Levi Roots says his Reggae Reggae Sauce empire has paved the way not only for his own chain of restaurants but for other Caribbean food brands.
The 57-year-old used his big personality and bold flavours to win over Peter Jones on Dragon’s Den in 2007 and the resulting fame propelled his business to an annual turnover of £30million within eight years.
So when it came to opening his first restaurant he decided it needed to make just as much of an impact.
Instead of a small discreet venue in his home of Brixton he choose a huge 130-seat, neon-lit space at Westfield Stratford City, in among established names such as Jamie’s Italian and Wahaca.
“We are allowed to do Caribbean food because we have helped to bring it to the public,” said Levi.
“Without that I don’t think it would have been right to open a restaurant in Westfield.
“It is a massive space and when you look around at my neighbours, they are names I only dreamt of being next to.
“But the timing is right and we have built the brand really successfully before we started to dream about a restaurant.
“That was key so that when we opened people were so familiar with the name that they wanted to eat here because they have the sauce in the cupboard.”
Levi will host The Wharf Innovation In Business Awards 2016 in September, championing businesses in east London and it’s an area close to his heart.
He said he’d had huge support in the East End, which is why he chose to open his first restaurant there.
“I picked Stratford because of the youngsters that have been championing my brand, they are the people talking about my business,” he said. “This is where they are. They are the Westfield babies.
“I didn’t want then to find it difficult to find me. I wanted to come to them.”
The menu is based on dishes from Levi’s cook books and includes Jamaica’s National dish ackee and saltfish (Levi’s favourite), Bajan fish cakes, Martinique coconut chicken curry and, of course, Reggae Reggae jerk chicken.
“I wanted to create that sunshine flavour and I didn’t want to do Jamaican food only,” said Levi who lived in Clarendon Parish until he was 11.
“There are thousands of islands in the Caribbean (more than 7,000 in total) and Jamaica is just one. So saying you are doing Caribbean food allows me to have a diverse restaurant. We have French-style stuff, Spanish-style, Dutch and English African.
“We wanted people who had been to the Caribbean to find something familiar.”
The interior has been designed to evoke a beach shack in Kingston or Montego Bay as Levi said he was happiest with sand between his toes.
He visits Jamaica three times a year and doesn’t shy away from the fact he is considered a celebrity there.
“I relish the fact they see me as someone who has left and made it over there,” he said. “I always get that shudder of pride when I come off the plane and people are fussing over me.
“Usually if you leave and lose the accent you are not Jamaican any more and it p****s them off if you say you are still the real deal, they call you ‘English man’.
“But I think because of my exploits I’m seen as one of them still. They they see me as the Dragon slayer. And I feel very proud I’m accepted in that way by my countrymen.”
He is also proud of being a role model for Caribbean people in the UK.
“Hopefully by investing in the Levi Roots brand I can help Caribbean food,” he said. “It’s not the remote cuisine that it was before. There is now Turtle Bay that is motoring along but I don’t think investors would have taken a chance to invest millions in it before Levi Roots.
“The main aim is to continue investing in myself and the brand to make sure we are market leaders in that spirit of Caribbean food.
“For me the biggest investment so far has been in this establishment here because I’m hoping down the road to do quite a lot of these.
“I’m looking, conservatively to roll this across the whole country, we’re already looking at the second site, maybe in south London or Birmingham and it’s only eight months in.”
He is also spreading the word about Caribbean food through cookery classes, which he holds at the Stratford restaurant for children and adults.
“It’s great fun passing on my tips for Caribbean food to people that never normally would have cooked it but now have my books at home and they come to restaurant with their family and it is on par with Jamie’s and everyone else here.
“It is a great time for Caribbean food.”
The winners of The Wharf Innovation in Business Awards 2016 will be announced at a glittering ceremony on Thursday, September 29.
The man who oversees the cooking, head chef Shekhar Shinde, lives in Stratford but was actually born in India.
He used to buy Levi’s sauce before he got the job and said: “I didn’t know Caribbean food that much apart from that but the roots of it are very similar to Indian food, curry and rice and the spices that are used.”
Curried goat is the most popular dish on the menu according to the former Wagamama chef. And the hidden secret at Levi Roots Caribbean Smokehouse (the clue is in the name) is that they smoke most of the meat for up to seven hours in a special room above the restaurant.