When surfer Ryan Black and his best friend, Ed Nichols, went to northern Brazil in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium, they discovered a delicious, colorful, healthy treat called an açai bowl. Almost immediately, they decided to make it their life's work to bring the creamy, purple, banana- and granola-topped treat back to California—and the rest of the world.
“They were just like, this is what we’re going to do with our lives," says Jeremy Black, Ryan's brother, who subsequently co-founded the company Sambazon with them to help them realize their dream. "We’re going to figure out how to get this back to California and open up a little shack. When they came home, they started working on a business plan and figured out that açai came from the Amazon. They learned that the sustainable harvest of it was actually doing good things for people, like providing more income and more jobs to protect what is a wild harvested crop. They saw this idea of like, wow, you can actually make the standing forest more valuable than cutting down the forest—and this was early, when social entrepreneurship wasn’t really a buzzword.”
In 2001, Sambazon started selling its products to local juice bars up and down the Californian coast. “Pretty soon, people were calling us in New York and Miami saying they had an açai bowl in California and they wanted it in New York," says Black. "Sixteen years later we’re all over the world—and, we were the first ones to certify açai organic.”
The trio wasn’t just looking to get rich. They wanted to do right by the environment, and the Brazilian people. “When we decided we wanted to do this, we knew we wanted to build a supply chain that could supply the world with açai—but do it right. So it’s organic and it’s fair-trade, and while we’ve been building a business in the U.S. and internationally, we’ve also built this world class, fair trade organic supply chain in the Amazon. It’s a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility. You can’t supply the world with açai and not do it right, so we had to become our own supplier of the fruit.”
Black, who is based in Malibu, goes to Brazil a couple times a year to check up on the manufacturing facility (while making time to catch a few waves, too). After 15 years of traveling between California and the Amazon, he fell in love with the country. “Brazil is one of the warmest, passionate cultures I think I’ve come across in the world. Most people think of Rio de Janiero—but Brazil is huge. You’ve got everything from the Amazon in the north to the beaches to the mountains to the Pantanal, which is like the Florida Everglades.”
Sambazon, which is best known for its juices and smoothies, recently launched some new products, açai superfruit packets with protein and greens, which offer a great way to get your antioxidant fix while traveling. The company also added two new flavors of its signature sorbets—açai chocolate and açai chocolate chocolate chip. And in an effort to give back to the community that has given them so much, the trio have also been working to build schools for children in the Amazon.
On a recent trip back to the company's manufacturing facility and the surrounding area, Black snapped these pictures for us. To learn more about the superfruit, how it's harvested, and what its health benefits are scroll through his slideshow.