Business with bite

Reggae Reggae Sauce went from Brixton Market to outselling Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup. But success didn’t always come easily to the reformed Levi Roots

Business with bite

Dressed in one of his many Ozwald Boateng suits, knuckles dusted with gold jewellery and displaying a vivaciousness and vitality that belies his age (nearer to 50 than 40), it is hard to believe that Levi Roots has ever been anything except a successful businessman and musician. 

He may now be one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the UK – no small thanks to an appearance on a certain BBC show – but things didn’t always go so smoothly for a younger Roots. 

Born Keith Valentine Graham Bilal Musa, Roots grew up in the small village of Content in the Clarendon area of Jamaica. “I was a very bad boy,” he laughs. “Nowadays when I go back to Jamaica, the old people from where I lived in Clarendon tell stories of what I used to be like as a little boy – I was a right tearaway.”

It’s no surprise that he was a little unsettled: at five years old his parents left Jamaica for the UK where they would get jobs, buy a house and send for their children one at a time, with the aim of providing Roots and his four siblings a better standard of education.

This left him in the care of his grandmother – to whom he accredits his eventual success. “She taught me everything about who I was, because my mum and dad weren’t there. Between the ages of five and 12, when I was in my grandmother’s care, that’s when you really start to become yourself, not just a child,” says Roots. 

Roots’ parents had been enticed by offers from the British government to come to the UK in search of a better life for their family. “They used to say there was gold dust on the floor to be picked up,” recalls Roots. “Then they piled over here and realised it was dog shit, not gold dust, and it was them that had to clean it.”

While Roots and his brothers and sisters waited in the wings in Clarendon, his parents took two jobs each, and in time bought a house in south London big enough for the family. The children then moved across, one at a time. As the youngest, Roots was the last to relocate to the UK – a transition that was by no means easy.

“You’ve got to remember, I’d never been outside of Clarendon. I never even went to Kingston,” he points out. “Then I came here to a world where I didn’t know my mum and dad, my brothers and sisters were now British and I didn’t understand a thing about them.”

It was an extraordinary eye-opener for the young Jamaican, who had only ever seen a handful of white people in his life. “I’d never seen an abundance of another race before,” he adds.

He also faced difficulty at school. As the youngest, money had dried up so he hadn’t educated during his childhood in Jamaica. He wasn’t quite up to speed when he began his education in a London school.

“Behind? I don’t think I could count to four. I couldn’t spell my own name at the age of 12,” he says. “It was one of the worst times of my life, that first year.”

Acutely aware of his differences and because he was unable to rely on his academic prowess, Roots became the classroom joker in order to gain kudos from his newfound friends. “You’re either the smart one or you’re the fun guy in school,” he explains. “If you’re the smart one, usually people don’t want to know you because you’re a nerd, but if you’re the fun, country guy who can climb the tree quicker than anybody else, that’s quite cool.” 

Not that this was necessarily to his advantage, he admits. “I was popular to my detriment. I was trying to be cool because I couldn’t really catch up with the boys academically. I couldn’t spell and I couldn’t read and it was embarrassing. So I tried too hard to be the guy everybody loved and neglected the curriculum side of things.”

Having witnessed her son’s behaviour deteriorating, Roots’ mum decided to take him out of school and educate her son at home. 

By the time his exams came at the age of 16, he was “nearly on a par” with his peers and passed with flying colours. 

He puts being able to catch up so quickly down to an ability to remember facts and details. “I think part of the speed of my education was because I could always remember things and when I read stuff, it would stick with me.”

This became more apparent with Roots’ first love: music. Thanks to a superb memory, he could hear a song or lyrics once and recall it perfectly. But part of this was a result of a true affinity with music. During the course of his brief spell in secondary school, his passion for beats and base came to the fore.

“Even though I bunked off every other lesson with the kids to go to the girls’ school in Norwood, and try to be the lad, when it came to music classes I was always the first one there.”

After finishing his education, Roots’ parents were excited for his prospects as a bright future in engineering beckoned. 

But the teenager couldn’t shake his desire to perform. “I was an engineer for two years, but the music just came calling,” he smiles. “It said to me, ‘Levi, what the fuck are you doing with a lathe? You’re supposed to be performing.’”   

So the lathe (which is used to cut metal) went, and was replaced with a guitar. “I gave it up,” says Roots. “I wanted to sing. My grandmother was always singing, my mother also has a fantastic voice; it is in my blood.”

