OK Google, find an Açai bowl near me… Over the past decade, a smoothie bowl made of this exotic Brazilian berry has become all the rage in the United States, making its way from hype to ubiquity. Described as a superfood – naturally low in sugar and rich in healthy fats and protein – Açai has quickly become one of the fastest-growing products in the food industry: today, it comes in third of all the frozen fruit sold in supermarkets in the USA after much more conventional strawberries and blueberries.
It all started with one Açai bowl that Ryan Black, southern California-based surfer and former pro football player, first tried in Brazil in 1999. Over the two decades since then, his company, SAMBAZON, has grown from a food startup that introduced the Brazilian berry to North America to a $100M+ global leader of the category. The popular brand of Açai-based foods and beverages loved by Megan Markle, Salma Hayek, and Gisele Bündhen sets a precedent by proving that ethical business can also be profitable. And investors are also on-board: in the last year SAMBAZON secured over $50 million in funding.
SAMBAZON passionately pursue a triple bottom-line that measures success economically, socially and environmentally. Black, its founder is a leader of the movement that connects such brands like other GenZ darlings Dr. Bronner's or plant-based creamery Miyoko’s with consumers around the idea of conscious commerce.
As part of my research on purpose driven businesses, I had the opportunity to sit down with Black and learn more about SAMBAZON.
Christopher Marquis: Can you tell me why you started SAMBAZON?
Ryan Black: I was a professional athlete, played in the NFL and in Europe and knew my career was coming to an end. I went on a trip to Brazil to celebrate the millennium and surf with my girlfriend and my best friend Edmund Nichols. There at the beach I had my first açai bowl. That was the time long before the organic food craze started, and people didn’t know what superfoods were. Açai has been a staple of the Brazilian indigenous people’s diet for centuries. And yet it was athletes, namely the Gracie family, the founders of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, who brought it to the mainstream, starting making Açai smoothies and bowls in Rio de Janeiro, half a decade before we experienced it. As an athlete myself, I saw what Açai could do for performance: it’s light on your stomach, yet filling. Most importantly, it gives you energy, not the kind you would get from coffee or sugar, but more likely the one that healthy fats and protein do. Açai bowls were becoming a thing and I wanted to open my own Açai bowl shops in America. But a friend convinced me that supplying “picks to minors” was a more viable beginning, so we started down the wholesale, B2B road. I remember scouring all the juice bars across SoCal, then Florida, Hawaii, New York and anywhere else we could find them armed with just a map and a phone book in whatever city we were in. Açai bowls were gaining popularity in the States and people started to want to make them home by themselves. In 2003, we started selling our Açai packs at Mother’s Market, a Southern California-based natural and organic food retailer. In 2004, SAMBAZON appeared in Whole Foods Markets in SoCal. The rest is a 20-year, overnight success story where today SAMBAZON is a global leader of Açai foods sold in supermarkets, restaurants and cafes in almost 50 countries.
Marquis: Where did that commitment to the triple bottom line come from? How do you make sure your growing business is still aligned with these principles?
Black: Brazil was a huge inspiration to start a sustainable business. Other than beef, Açai berries were the most important non-timber product in the entire Amazon Rainforest in terms of money. People who live in the forest need to make money to feed their families – just like we do. The options available to them to make that money were cattle, soy, timber and charcoal – all the things which are really destructive to the rainforest. So what are they going to work on? There were few alternatives until Açai started growing as an industry. Açai gave it to them: people could be living out there in the forest, having a healthy wage, picking Açai in the wild, protecting biodiversity, and producing something which can be shared around the globe, providing health and wellness. And this is an example of sustainable development that nature and the local communities created and we at SAMBAZON just chose to follow. Our challenge was to develop a supply chain that could preserve that.
Açai as a tradition was old, but as an industry, was so new and with no set standards. You had these people at the base of the supply chain, wild-harvesting the Açai berries by hand, and then selling them off to a series of middlemen until they reached an industrial manufacturer. There was no chain of custody in the product, and there was no real care of the social or environmental conditions. So we organized for organic and fair trade certifiers to be sent to Brazil to help create the standards for Açai cultivation and harvesting.
Over the past 20 years we certified more than 3,000 family farmers, built two production facilities in Brazil that gave jobs to more than 400 people, and launched dozens of social programs, schools and health facilities. This year we surpassed $1 million in donations to support the Açai grower communities and we’re committed to giving back more.
Marquis: Sometimes trending superfoods result in large environmental consequences, e.g. intensive avocado farming is causing water shortages, biodiversity loss and even deforestation. Are you concerned that expanding an acai business can lead to something like this?
