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By R. Scott Moxley
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Ryan Black and Ed Nichols of Dana Point were vacationing in Brazil in December 1999 when local surfers introduced them to a fruit from the Amazon rain forest called açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee). The pair had arrived in Brazil at the height of summer with plans to celebrate the new millennium with some warm-water surf. The waves were amazing, but they fell in love with the açaí (repeat after me: ah-sigh-ee).
"From the time we first tried it until the time we left, we ate it every day any way we could get it," said Black. "We loved the flavor and the instant energy we got from it."
They got in the routine of eating açaí in the morning before surfing because it gave them energy without weighing them down like their old pre-surf staple: breakfast burritos.
Nor is açaí difficult to find. It grows wild in the rain forest, is processed locally and is distributed through hundreds of ramshackle juice bars that line the beach. There, just beyond bathtub-warm waves, you can buy what looks like a purple smoothie in a bowl, topped with granola and sliced banana. It's slightly sweet, very cool, light and refreshing. Açaí (one more time: ah-sigh-ee) contains just enough organic sugar to give it a mildly sweet taste without canceling out its unique, almost nutty flavor. The booster is an additive: the guarana extract that acts as a natural stimulant, similar to caffeine but milder.
Surfers in Brazil such as world champion big-wave rider Carlos Burle swear by açaí. "You're gonna love it, man," said Burle. "It gives you energy. Lots of iron. I like it any time I want something sweet and healthy."
Young capitalists that they are, Black and Nichols asked themselves, "How can we import this stuff back to the States so we can keep eating it, and get rich?" The surfers-turned-businessmen went back to Dana Point and recruited Ryan's financially savvy brother, Jeremy (who quit his lucrative job as a financial adviser to become a partner), and launched Sambazon. Back in Brazil, they secured exclusive U.S. distribution with the main açaí processing factories in exchange for a percentage of profits dedicated to rain-forest protection. They're surfers! They're businessmen! They're environmentalists! They have a website (www.sambazon.com)! Founded in the spring of 2000, Sambazon employs six full-timers and currently focuses distribution in central and Southern California. Their expansion plans cover the country.
To get Sambazon off the ground, Ryan took a half-dozen more trips to Brazil, spending an average of two to three weeks there each time. And now it's all happening. The fruit is imported by boat in frozen containers weighing in at about 20 tons each and stored in rented freezer space in Los Angeles. From there, six distributors pick it up and stock restaurants and juice bars from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
"We went straight to the chefs and owners of the juice bars," said Jeremy Black. "And we got them stoked on it, and then we went to the distributors and told them we had 20 of their clients who wanted this stuff. It worked."
Sambazon is taking the grassroots route with their marketing strategy. Instead of trying to get into the huge smoothie chains, they're hitting the best independently operated juice bars and restaurants up and down the coast and setting up demos with free samples. Jeremy Black says he's always psyched to come across a Brazilian at one of his demos. "The coolest is when a Brazilian comes up and is stoked because they miss having açaí. It's hard to sell this to a culture that has no clue, but it's refreshing to meet a Brazilian who knows about it and appreciates it."
Great, but are the surfer boys of Sambazon Co. making any money? They sold more than 200 boxes in their first week of business, more than they planned, they say. "We're about to take a small salary now that we're selling," said Jeremy Black. "We spent all our savings and used credit cards to get this thing going. We definitely sold the farm—put everything on the line—but that's good because it keeps everything interesting."
And if Sambazon continues to do well, it'll be good news not only for three surfers from Dana Point who maxed out their credit cards, but also for the Amazon rain forest. The more demand there is for açaí, the more the people of the Amazon will be economically motivated to keep the trees alive so they can harvest their fruit. Win/win situations don't come much warmer and fuzzier than this.Sambazon açaí is currently available at Taco Loco and Goko's Cafe in Laguna Beach, the Golden Truffle Restaurant in Costa Mesa, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Dana Point, Captain Culver's Restaurant in San Clemente and Mother's Market juice bars throughout Orange County.