Then, at 18, Roots spotted legendary reggae music producer Lloyd Coxson at Brixton Market, so he went over and started singing to him. “The most miraculous thing happened: he asked me to join the great Coxsone Sound System,” recalls Roots. “We were the people with big speaker boxes and turntables and we’d tour all over the country,” he said. “I was the mic person who would whip up the crowd.”

Simultaneously, his solo career also began to gather steam and led him to decide he needed an image overhaul. He changed his name from Keith to Levi Roots for two reasons. Firstly, Keith didn’t really go with his new image. “I couldn’t be going on stage for them to introduce me as Keith,” he laughs.

Secondly, it was a way of distancing himself from some of his earlier experiences of struggle and strife as a child. In his mind, ‘Keith’ was associated with wrestling with a new sense of self when he came to the UK, his difficulties learning and playing catch up with his peers. “When I am Levi Roots, when I’m on stage and I’ve got that mic in my hand, I love that side of me,” says Roots. “But when I look at the other side of me, the Keith side, I saw that as the troublesome side.”

As he rose to prominence as a respected reggae artist, his inability to shake this more worrisome aspect of his personality did lead him to trouble. He had his first child at 19 – with six more to quickly follow. He toured with bands, singing and making the most of reggae’s rise to prominence, thanks to the surging popularity of artists such as Bob Marley. 

When the band was on the road, he would indulge his other passion: food. While the others were soundchecking, Roots was often in the dressing room rustling up some tasty grub for his pals. “We always had one of these burners that we took wherever we went in Europe,” he recalls. “I would always have what I called my ‘sunshine kit’, which was just a little bag I used to carry with scotch bonnet peppers and other spices in it.”

Yet the music remained his real passion and raison d’être. “The cooking was just this thing on the side, my second passion,” he says. “But I thought music would always be my life. I didn’t want to do anything else except write songs, play guitar and sing – either as part of a band or solo.”

But his music career came crashing down around his ears when the youth club he ran was raided and he was arrested for possession of drugs – allegedly £250,000 of heroin. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, and served five. Prison was both the best and worst of times, says Roots.

“I found the best of me when I was inside, because I had time to find who Levi Roots really was, and separate Levi from Keith,” he says, quietly. He credits a mentor for helping him define a strong sense of identity, once and for all. “She taught me how to be Levi, and how to not slip out of being him, and be true to myself. I think I found the best person I could be in prison.”

After being released from prison in 1991, Roots moved back to Brixton where he opened a fashion boutique. “No record company would sign me and I didn’t have the money to start my own career again, so I went into fashion,” he explains.

Then his mum came to him with a suggestion for his next business. “She said to me, ‘Why don’t you start cooking?’” So he did. With a friend, Tony Bailey, he set up a stall at the Notting Hill Carnival, which became known as the ‘rastaraunt’. It became very popular – not just because of the food, but also due to Roots’ connection with the music. “I would get the guitar out and start singing. That’s when I really started merging music and food together for the first time and trying not to separate the two,” says Roots. “That was the happiest time of our lives.”

But Carnival comes but once a year, and for the remaining 363 days a year, Roots had to sustain himself. The reggae music business continued to struggle and, in 2004, the singer and cook reluctantly took a job in a plumber’s yard in Brixton. He didn’t forget about his scotch bonnets, though. “Every time someone had a birthday, the only thing I would like to give was something personal from me, so I would make up this sauce and give it to the customers or my colleagues.”

Then, in January 2006, following an argument with one of his managers, he walked into the office and told the boss he was leaving. “I went home and called Joanne, my daughter who’s 19, and said, ‘Come round; we’re going to start making the sauce here in my flat.’”

From that day onwards, Roots’ two-bedroom flat in Brixton became a production line of making and filling bottles with the sauce the budding entrepreneur attributed to his grandmother. (It was later discovered it wasn’t his grandmother’s recipe at all, but he says it was more about her ‘spirit’ than an actual recipe.)

Once the bottles were filled, Roots would hop on his bicycle – he had had to sell his prized BMW to pay off mounting debts – and Joanne would fill a big brown bag with as many bottles as it could hold and he’d flog them at Brixton Market or to neighbouring record shops. “After a few weeks, we realised it was going really well and record shops were ordering it in advance. In a few months, one particular record shop in Brixton started to sell more sauce than music.”

But Roots realised if he were going to reach a wider audience with his sauces, he’d need to leave Brixton. His first business mentor, Nadia, had some pearls of wisdom for him. “After three or four months of doing it, she spotted it wasn’t about the sauce. She said, ‘Don’t concentrate on the sauce; it’s all about you. Get yourself out of Brixton,’” he says.