Black: Açai production is very sustainable in itself. The berries grow in the wild – and there’s no big agricultural business that has monocultured or domesticated it. So local people could harvest it as a renewable resource and earn money without having to cut the rainforest to sell timber or raise cattle. We’ve been successful within the first twenty years of our operations in establishing industrial, social, and environmental standards and raising the bar for the entire export market as a whole. Our fellow Açai purveyors often choose to follow the certifications we established for a more sustainable industry. In addition, we have managed to build up our own certification capacities in partnership with regional NGOs and academia. For example, we recently participated in a Biodiversity study whereby researchers measured the flora and fauna biodiversity in a conventional Açai harvesting area versus that of a “certified Açai” harvesting area. The results showed a 50% higher biodiversity in the certified area. We engineered our business model to add value to each step of the supply chain, so as we scale up, we are simply expanding that added value.
Marquis: How do you personally think conscious commerce should work? Isn’t there a lot of greenwashing, especially from food and beverage companies? How are you different from them?
Black: Every time you go to a grocery store and buy food, you vote with your dollar for the kind of future that you want for yourself and your kids. You can spend your money on brands whose practices are aligned with your values. Every time you choose organic or fair trade certified products or buy from a company that follows a triple bottom line business model, you send a message that environmental and social responsibility is important to you as a customer. And all the greenwashing just proves this approach is working, because people did start making their choices towards organic and fair-trade brands. The organic industry keeps setting the bar higher to be more sustainable, and some companies are just trying to cut corners and compromise it. But there are tools that can help navigate consumers in this quest: those are certifications, social media and awareness campaigns. Informed choice is important for conscious consumption. Together with my wife and partner Anastasia and our friends (other leaders of sustainable brands) we started a project called The Tri (tree), which connects mission-driven brands and people around the ideas of conscious commerce. Through a virtual “scavenger hunt”, participants can take green actions and win organic products or tickets to music festivals or a masterclass with yours truly. There is nothing to be bought or sold. Participation is the only real currency, and its activating app is already underway. It would also make things much easier if we had a common methodology for determining a company’s ESG or triple bottom line scores. Then it would be quite easy to decide whether a company is greenwashing, while having a score of, say, 50 out of 100. That would be a fail.
Marquis: Aren’t existing certification standards enough? Do you have a B Corp certification?
Black: We are a certified organic and fair-trade company and we welcome a standardized ESG methodology, which would serve as a globally recognized standard for triple bottom line metrics. We do not currently hold a B Corp certification, although we respect the work that they have done to awaken companies and get them on a path to conscious commerce. We were a certified B Corp back as early as 2010 and have learned some helpful insights by participating in their assessment and scoring tool. Maybe if they considered creating a tiered system by which one could be recognized for achieving a higher “triple bottom line” standard, we would be interested in participating again.
Marquis: What is SAMBAZON doing with respect to net zero and carbon labeling?
Black: We began tracking our GHG emissions back in 2011. One recent improvement has been the implementation of software that automates the GHG measurement process and ensures accuracy. This will make the GHG calculation process more efficient, allowing us to expand our GHG inventory to include more Scope 3 emissions sources. In 2017, we launched a partnership with One Step Closer (OSC) and the Climate Collaborative, two non-profits helping the organic industry as a whole to be more sustainable. We have set commitments in 9 areas including food waste and packaging.
Three years ago, we started looking into the carbon sequestration of our Açai harvest area in the Brazilian Amazon. We worked with the University of California Berkeley scientists as part of a Biodiversity Study to determine the plant biomass at our actual harvesting area and validate our calculations for carbon sequestration there. We learned that in 2021, the area, while being managed under SAMBAZON fair trade and organic certification, stored 12 million metric tons of carbon. Now that we have all the data, we’ve recently completed a Climate Action Plan with third-party climate experts. This summer, SAMBAZON is disclosing our Scope 1 & 2 GHG emissions in our first public-facing Impact Report. We already know that in our production facilities in Brazil, we’ve managed to increase the use of renewable energy up to 80%. More than 90% of waste has been diverted from landfill across our operations in Brazil and the United States. 100% of our Açai seeds, the number one waste byproduct that would otherwise be sent to landfill, are used for biomass energy production in Brazil. This year we will also be setting science-based emissions reduction targets towards becoming net-zero.
Marquis: What’s next for SAMBAZON and for Ryan Black? Have you thought about going public? If so, what provisions will you put in place to make sure that investors won’t damage the mission?
Black: From inception, we have always planned to go direct to customers with our own store fronts and kiosks. So this year we have begun licensing SAMBAZON Açai Bowl shops and kiosks in airports, sports arenas and other high traffic locations. We believe we have an authentic brand and a sustainability story which people want to connect with and participate in. Every time you eat a SAMBAZON Açai bowl, you are propelling triple bottom line success and creating a chain reaction which supports indigenous communities and protects Amazon Rainforest biodiversity. When considering multiple ways of financing our future growth, going public is one option that we are contemplating. Our principal investors, Nextworld Evergreen, EcoEnterprises Fund and the Kitchen Fund, are committed to our core values and omni-channel strategy, and I believe public investors would be too. After all, at the bottom of our brand lies the triple bottom line philosophy. And I guess the investors should be hyped to have the first woke business to go public. This is proof that the ethical can be profitable, and SAMBAZON can set an example for many other entrepreneurs and brands to come.