“Last year was either the worst year of my life or it was the best,” declares Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Levi Roots. It was the year his best friend took him to court claiming Roots stole the recipe for his best-selling Reggae Reggae sauce.
“I can either see it as the worst year – the year my friend turned against me – or I can see it as the year that I found out about him and I got rid of the monkey on my back.”
Roots was eventually exonerated. Still, it must have been embarrassing when he had to confess the recipe wasn’t really his grandmother’s, as he’d made out? “Not at all,” he denies, six months later. “It wasn’t, because I never really said that. People said that. Those weren’t my words at all.”
In court, he was less self-assured, especially when he also had to admit he’d never sold Reggae Reggae sauce at Notting Hill carnival, as the bottle stated; that it was all “a marketing ploy.”
Whether you consider Roots to be a barefaced liar – as his old friend’s lawyer alleged – or simply a savvy businessman, he’s undoubtedly come a long way since Dragons’ Den. He’s done deals with Subway, JD Wetherspoon, Bird’s Eye, Domino’s pizza and most recently KFC (where you can bite into a “Reggae Reggae burger”). His sauce is stocked in all the major supermarkets.
And now he’s following in the footsteps of the Spice Girls and Barry White by being transformed into an animation by Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman for a £2 million advertising campaign, which will air for the first time tomorrow, Thursday 3 May, on ITV before being rolled out into cinemas.
Unnervingly, Roots also constantly refers to himself in the third-person, as if he were the product being gobbled up in supermarkets and fast food chains: “It’s Levi Roots’ sauce…the brand is Levi Roots. I think that’s what people are buying.”
So just how much is “the brand” worth nowadays? “I don’t think that money is part of Levi Roots,” says Roots, without missing a beat. “A lot of people make a lot of what I am worth now and how much the business is worth. But for me, it’s just five years…I don’t like to look at the figures because I know it’s still a growing company.” Suffice to say he frequents the boutique of his favourite suit designer Ozwald Boateng on swanky Savile Row as often as Brixton market these days.
What he does reveal is that he wouldn’t say ‘no’ to joining his original backer Peter Jones on the panel of Dragon’s Den. With one condition: “I wouldn’t say the normal things they say, like ‘I’m out.’ That’s too English for me. I would do it the Jamaican way and say ‘Me gone!’”
As one of the most prosperous and high-profile entrepreneurs of recent years, he’s certainly qualified for the job. But why would the “Dragon slayer” – as he nicknamed himself – want to join the enemy’s ranks?
“When I was growing up, I never knew a black rasta-man from Brixton could be a role model, an entrepreneur. Now when I visit schools and universities and prisons, people tell me how much seeing me on Dragons’ Den has inspired them. If by being on a TV show, I can inspire young kids to go ‘if Levi can do it, I think I can do it as well’ then bring it on, that’s what I say.”
Roots regrets that he’s never been asked to follow up his popular cookery series Caribbean Food Made Easy – “I loved it but I think the BBC were a bit frightened of how the brand had grown.” So he’s decided to take the matter into his own hands and devise his own show.
What he’d really like to do, he confides, is a televised version of his live show “Rastarant” which unites his dual passions for music and food: “I’m on stage with a six-piece band and the seventh member of the band is a cooker on stage. We have special guests cook with me and then sign songs. It’s brilliant.”
Also on his to do list is a date with the Queen: “I have met Prince Charles who told me that both his sons enjoy the sauce so it’s got royal approval in that respect. And I’ve met the Prime Minister so there’s only one person next in line for me to meet…”
What would his grandmother say if she could see him now? “’Lord have mercy! Is that my grandson?’” exclaims Roots, in a heavy Jamaican accent. Then he laughs.
Levi Roots is appearing at Foodies Festival, Hampton Court Palace, 5-7 May – see foodiesfestival.com for details