She started sending him to music and food festivals all over the country: “Anywhere with a ‘shire’ at the end of it, she sent me there,” he says, laughing. “I’d go and it’d be all white people – there’d be no black people at all – and I’d be there with a guitar and everybody loved it.”

But still, Roots wasn’t really selling enough of the sauce to make the trips worth his while. “I said to Nadia, ‘Look, it’s costing me £2,000 to book the space and I’m coming home with £400. It’s not really working out,’” says Roots. 

Nadia told him to be persistent and sent him away again, this time to the World Food Market at the ExCeL Centre, London. 

As usual, he drew crowds to hear him sing and savour his sauce, but this time, there was an extra special audience member, too. “This woman came over and she said, ‘I think you’re fantastic, we’re from a programme called Dragons’ Den.’ I had no idea what that even was, so she left me her card and I carried on with the show.”

Later, as another of his daughters, Charlene, unpacked the bag from the show she came across the BBC business card. Roots’ kids were hesitant about him appearing on the TV programme. “All of my kids said in unison, ‘Whatever you do, Dad, don’t do Dragons’ Den with a guitar and something called Reggae Reggae Sauce,’” he smiles. “They probably thought it was going to be the most embarrassing thing ever.”

But Roots was a hit. The Dragons loved the product, they loved the song, and most importantly, they loved Levi Roots. Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh offered the entrepreneur the £50,000 he wanted on the spot, albeit for a rather substantial 40% of the business.

“It was what I’d always wanted: I wanted to make myself and the business successful,” says Roots. “I needed someone who has that experience and knows about business. If they’re white, or if they’re black, if they’re pink or if they’re brown, I don’t give a shit. I just wanted that help.”

Roots with Henry Matic, trombone player, and backing vocalists Nana Genesis, Jo-ann Ceeza and Valerie Skeet

While Farleigh withdrew his investment after 18 months (having increased his money by a factor of ten), an unlikely friendship has blossomed between Roots and Jones. “I never expected this 6ft 7in white guy with no close black friends in his life to invest in me, and now we’ve become so close. When Peter sees me we’re hugging for, like, five minutes. Sometimes people see him on the TV and think he’s a bit cheesy, or that he’s a hard case. But he’s one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met,” beams Roots.

It’s a good job they get on so well – Jones is the only other major shareholder, with a 25% stake in the business that is now thought to generate in the region of £50m to £60m sales a year. 

That’s not to say that it’s been entirely smooth sailing since his Dragons’ Den appearance. Between 2010 and 2012 he was back in court fighting claims from former friend Tony Bailey that he had stolen the recipe for Reggae Reggae Sauce. When the first judge threw the case out, Bailey appealed, meaning the case only finally ended in November 2012.

“I think the last two years have perhaps been the most trialling time of my life,” admits Roots. 

“I had been warned that someone might throw a spanner in the works, and that it often comes from someone close to you.”

He suggests that it may be in part down to jealousy. “I think what happened to me may have been too much for some people. For someone to come from nowhere, to being all over the papers in Ozwald Boateng suits, was difficult to take. I think a lot of my friends at the time perhaps thought I’d gone away from them a little bit.”

Having won the case, Roots jetted off to Jamaica for Christmas with his family. It was also to avoid being quizzed by the media about the case, he says. “I flew straight out to Jamaica straight after the trial to avoid talking about it,” he explains. 

While in the Caribbean, Roots also started work on a new record. For him, it’s always been about the music. Food was secondary. But now the food has given him a platform by which he can reach a whole new audience with his music. “I don’t think people have ever had anything black in their homes the way Reggae Reggae Sauce is,” he says. “It’s used across the country by everyone.”

This summer looks set to be a busy one for Roots. Not only will his first studio album be released, but his business will expand into hot drinks with a range of spicy teas, to add to a line that already includes crisps, soft drinks and ready meals. 

Spending time with Roots, one is immediately struck by a sense of contentedness – which is not to be confused with smugness. His success means he’s able to share his wealth with family and friends, and he’s happy to do so. It seems as though he may have once and for all put his demons to rest – yet while Levi Roots is ambling around Angel Recording Studios indulging his first love, playing the showman, the performer, there is still a whisper of a suggestion that Keith is not quite dead and buried.

For Roots’ alter-ego sometimes rears his head when it comes to matters of self-improvement. Asked to give advice to budding entrepreneurs, he says, “Find the best you can be. It may sound as simple as that, but it has big meaning,” he explains. “If we all look at ourselves and be honest, we can do better. The dream is to be able to look at yourself honestly and say ‘I’m doing my best.’ That’s what we should all strive for.” 

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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