Emerging Brands

One of the biggest açai suppliers wants to be the In-N-Out Burger of the Brazilian superfood

Growing the Sambazon Açai Bowls concept will mean competing with its own CPG products and foodservice clients, but the CEO says it's about communicating the brand's mission.
A rendering of the franchise model for Sambazon Acai Bowls interior. |Rendering courtesy of Sambazon.

Ryan Black wants to build the In-N-Out Burger of açai bowl concepts.

Black is the co-founder and CEO of Sambazon, which he says supplies about 90% of the açai available in the U.S. and is the leading supplier globally.

He has spent two decades building a market for the Brazilian superfood in America, and Sambazon’s products are in some 30,000 retail stores, from Costco to Whole Foods, and are served by restaurant chains that include Smoothie King and many others.

The company opened the first Sambazon Açai Bowls outlet in the San Diego area in 2011, and the brand also now has eight nontraditional licensed locations in airports and college campuses, with three more scheduled to open this year.

Now Black contends there’s enough awareness about açai to start franchising—even though franchisees would be competing both with his CPG line and foodservice customers.

Black said the move is fundamentally about telling the brand’s story.

“The message of Sambazon is the mission of our company,” he said. “It’s difficult to tell that message behind someone else’s counter or behind a freezer door in supermarket.”

He likens it to the story of clothing designer Ralph Lauren, whose clothes were sold in Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s before the designer built his own flagship Ralph Lauren store. In the end, the debut of that flagship helped boost sales of the designer’s brand in the department stores too, Black said.

Sambazon Acai Bowl

The flagship unit in the San Diego area opened in 2011. | Photo courtesy of Sambazon.

A former almost-professional football player (he trained with the Minnesota Vikings but didn’t make it to the NFL, which he says stands for “not for long”), Black fell in love with açai 20 years ago on a beach in Brazil.

The superfood was huge there at the time, and athletes in Brazil ate it while in training because of its rich nutritional profile, serving as a meal that is both filling and light.

Black wanted to bring açai to the U.S., but the supply chain was undeveloped. The fruit, which grows on a type of tall skinny palm tree, was harvested wild in the rainforest. Black saw the need at the time to build a system that would protect the ecosystem there, he said.

In fact, the name Sambazon is a sort of acronym mashup for Sustainable Management of the Brazilian Amazon, he said.

There are concerns that the growing demand for açai is harming the biodiversity of the environmentally vital region, but Black said Sambazon has helped build sustainable forest management programs there that give growers an income alternative to more destructive industries, like mining, raising cattle or sugarcane. Sambazon’s products are still wild harvested, and also organic and fair trade certified, and he described the supply chain as fully transparent.

Now açai is a mainstream product, with about 60% of Americans aware of it. Açai bowl concepts have proliferated, from Vitality Bowls and Rush Bowls, to Clean Juice and Jamba.

And there’s serious competition. The Brazilian-born Oakberry, which has some 700 shops around the world, in January announced it has raised $67 million to expand in the U.S. with plans to open 200 units by 2026.

Sambazon, however, has the advantage of the vertically integrated supply chain, said Black.

Acai bowls

Sambazon Acai Bowls are customizable and in San Diego are priced between $10-$12. |Photo courtesy of Sambazon.

Black said the Sambazon Açai Bowl concept is also designed to showcase how the superfood is best served, offering proprietary dispensing equipment that gets the consistency, temperature and flavor right for the fully customizable bowls, alongside smoothies and juice drinks.

The franchise company, Sambazon Hospitality Group, based in San Clemente, Calif., will grow the concept in formats that can range from roughly 900- to 1,200-square feet as a brick-and-mortar, and much smaller units for nontraditional.

The concept can operate with as few as three workers, and the equipment is designed for speed. Most chains use blenders, which are slower and more labor intensive, said Black.

In addition to the açai dishes and drinks, the restaurant offers Brazilian cheese bread and is testing empanadas, both as add ons. Hot oatmeal is also on the menu.

The average check is roughly $15 to $17, with add ons.

The goal is to be the best of the açai bowls out there, with a simple, focused menu in the style of In-N-Out Burger, he said.

“We want to bring bowl shops to your local city and neighborhoods to reinforce the brand story, as well as to our customers who might be purchasing the product in supermarkets who also want to enjoy it on premise,” said Black.


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