How Caribbean Food Went Mainstream in the UK: The Levi Roots Story

How Caribbean Food Went Mainstream in the UK: The Levi Roots Story

This article is inspired by my former student’s essay as part of her completion of a module entitled Small Business Management.

All credit goes to my co-author, Denise Aschenkewitz. A Business Management Graduate with First Class Honours! She has also recently bagged an MSc in Project Management from the University of Westminster.

Levi’s story begins in a tiny little village in Clarendon, Jamaica. As a young boy, Levi helped his grandmother in the kitchen. She taught him the secrets and subtleties of mixing Caribbean flavours, herbs and spices. At the same time, Levi also discovered his love for music at the church his grandmother sung at. While he lived with his grandparents in Jamaica, his parents were in Brixton working hard so that Levi and his five older siblings could move to England. This was an annual ritual of relocation to Britain, as every year the Brixton-resident parents would send for another child from the eldest to the youngest – notice the pecking order? Eventually it was Levi’s turn to leave Jamaica.

Food for Friends - 280 x 352

(Source: Levi Roots)

In London Levi went to school for the first time and also visited the The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual event that has taken place in London since 1966 on the streets of the Notting Hill area of Kensington, coinciding with the traditional August bank holidays.

“I loved the music, the food, the colours.”

Little did he know he would later have his own stall at the festival selling the Reggae Reggae Sauce that would make him his fortune.

Fast forward to the 1990s. Levi made the sauce from his kitchen in Brixton with the help of his seven children, selling his overwhelmingly popular sauce out of bag on his back.

At the 1991 Notting Hill Carnival, Levi created a fusion between the food he was cooking and the music he was playing, opening the ‘Rasta’raunt’, which was so popular it is now an annual fixture at the Carnival.

Come in 2000s. Despite the sauce’s popularity, however, it took another 16 years of rejection from banks and businesses to invest in the product who thought it looked and sounded ‘too black’.

In 2006, Levi was spotted at the World Food Market by a BBC researcher, and invited to appear on the programme Dragons’ Den. Would you believe this? Levi had never even heard of the show and went home to his kids asking them what Dragons’ Den was. How about our #1 fans, immediate family? No, they begged him not to appear saying:

Dad, don’t go on that show, they’ll just tear you to pieces!

Although he was doubtful about the programme, Levi’s mother encouraged him to come back as a ‘Dragon Slayer’. Levi put his faith in Reggae Reggae Sauce to win over those fiery Dragons.

The sauce was an instant hit – hot sauce. In exchange for a 40% stake in his business, he secured the support of millionaire ‘Dragons’, Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh for £50,000. Peter Jones helped to get the sauce listed by Sainsbury’s, turning the dream into a reality.

Levi’s success has been nothing short of a whirlwind and he has even been invited by occupants of #10 Downing Street, in recognition of his notable success as a black man in Britain attaining financial achievement through enterprise. Levi equates his success to putting himself into the product. Picture this:

“I will never forget that little paradise content (in Jamaica) and my saintly grandmother, who helped to make me the success I am now.”

Levi’s main focus has been to promote the Reggae Reggae brand and the message it symbolises. Now here’s some motivational speech for the next generation.

“I want to spread the word that if a Black ‘Brixtonian’ Rastafarian can make it with just a sauce, then you can make it too.”

The Levi Roots range continues to grow with Caribbean inspired cooking sauces, ready meals, soft drinks, desserts and more. Numerous high-profile restaurant chains have signed deals with Levi to use the sauce on their menus including Weatherspoon’s and other high street franchises

In 2008, Levi hosted his debut TV series ‘Caribbean Food Made Easy’ where he showcased vibrant tastes and healthy ingredients of Caribbean food as being more accessible not to mention being accompanied by his iconic book of the same name.

Quick distraction. Other ethnic foods in the UK need to borrow a leaf from the need to make it easy and this goes to African Food outlets epitomised by the Nigerian Restaurants in London, which I profiled over a decade ago in 2007.

Ok let’s get back to the main gist. As well as cooking, Levi continued to fulfil his passion for credible roots music by releasing his studio album ‘Red Hot’ (sounds like a hot sauce, right?) with its catchy summer single ‘So Out of My Mind’, in 2009.

Only four years later in 2013 he launched his “School of Life Tour” taking his message to children across the country, inspiring them to follow their dreams and showing them how to make tasty, healthy food. He has published six cookbooks and a business book, released a new album and eventually realised his ultimate dream of opening a Caribbean restaurant in December 2015. The Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse opened its doors to the public in Westfield Stratford City, bringing authentic sights, sounds and tastes of the Caribbean to the masses.

With seemingly endless possibilities for the popular Levi Roots brand, Levi continues to bring the sunshine of the Caribbean to all of his ventures while popularizing the spicy flavours of his Jamaican heritage. Always focused and ever motivated Levi Roots remains true to his inspired mantra of success, ‘Put some music in your food!’

Ok, the love affair seems to have ended, but then again is any business really immune from failure. One particular article entitled Understanding the Causes of Business Failure Crises, readily comes to mind at this juncture. Indeed, the list of business failures on the British Highstreet is endless from BHS, through Thomas Cook and now Mothercare. The question now is who cares?

Now isn’t that some “Food” for thought.

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Denise Aschenkewitz & Nnamdi Madichie 2019

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