Interview with Levi Roots
Levi Roots talks to Chantal Borciani about his experience with the dragons and Brixton, Battersea and Bob Marley
It’s been more than a decade since Levi Roots jigged on to the foreboding set of Dragons’ Den with his guitar, dreadlocks and catchy reggae ditty. After serenading the judges, the Brixton resident left the den with two investors and went on to make Reggae Reggae Sauce a multi- million pound business.
“I threw the rule book out,” Levi laughs. “Other people tried to study the dragons or pretended to be this perfect person to impress them. I didn’t watch the programme – my kids thought I was mad and were urging me to watch it but I never saw it because I knew if I did, I would have changed myself. I wouldn’t have brought the guitar and I wouldn’t have been Levi Roots. I was me, mistakes and all! But that’s what they invested in. Peter [Jones] tells me that he never invested in the sauce. He invested in the cool Rasta man with the guitar.”
Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh invested £25,000 each in return for 40 per cent of the business and the jerk sauce brand fast became one of the show’s greatest success stories. Not bad for a man who used to make the sauce in his kitchen with his kids and sell it out of a bag on his back around Brixton.
Despite some reports of some more frosty partnerships coming out of Dragon’s Den, Levi has had a hugely positive investor experience. following the show. “When Richard saw that his shares were worth quite a lot of money he gave me the opportunity to buy my shares back from him which I was glad to do. Peter has now been with me for 11 or 12 years. We are very good friends as well as he being my mentor and investor. But at the core of our partnership is our friendship.”
Brixton, Battersea and Bob Marley
Jamaican-born Levi moved to Brixton when he was 11 with his family and still lives in the borough today. “No matter where I’ve been lucky enough to go – and I’ve seen great places and realised many of my dreams – I still ache to come back Brixton,” Levi explains. “My mum lives up the road and the friends I’ve known for decades and really trust all live here. So for me it’s the best place in the world to come back to. I go to the market twice a week when I’m at home. One of my favourite places is Healthy Eaters slap bang in the middle of the market on Electric Avenue.”
His food empire has brought him fame and fortune but Levi says music will always have his heart and he still gigs today. In the late 70s and early 80s he was friends with reggae legend Bob Marley and based himself and his band in Wandsworth’s Armoury Way.
“I was in music for a very long time. I didn’t make my fortune but I got to meet a lot of cool people who inspired me to stick with my trade. We used to have a kick around with Bob Marley when he was in London. I know, it’s so cool isn’t it!” Levi laughs. “We were in Wandsworth and he lived in Chelsea so Battersea Park was in the middle and we would meet up there to play football and chat.”
“You know sometimes you just float above yourself and wonder how on earth am I playing football with Bob Marley or singing for Nelson Mandela.” Levi met Nelson Mandela when the South African president visited Brixton’s Recreation Centre in 1996, in recognition of Brixton as a central place in the UK black civil rights movement. “I went to the recreation centre just like the other thousands of people who turned up hoping to catch a glimpse of him. There I was, straining my neck to have a look and I saw a guy I knew calling me up to the front. The people kind of crowd surfed me up there and the organisers told me it was Mr Mandela’s birthday. I was always pretty popular in Brixton – I was the Rasta man with the loud reggae sound system you know, so they knew I was a singer and asked me to get a few people together to sing. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me but a few minutes later there I was holding a cake singing happy birthday as Nelson Mandela came down the escalator. He took the cake, shook my sweaty, shaking hand and I said, ‘welcome to Brixton Mr President from the people of Brixton.’”
Levi, 60, is currently kept very busy with his first restaurant, Levi Roots’ Caribbean Smokehouse in Stratford’s Westfield. “Caribbean food is one of the biggest emerging cuisines and I want to bring it to the masses,” he adds. The entrepreneur hopes to build a chain of his affectionately dubbed “Rastaraunts” so delicious Caribbean food is not just loved and found in areas such as Brixton but all around the country.
Away from his food business, Levi is keen to help others with the platform he has been given. Most recently, he publicly hit out at the Home Office and Teresa May for the “scandalous” handling of the Windrush generation and he continues to work with underprivileged kids in his community and across south London. Levi also spends a large amount of time on his School of Life, which sees the entrepreneur tour the UK visiting schools in a bid to motivate them and get them excited about food.
“Straight away after the den I realised that the brand was connecting with young people. It’s fantastic to go into schools, and reach out to kids who look like me but perhaps don’t have a role model, a role model with dreadlocks. And it’s also about visiting schools where there is no one who looks like me. It’s about telling kids, if Levi Roots can do it, you can do it.”