Sambazon’s reach now expands across continents
By Jim Shilander
Ryan Black, his older brother Jeremy, and friend Ed “Skanda” Nichols grew up in Orange County as part of the surf culture that defines the area. But it was a discovery that Ryan and Nichols made almost half a world away that helped change their lives and inspired the creation of their San Clemente-based business, Sambazon.
Ryan Black and Nichols were vacationing in Brazil in 1999, taking in the surfing and practicing yoga, respectively, before Nichols prepared to return to the University of Colorado-Boulder and Black went back to Paris for what would be his last year as a professional football player in Europe (Black played college football at Colorado). It was there, on one of the islands off the coast of Brazil, that Black and Nichols both discovered açaí.
The açaí berry is the fruit of a South American palm tree. In Brazil, it mostly grows in the interior of the country, along the Amazon River. The flesh of the berry is about 50 percent fat, but that fat has a similar profile to olive oil, Black said. The berry also contains high amounts of antioxidants and less sugar than other berries.
“The first time I encountered it, it was post surf on a beach in the north of Brazil,” Black said. “To have something post surf, you know it’s hot, and this is cold and refreshing. It also gives you a buzz, between the energy effects of the guarana and the way it reacts with the açaí fruit. It becomes like a functional energy food.”
Black said he and Nichols each tried açaí bowls— a concoction using frozen açaí pulp, mixed with sweeteners, and usually another fruit such as bananas, strawberries or blueberries—separately, about a half-hour apart. They both had a similar feeling, Black said, that they wanted to try it again.
“We were there for another 10 days and we wanted to have this again, but you couldn’t get it everywhere. After eating it for the next week, every other day, we started thinking, how would this be if we had this in California? It’s the same beach culture and it’s a healthy food.”
Nichols said his feeling was similar.
“The word I’d use is auspicious” Nichols said. “There was sort of an ‘a-ha’ moment. It was a local Brazilian that we’d befriended who bought me a bowl without even asking what I wanted. I blinked and my bowl was empty, and my spoon was tapping the bottom, searching for more.”
After the trip ended and he returned home, Black said he started making calls to produce markets in Southern California to see if they’d heard of the fruit. They hadn’t. When he returned to France, however, Black was determined to investigate further. He had his Brazilian girlfriend make contact with producers. He also researched the product online and began to put together a business plan.
Jeremy Black, then five years into a career as a financial advisor, initially thought the concept was crazy. He came around after his brother and Nichols returned from a second trip to Brazil with a supplier in place. At that point he joined the company. He now consults on the development of new products and building the company brand.
Ryan Black’s original idea was to create a kind of juice bar centered on açaí—like what he’d found in Brazil—and distribute açaí and other Amazon fruits. They’d also build a company culture that focused on social responsibility and sustainability, he said, and create a foundation that would support various causes.
“I came back from Paris with a business plan in mind and within a couple of months we’d done two things. We went back to the Amazon to talk to the producers who manufactured açaí and could sell it to us,” Black said. “The second thing we realized is that we had a choice to make, we could either go into the restaurant business and open a café, or we could work on the wholesale distribution of this frozen fruit product. We chose the latter.”
But the company has opened two cafés, first in Cardiff-by-the-Sea two years ago, and a second was opened last June in Newport Beach. Sambazon had targeted their 10-year anniversary as a good time to open their first café. Black hopes that the growth ultimately leads to franchises across the country.
The company now sells not only the frozen puree that they built the company on, but has expanded into bottled juices, which now account for the bulk of the business.
The company has built distribution networks across the country with various stores like Albertson’s, Ralphs and Wal-Mart, but made major in-roads when Sambazon’s products were put into Costco stores. Black said the retailer first allowed the company to market the product in stores locally, where açaí had developed a reputation with surfers.
“We first went into Costco in 2009 with a test in Southern California,” Black said. “Costco has rotations, they’ll give you a shot, a three month trial. If it sells really well, maybe they’ll keep you. If it sells really, really well maybe another region will say, ‘they’re doing really well, lets test it out in our region.'” The first region was the company’s Los Angeles/Orange County and Hawaii region, which had about 50 stores at the time.
“We demoed the product hard and were successful,” Black said. “Now we’re in basically every Costco building in the world, about 450.” That includes stores in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Mexico and Canada, he noted. Costco was also considering product distribution in Australia and the United Kingdom. The warehouse store featured Sambazon in an article in its company magazine “Costco Connection” earlier this year.
Headquartered in San Clemente since 2004, Sambazon bottles its juices elsewhere in the country, using co-packers, and has about 100 employees at a plant in Brazil producing the raw materials. The plant was built in 2005.
“It’s right at the equator in the Amazon, very far away from Rio or Sao Paolo,” Black said. While there is a full management team on-site, he explained, he also visits four or five times a year. All the managers at the plant speak English and Black speaks fluent Portuguese—language isn’t a barrier. What challenges there are, he said, come from different ways of doing business.
“Here in the US we’re a ‘triple bottom line’ business—focusing on profit, social responsibility and environmental sustainability—that’s kind of touchy-feely, family oriented,” Black said. “Not that it hasn’t translated to our subsidiary, but they just do things differently down there. There are cultural differences that we’ve had to overcome. But we’ve been very fortunate to have strong leaders in Brazil who make operating that company not any more difficult than anywhere else.”
Black said it would be difficult, at this point, to see the company leaving San Clemente, even as it expands. Before coming to the city, Sambazon had largely been based out of the homes of the three founders.
“San Clemente is a great place to live, a great community. It’s pretty consistent, not just for a healthy lifestyle, but a positive lifestyle. We’ve built our home here and we’re proud to be a San Clemente company.”
Having ties to the surf community didn’t hurt matters, he said. The proximity to the water is actually what brought the company to San Clemente in the first place. Black said the “clean water” of the beaches is what attracted the partners to the city.
As the fruit becomes increasingly popular with yoga practitioners, Nichols—a yogi himself—acts as a liaison between the natural food and spiritual communities.
“The color purple (açaí appears purple) represents the third eye. I see it (açaí) as a way to open our ability to visualize, and to become visionaries,” he said.