LOT can happen in five years. Back in 2007, Levi Roots was a struggling reggae musician with a small business selling jerk barbecue sauce with little cash to his name.
Half a decade and a memorable appearance on Dragons’ Den later, his brand has exploded, with ready meals, drinks, numerous table and cooking sauces and collaborations with the likes of KFC under his belt. And thanks to a new TV advert, he’s even joined an elite group of stars who have been animated by Aardman.
With a cool nod of the head, the 53-year-old confirms the business is worth £35 million.
“I don’t think you can imagine that kind of success,” he says in his gentle Jamaican lilt, cutting a striking figure in a green Ozwald Boateng suit and stacks of silver jewellery.
“I knew I had it in me, obviously. I knew the sauce was great.
“But to be invited to dinner by Prince Charles and to be invited to Number 10 and have Camilla telling me that she knows me – she knew me more than I knew her! Where I was five years ago, it’s impossible to think things like that would happen.”
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Last year, Roots was sued by former friend Anthony Bailey, who claimed that he created the recipe for Reggae Reggae sauce. Bailey ultimately lost the case and the pair don’t speak any more.
Roots says: “I can either look at 2011 as the worst year of my life or the best year of my life. The worst part was that everything was open, my life was open to the press and it was a lot of stress, and people you knew didn’t think the best of you.
“But the best part is that it’s all behind me and I’ve managed to get the monkey off my back and prove to the world that what was being said wasn’t true. And I stress the latter – I think it was the best year, as opposed to the worst, with all the negative part of it.”
Despite winning the legal battle, Roots admitted in court that some of the sauce’s back story – that the recipe had been handed down by his grandmother and that he’d sold it at the Notting Hill Carnival for 15 years – was created to help market the product.
But he is confident this has not affected his business and insists his grandmother was always “an inspiration behind everything I do”.
“It’s just about the story. And all we have to do now is be careful about how we tell the story. I think everyone in food now has this thing about a grandmother’s recipe, so everybody has to be careful now!” he laughs. “Inspiration and actuality are two different things.”
Another positive about the court case, he says, was the support he received from his licensees and from his original Dragons’ Den mentors Richard Farleigh and Peter Jones.
Farleigh, who put £25,000 into the business and then sold the shares back to Roots for a whopping £200,000, remains a “great friend”, Roots says.
“Now I only have one investor, but he’s not just an investor, he’s one of my best friends,” he adds.
“I don’t think I’ll ever want to buy Peter Jones out. Having him as a mentor is invaluable. He’s been there, done it all, including being bankrupt.”
With Jones’s help, Roots hopes to extend his brand to the US. But he has no plans to spread his own wings yet, and still lives in a Housing Association flat in Brixton, where he says he pays £450 a month rent.
“I don’t think five years out of Dragons’ Den is long enough for you to fly the roost and leave the people who were supporting you six years before. I’m reminded of that every evening when I drive into my estate and I see the kids run out and say ‘Levi! We love you!’ That’s part of the reason I stay.
“Plus, that flat has great connections with my business. I will either buy that flat or stay there for the rest of my life.”
As well as wanting to inspire people from his own community – “I never had someone like me in Brixton when I was growing up,” he says – he is pleased to see the profile of Caribbean food growing, an achievement he puts down in part to his TV show Caribbean Food Made Easy.
“It’s fun. It’s about sunshine flavours because the Caribbean is all about that. It’s about cooking outdoors and inviting the family around.”