A Berry Big Business?

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 commercial success.

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 general. "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 drinks.

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 acai."

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 business.

"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 acai.

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."

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