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Craig Sams: “John Lennon and Yoko Ono were regulars”

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Craig Sams is practically a legend on the UK organic food scene. He’s the founder of iconic brands such as Green & Black’s and Whole Earth, and a former chairman of the Soil Association and Slow Food UK. He opened London’s first macrobiotic restaurant, Seed, where John Lennon and Marc Bolan were regulars, and he is the author of the Little Book of Food. Today, he runs the carbon sequestration business Carbon Gold. He talks here to Jim Manson in an interview originally published and commissioned by Bio Eco Actual

Q What first kindled your interest in natural and organic, and how far back does that interest go?

Our dad emerged from WW2 as a Marine in the Pacific with serious health issues, mostly gut-related. Our mother consulted a Japanese doctor based in LA who advised dietary interventions that included sugar avoidance and wholewheat bread. So we grew up with some dietary constraints that we just took for granted. In 1965 I was in Kabul with serious hepatitis arising from amoebic dysentery. I knew the cure for dysentery: wholemeal unleavened flatbread and unsweetened tea and applied it – I was soon fit enough to continue travelling. Six months later I was back at my university in Philadelphia when friends introduced me to the macrobiotic diet. It was transformative. In February 1966 I visited The Paradox in New York, the first macrobiotic restaurant in the US (where Yoko Ono worked at that time) and decided that when I graduated later that year I would focus on opening something like it in London, where my mother was living.  

Q Seed, the macrobiotic restaurant you opened in London in 1968 with Greg Sams, has passed into legend. Can you tell us about the Seed scene?

Seed was pretty groovy. I had to leave London for various reasons and so my brother Gregory took over the restaurant. A lot of our customers came there because it had a very relaxed atmosphere – low round tables (which I had made out of recycled electric cable reels) with cushions for seating in one room and more formal tables and chairs in the other. Because a low table would accommodate 10 people, customers got to know each other as they shared tables. Musicians would play in the entrance hallway, or in the restaurant proper if there was room. John and Yoko were regulars, Terence Stamp was really into the diet and it’s where Marc Bolan met Mickey Finn to set up T Rex. We had a free meal principle – you could get a generous plate of brown rice and vegetables whether you could pay or not. Vegetables were organic, delivered from Soil Association members.  There was the occasional whiff of exotic smoke, but we tried to keep a lid on that. Occasionally a rock band would drop in just before closing time, desperate for a macrobiotic meal after doing a gig outside of London and we would stay open to serve them. Then Gregory had the idea for ’Sprout’ and we had a separate room that was a sushi and tempura bar. At that time the only place in Britain that served food like miso soup, brown rice, edible seaweeds like hiziki or kombu, sushi, tempura and other things we now take for granted, was Seed Restaurant.  

“Musicians would play in the entrance hallway, or in the restaurant proper if there was room. John and Yoko were regulars, Terence Stamp was really into the diet and it’s where Marc Bolan met Mickey Finn to set up T Rex”

Q. Not long after you launched Seed, you opened the macrobiotic food shop Ceres and then the Whole Earth and Harmony brands. How did these enterprises all interconnect?

Gregory set up Ceres Grain Shop. It was originally on All Saints Road, next door to the Mangrove Restaurant, which became a focus of police racism as shown in Steve McQueen’s recent film. They even recreated our shop front on the film set. Then we moved the shop to a higher footfall location on Portobello Road. People were opening shops like Infinity in Brighton, Anjuna in Cambridge, On The EighthDay in Manchester and Acorn in Bristol and they came to us for supplies.  We launched Harmony Foods to package and supply brown rice and other macrobiotic foods. Our mother recruited a few of her friends and neighbours to do the packing and about this time health food shops were getting requests for products that nobody else could supply. Our salesman, Jay Landesman, would cold call retailers with a pitch that went “Hello. Are you getting customers coming in who have long hair and colourful clothes and are asking for foods like miso, brown rice and hiziki seaweed?  Well – we have the answer.” We quickly expanded into the health food trade.  Then some people wanted to wholesale and we began supplying them with our pre-packed products, which increased our reach even more. We gave Seed Restaurant to group of macrobiotics from the Kushi Institute but they didn’t do too well with it and we closed it down and opened Green Genes, a ‘macrobiotic workingmen’s cafe’ in the former Ceres shop premises on All Saints Road. We did the first Glastonbury Festival but our shop manager became ill and I took over running it. Then the premises next door became available and we opened Ceres Bakery, which used only whole grain flours and was the first bakery in the UK to do sourdough and naturally leavened breads and soon we were delivering to 80 retails shops all over the London area, including Biba, Harrods and Selfridges. Gregory would deal with organic farmers, buy their wheat, mill it at Harmony Foods and then we would bake it into bread at Ceres Bakery. So the bakery and the shop delivered the sales volume platform while Harmony Foods kept increasing its reach into natural foods retail.

Q With your wife, Josephine Fairley, you launched Green & Blacks chocolate in 1991 – the first ever Fairtrade label product, and now an iconic organic brand. How did that all happen?  

In 1988 I found a way to make natural peanut butter that didn’t have oil separation, without using hydrogenated fat. Peanut butter sales started going crazy and I was looking for a reliable source for organic peanuts. Our Danish distributor, Urtekram, mentioned a Frenchman, Andre Deberdt, who was working on a soil regeneration project with farmers in Togo, West Africa. I got a sample of their organic peanuts but sadly they failed our aflatoxin tests. I called up Andre with the bad news and he responded: “Well, the farmers also grow organic cacao”.  I jumped at it, as I had tried 70% chocolate in Spain a year earlier but it wasn’t available anywhere else in Europe. Andre got a sample of 70%  chocolate made and my girlfriend Jo Fairley tasted it and exclaimed: “This is the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted.” She came up with the brand name which had ‘Green’ for ‘organic’ and ‘Black’s’ for ‘very dark’ and it sounded like we were an old firm of chocolatiers. Community Foods refused to stock it, commenting to me: “Craig, you were the one that got us all to stop selling sugar.”  My response was: “The glycemic index of 70% chocolate is 23, the glycemic index of brown rice is 65, so please reconsider.”  

