi Roots or Reggae Reggae Sauce? That was the biggest question of all, and I believe Richard Farley invested in Reggae Reggae Sauce whereas Peter Jones invested in Levi Roots.
Soon after Dragons Den was through, I was lucky enough to repurchase my shares from Richard, which was always in my original plan. That was just 18 months after the show, and now it’s about 12 years since, and Peter and I still have a great relationship. He is not just a business partner, he’s also a mentor and a great
friend. He is not just a business partner, he’s also a mentor and a great friend of mine. Honestly, if you can find that in business, it will create a recipe for long-term relationships and success.
Talking about mentoring, you do a lot with young people – why is it so important to you to give back so much of your time and expertise?
That’s an easy one! They were the ones buying my sauce; it was young people who saw me on Dragons Den and thought it was so cool to see me on tv! They saw me as this cool guy with dreadlocks and a guitar singing in the Den, which was unheard of! It inspired so many young people that they celebrated me from them on—they have been buying my sauce for a long time now.
I wanted to give back to those young people. I wanted to go straight into schools after leaving the Den, right where all the young people are, who celebrated and still celebrate me. It has been such a wonderful experience for me over the years; it is the most enjoyable thing I get to do. I don’t get paid for it, but it is the biggest thing in my diary because I enjoy it the most. It’s called the School of Life Tour, I also have a prison tour, because I’d spent a lot of my younger years at Her Majesty’s pleasure. So, I wanted to show young people though they may be in there now, there are still opportunities if they focus while they’re there on finding the best of yourselves. Then come out and do well, because that’s what I did, so I take time to go back and show them that if I can, then they can also do the same.
Thinking back to when I first came to the UK, I like to explain to them that their life is nothing like mine was; it is undoubtedly not as steep, so if I can pick myself up, against all the odds and do this, they can too.
Both my school and prison tours are essential for me every year—I miss none of them!
What tips would you like to share with young entrepreneurs?
There are so many tips I want to share, but it’s important to tell all young entrepreneurs to just stick with it.
I think when I finally looked into things and went out on the street to get to know my market, that’s when things clicked for me. Yes, I had a lot of confidence, but selling a product is a different story. I took my time to take notice of my customers and built relationships with them. Young entrepreneurs need to get outside and open conversations and also ask themselves; who wants to buy my product? And why are they buying it?
It took many years of building my brand for me get there, so my number one tip is to get to know your market.
My second tip is to think long-term because once you know your market, you can build a growth strategy. I come from the side of town where nobody likes to think long term, it’s a world of hustling and short-term profits. Quick transactions, in the way of, you sell something today, and by tomorrow or even later that day it’s being used to purchase something that has nothing to do with reinvesting in the business. Which doesn’t really take you anywhere, you end up having a lot of money, that only lasts a moment—that was my background.
But, when I really got into the business, I learnt that I would not see a profit for a long time, because I had to build the company first, that is why my second advice will always be about long-term focus and long-term thinking. If you go into business thinking, you will make a quick buck, that is not entrepreneurship. See it from the process of planting a seed and feeding it until it bears fruit. Space in-between planting the seed and reaping the fruit, go through that and be comfortable with it—you have to want to hang around and wait for your investment to turn into profit.
Now, my third and most important advice is that you have to love it! Do something you find inspiring. We all know sometimes we end up in jobs we don’t particularly like, just because we have to pay the bills, but in business, don’t do that. I’d say instead choose a job where you may have to do that, but not in business!
Even if you start off being obsessed with your business and over time you lose interest, but it makes a lot of money, and you need to keep going. Don’t go into your office every day sulking, instead, find something within your business to get excited about. Create new concepts within your existing business model and enjoy it!
I wasn’t making any money when I first started out. Especially when I was travelling around trying to sell my sauce. I would pay £100 to get into an event to exhibit and trade, but I’d sometimes leave having sold eight sauces, and even though it was a loss, I still left smiling and excited for the next one. I was doing it, and that’s all that mattered. I was planting seeds and building familiarity with my brand. I still enjoy going out on the road and connecting with my customers to this day.
I kept going until Sainsbury's got in touch and ordered a quarter a million bottles of Reggae Reggae Sauce and the rest history. But to keep my focus until I got to that point, it was pure love for what I was doing and sticking at it, through the failures.
Tell me about the production process when Sainsbury's came onboard. How did you transition from making sauces at home to manufacturing thousands?
