Will consumers get juiced over the acai berry? Companies and
retailers from Naked Juice and Honest Tea to Trader Joe's and
Jamba Juice are squeezing the acai for consumer success.
Sambazon, hopes to drink from the same success as
pomegranate promoter Pom Wonderful in introducing a
apparently healthful fruit to consumers.
The juice of the acai berry may represent one of the most
exciting product opportunities in the young history of the
functional foods business. Then again, it may turn out to be
much ado about nothing, just another failure of the industry to
convert the wellness potential of a natural "superfood" into
Ryan Black is betting his company and his brand that acai juice
is the former and not the latter. Sambazon, his San Clemente,
Califorina-based startup, already has become the biggest name
in the fledgling acai business. The former professional football
player is both helping create, and feeding upon, a growing
marketplace enthusiasm for Sambazon beverages and for acai in
"At this stage, acai is just scratching the surface of consumer
awareness," says Black. "But I think it'll overtake many other
fruits because of the nutrition it offers. It can be argued that acai
is the healthiest fruit on the planet, and it's not just because it
has a lot of Vitamin C, or some other single nutrient, but
because of the balance that it offers. It's a real powerhouse of
nutrition; it's just a matter of time."
Sambazon's assets include not only acai fruit's nutritional
attributes but also the romance of the Amazon rainforest, the
ideological allure of Sambazon's "sustainable-agriculture"
platform, a ringing endorsement from a popular diet expert, and
the fact that other well-known beverage brands are jumping on
the acai bandwagon. The success of Pom Wonderful, a hip brand
that markets the juice of the heretofore obscure pomegranate,
has given Black further confidence.
Yet Tom Pirko, a beverage consultant, had never even heard of
acai until this reporter asked him about it. Pirko doubts it ever
could sell broadly without the backing of a huge beverage
company. "Even if a new ingredient is exotic and can promise
exorbitant health benefits, it's very difficult to get consumers'
attention and to get them to buy into it," he says.
There's no doubting the current marketplace momentum for
products derived from acai, a berry found in the tops of an
Amazonian palm tree that is cultivated by rainforest denizens.
The berry is nearly completely seed; the skin is stripped off at
the point of processing and mixed with water to make a pulp.
Acai's taste generally is described as that of a berry with a hint
of chocolate. In Brazilian beverages, acai usually is mixed with
guarana, a stimulant extracted from another native-grown berry
that has effects similar to caffeine and is found in many energy
Acai pulp contains an impressive nutritional elixir. At the top of
its nutrient list is anthocyanins, a powerful antioxidant, of which
acai contains amounts 33 times greater than in red wine and
significantly more than other fruits that recently have been
gaining attention for their antioxidant content, including
pomegranates and blueberries. Acai also contains omega-6 and
omega-9 cholesterol-fighting fatty acids, more protein than the
average egg, essential amino acids, and vitamins and minerals
ranging from Vitamin E to calcium.
American doctor Nicholas Perricone has juiced prospects for acai
by recommending it in his book, The Perricone Promise, as one
of the top foods for combating aging and otherwise living a
healthy lifestyle. Another acai-juice startup, San Francisco-
based Zola, also is trying to gain a nationwide foothold.
A number of US beverage companies and retailers also are
exploiting the potential offered by acai. Naked Juice introduced a
Mango Acai product in February. Trader Joe's, the natural-foods
retail chain, offers a ready-to-drink acai smoothie. Honest Tea
sells a ready-to-drink mango-acai product. Jamba Juice, the
smoothie-bar chain, introduced in March a new menu item
called Acai Supercharger.
"It's really delicious, one of our newest flavors, and we think it
has phenomenal potential," says Julie Tarry, director of
marketing for Azusa, Calif.-based Naked Juice. "A lot of really
educated, health-conscious consumers have been reading about
But Sambazon could provide the biggest boost to acai if the
ingredient is ever to make it out of the new-product jungle to
popular appreciation in the United States. Revenues are still
under US$ 10 million, says Black, but they doubled last year
compared with 2003. He says that Sambazon is "just starting to
break a profit" but "we're growing rapidly."
Black was on vacation, surfing in Brazil, several years ago when a
friend took him to a local "acai bar" for his first taste of the fruit.
Similar to American juice bars, these outlets typically serve club-
goers an acai-based concoction in the evening before they go
out on the town. It consists of liquefied acai pulp and guarana
served in a bowl and topped with granola and sliced bananas.
Another aspect of the appeal of acai—to Black, and to many
consumers—is that its popularity offers a way to encourage the
spread of so-called "sustainable" agriculture in the rainforest.
The more that Amazonians could be encouraged to tend to
crops of wild acai, the less likely they would be to strip the trees
from the forest to convert the land to arable plots.
Black learned that acai, long a popular food with Amazonians,
had only caught on with the rest of the Brazilian population
within the previous several years. "That's one of the main
reasons that no one in America had heard of it," he says.
As Black, who earned a finance degree from the University of
Colorado, developed his business plan, however, he came to
believe that he should first gain widespread distribution of acai
pulp in the United States before getting into the restaurant
"I figured someone would have to supply acai, so that would be
a good place to start," he says. "Once I had it on a nationwide
basis, then I'd launch Sambazon bars."
So Black began approaching juice bars in the United States with
the idea of buying frozen acai pulp from him, touting the
benefits and taste appeal of acai and demonstrating to
restaurant operators how to make both smoothies and bowls of
But soon after his initial foray into juice bars, Black says,
consumers and others were approaching Sambazon and
wondering whether the company would consider selling the
frozen pulp through retailers. So in 2003, Sambazon launched a
retail pack that has become a mainstay of its business. The
company now sells about half of its frozen pulp to juice bars and
half to retail stores, Black says.
Priced at a suggested $4.99 at outlets including Whole Foods
Markets, the retail version of acai pulp comes in packs of 100
grams each, four packs to a package, each pack resembling a
Popsicle without a stick. Sambazon offers it in its pure form as
well as a variety that includes organic sugar and guarana.
Black also realized that the best way to get acai into broad
circulation would be to turn it into a ready-to-drink, single-
serve beverage. So Sambazon developed and sells a line of acai-
based smoothies. Retailing for about $3.49 apiece in health-
food stores and some juice bars, each variety of Amazon
Superfood combines acai with other juices and other
ingredients. Even more recently, Sambazon has introduced two
other extensions of its acai-based line: supplement capsules,
and shelf-stable packages of concentrate.
Also possible, Black says: a version of Sambazon acai that is
combined with guarana and aimed directly at the dominance of
Red Bull in the canned-energy-drink market. Acai, like Red Bull,
is said to mix well with alcohol.
Sambazon at this point is focusing on grassroots marketing to
highly health-conscious consumers, such as at new-age
festivals and extreme-games competitions, as well as with in-
store promotions and demonstrations. Black is succeeding in
getting some restaurant chefs to cook with it. More news and
entertainment media are beginning to pick up on the buzz
surrounding acai as well.
Increasingly, Black is emphasizing the fact that Sambazon is a
highly vertically integrated supplier of acai whose foundational
corporate mission includes nurturing acai growers in the
Amazon and fostering compatibility among the increasing
harvests of Acai, the rainforest ecosystem and the livelihood of
its farmers. In fact, Black says, Sambazon is "paying a little bit
extra to the growers because we're asking them to do a little bit
more, to take care of things a little bit more.
"It's our goal to make Sambazon an essential lifestyle brand for
healthy living and sustainability," Black says. "Every unit we sell
is contributing to the sustainability of the rainforest."