Supermarkets told us nobody would eat what they perceived as cooking chocolate. But Sainsbury’s took it for just 12 stores and sales took off – they quickly extended it to the rest of their stores and other supermarkets came on board too. Then in 1994 we launched Maya Gold, based on a cacao recipe I had tried years earlier when filming the Deer Dance with the Maya people in Belize. Maya Gold was the first product ever to carry the Fairtrade Mark and so it got huge publicity and the support of people who weren’t that fussed about organic but did care about fair trade.  We never looked back and the brand really took off.

Q You have had a long involvement with the Soil Association, including being its chairman (2001-2007). How do you view the UK organic scene today

There has been positive growth and there is a whole new generation of consumers who automatically choose organic, regardless of price. Organic farmers are getting better and better at what they do. WIth COP26 there has been universal agreement to take CO2 emissions to ’Net Zero.’ That will play well for organics as organic farmers can capture and lock in the soil about 7 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year. WIth a carbon price heading towards $100 tonne an organic farmer can make $700 per hectare just for the carbon they are ‘farming.’ Then organic food will be cheaper than industrial/chemical food and the market will explode. That’s great news for organic farmers and for the planet.

Q Organic has to compete with an increasing number of ethical and eco labels. How can the sector best communicate its multiple benefits to both policy makers and consumers? 

My view is that we should focus on pesticide residues. After the glyphosate scandals with Monsanto and Bayer the courts in the US and Europe have confirmed the connection between agricultural chemicals and serious diseases. Policy makers cannot ignore this and are beginning to change what is allowed. Consumers are smarter than ever and will also respond. Issues like biodiversity and environmental benefits are good messaging, but people are mostly concerned about not getting cancer or non Hodgkin lymphoma.

Q You made a return to independent retail in the 2000s when you took over Judges in Hastings, refocusing its bakery and grocery offer on organic. What did you take from that experience? 

Judges was a traditional bakery, established in 1826 and very much in the pattern of local small bakeries, thousands of which had gone out of business because the big plant bakeries were so cheap. We acquired Judges and took it organic in 2006, introduced sourdough breads and offered a full range of organic groceries. The turnover quadrupled in a year or two from £250,000 to almost £1 million.  We sold it on in 2015 and the new owners are sticking to our principles and doing really well. There were people for whom having an asset like that on the high street triggered their decision to move to Hastings and it continues to be a valuable part of the Hastings experience. It has now opened branches in 2 nearby country towns, bringing good food further afield

“They (natUral food stores) made it happen. The health food scene was always marginal and very dependent on supplements and remedies. When people could get their entire food requirements from a natural food store that was a huge change”

Q More generally, can you comment on the role that independent natural food retailers have played in creating the modern organic food scene?

They made it happen. The health food scene was always marginal and very dependent on supplements and remedies. When people could get their entire food requirements from a natural food store that was a huge change. People could get all their food needs without going to supermarket. That registered with the supermarkets and they scrambled to get on board, which increased the overall size of the market. But a natural food user doesn’t want to have to wander down aisle after aisle to find their requirements when it is all there in a natural food store, along with all the novel introductions that suppliers to the natural retail trade are coming up with. Natural food retailers are open to innovation, are quick to recognise new trends like fermented foods, organic chocolate and novel foods and drinks like kombucha and are the platform for their wider consumption. The organic food scene would not be where it is today without them.

Q When you started your biochar company Carbon Gold in 2007, one or two people were saying Im not really sure about that. In 2021, a carbon sequestration business seems like a very good idea indeed. What are your ambitions for it now? 

BIochar works. It enables growers and gardeners to water less, use less fertiliser (organic or otherwise) and get healthier plants and vigorous growth.  Gardeners love it, but we spent a lot of time touting its benefits to commercial growers, but could never effectively compete with peat, which is so cheap because it doesn’t have to pay for its gigantic carbon footprint. We are now focused on products for gardeners and offer compost, soil improver, compost regenerator, fertiliser and products for lawns and trees. We are the leading consumer brand for biochar in the gardening market and we want to keep our first mover advantage and build our brand. We have tens of thousands of customers on our data base and are marketing direct to them via social media and mailing. This year, for the first time, our products will be listed in most of Britain’s leading garden centres and also in the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) shops. Biochar’s time has finally come and we are enjoying the positive support within horticulture for our products. We aim to extend the brand beyond our shores and have increasing interest from overseas customers. Watch this space, it’s all getting very exciting at the moment.

Q As well your pioneering role in organic food, you have been a strong supporter of natural health approaches. Are you optimistic about the future of the natural movement in the era of the techno fix?

I’m not the only one who has found that taking care of your health using natural health approaches is effective. There are millions who get it and the growth in consumption of organic food, supplements, herbal treatments and the whole range of complementary therapies that are increasingly available reflects this understanding that health is a positive thing that you create with your lifestyle.  As more and more people become health-aware the pressure on our medical facilities will be reduced – and we will need to shift some of those resources into caring for the people who are reaching advanced old age and still enjoying life. 

• This interview was originally published and commissioned by Bio Eco Actual. 

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