That was the most challenging aspect of the entire thing, the change from making sauces in my kitchen to manufacturing for Sainsbury's. Coming from a Caribbean person, I really dislike change. I don’t want to call the curry goat, goat curry—I love things the way I am used to them. But, I realised as an entrepreneur you have to like change, actually, you have to enjoy it and learn to pivot.
When I used to make my sauce at home with my children, we made 67 bottles, from every batch. That was the perfect recipe, and I know that number so well because I have been making it for a long time. But, when Sainsbury's made such a large order, I knew there was no way I could have said: “no Sainsburys, wait a few years for me to get a factory together to make that many bottles of Reggae Reggae Sauce.” I had to think fast to fill that order—I had to fill that order! That was a challenging thing because I knew I would have to change the way I made the sauce. I would no longer have the experience of my children crying while peeling every onion and cutting every pepper, it was so personal to make 67 bottles and there I was getting ready to make a quarter of a million.
The science is also different, and I had to be comfortable with that, it wasn’t easy to see my Grandmother's recipe change. But I had to ask myself whether I wanted to hold on to this secret forever and watch it go nowhere, or did I want to change things slightly and watch it move and grow to where my family didn’t have to worry about anything ever again?
The answer was simple! I was prepared to change to experience growth, and in all honesty, the sauces I am selling right now are not much different from the original recipe.
How do you think your children feel now having seen your growth from the very beginning?
It’s been fantastic actually, but in the beginning, my children didn’t want me to do Dragons Den, they thought it would be embarrassing. Not just for myself, but for them as well haha!
I can imagine they were thinking how on earth could my Dad go on to TV, on a show about business and entrepreneurship and he’s singing a silly song about Reggae Reggae Sauce? No!
But, I wanted to prove that they can go out in the world and be themselves while succeeding at their passion. And that no matter who I was, my children needed to be accepting of me and my love for food, cooking and singing. It was definitely an ambitious statement, but I think it worked! They knew me and knew I would always take something negative and turn it into something positive. I think they were just trying to be protective of me, because looking at it, they were right, I could have become a failure in the den, with a song
to go with it. Everything would have gone down the drain, my brand and music career all in one.
Though, if you ask them now if I should have gone on Dragons Den, you would definitely get a roaring yes and comments about how I slew the Dragons!
I love your mindset and view on life. How do you maintain such steady focus and drive? Do you have any methods?
In short, find the best version of yourself—find the best you!
I’m not saying you will wake up tomorrow and have the same outlook on life as I do, or someone will wake up and have the same talent you have for reporting as you’re making me feel extremely relaxed at the moment haha! I’m saying that everyone needs to be the best version of themselves, no one else. And further, I’m not saying you should strive to be better than anyone else. It’s like athletes, the only thing they need to focus on is getting their PB. They’re not told to break the world record from the start; instead, an athlete is advised to get better and better at beating him or herself, not challenge the next person.
That’s why I’m continuously telling young entrepreneurs to be themselves, beat their personal best and keep on doing that!
Personally, I have had to do a lot of climbing, and I climbed until I became the best Levi Roots I could be because I realised in all my failures, I wasn’t good enough and kept going at it. I went through a lot of those low moments as Keith and came out Levi Roots, the one that gained investment from Peter Jones.
What plans do you have for the future, that you’re excited about? Any new restaurants?
Well, first it’s not a restaurant, it’s a rastaurant haha!
For me, there is scope and intention to do more of this, you know? I am working on expanding my brand as I have been focused on the UK, so lots of plans to expand overseas. Even though my brand can be found all over the world, I want to nail down a commanding presence and distribution partnerships across the globe. I really want to see my brand in America, both the sauces and my rastaurants, I’ve just scratched the surface for Caribbean food, because we’ve still only just arrived!
And a quick question about your acting debut, what was it like playing someone else?
Haha, I love that—good question!
I have just shared my journey of becoming myself, and there I was playing someone else for the first time. I played Billy Springer, and I felt like Billy Springer. It was actually a great experience getting to play someone else and experiencing acting—and now; I have the bug to do more.
I would love to do it properly like everything else. So, first I’d like to take some acting lessons and learn the trade more before I go out there and make a fool of myself haha! So, lots of learning and then I’ll be ready to put myself out there in my next role as James Bond, no not really, not really!
What message would you like to share with everyone who reads this interview?
I think my life is the message - what I have been through and how I have turned things around for myself and my family.
I’ve lived a very transparent life, and there isn’t much left hidden about me, so I am genuinely hoping that my life experiences, both privately and in business will motivate someone else to go out there and build a great life.
Yet, I am not finished; I am just getting started!