Beans, barefoot trails, and the Beatles: an interview with Craig Sams

Craig Sams

Founder of Green & Black’s and Whole Earth Foods, Craig Sams was one of the earliest proponents of healthy, wholefood diets. With stories stretching back to the Groucho Club and serving brown rice to John Lennon, Craig tells BLM about his business career, his thoughts on the food sector, and his life philosophy.

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

I was born in Nebraska. My family were farmers there. I grew up mostly in LA and London, so am ’transatlantic’. I graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and decided to open a macrobiotic restaurant in London, where my mother was living.

How did you get into the organic, wholefood movement?

I got into macrobiotics because it made such a difference to my health. I had been really low with dysentery and hepatitis and used a simple diet in Afghanistan to cure myself, then discovered macrobiotics and never looked back.

Tell me about opening a restaurant in London. What were the challenges and high points?

To begin with, I supplied brown rice snacks at the UFO Club, which was where the Pink Floyd did their first London gigs. We had to explain what brown rice was, why whole grains were good for you and why sugary processed food was not good for you. So, I had a ready clientele by the time the restaurant opened.

The restaurant rocked – my brother Gregory developed a good friendship with John Lennon who loved the food and gave him a treasured cartoon of himself and Yoko sitting on a cloud after reading a booklet about macrobiotics that Gregory wrote. Macrobiotics was as trendy as you could get, but also had bitter opposition from people like the American Medical Association who called it the ‘Hippie Death Diet.’ Nobody paid much attention to them or the UK medical establishment, who still barely understand about diet.

How did you progress from the restaurant to cofounding Whole Earth Foods?

By 1970, my brother Gregory and I had a restaurant and what was Britain’s first organic natural food store – Ceres Grain Shop. People in other places started opening shops like it and wanted to stock the products we had, so we packed stuff and eventually started manufacturing peanut butter and fruit juice sweetened jams and we had a bakery that produced Britain’s first sourdough breads, which were wholemeal and organic too.

You founded Whole Earth with your brother and Green & Black’s with your wife. What was it like, running a business with a loved one? Do you have any tips for others considering that path?

Try to ensure that your roles in the business are complementary so that you don’t overlap – that’s where quarrels begin. With Gregory, I did the sales and marketing and he made sure that the business could deliver. With Jo, she did the marketing and PR and I made sure the business could deliver. So, as long as we did our roles well, there was no conflict.

Green & Black’s is famous for its association with the Fairtrade movement. Do you think your emphasis on organic, ethical products has strengthened your commercial brand?

Undoubtedly. We were the first chocolate company that had nothing to hide about the farmers who grew the cocoa beans. When we started, few chocolate companies knew anything about the farmers who grew their cacao. Nowadays, 90% of chocolate companies deal directly with farmers and work to make their lives better. If they don’t treat the farmers well, they will grow rubber or oil palm or cashew nuts, so the boot has moved onto the other foot as well over the years.

What is the origin story for Gusto?

We had a party at the Groucho Club in 1987 to celebrate 20 years of Whole Earth Foods. I made up a drink I called Herbal Burble that was non-alcoholic but had a powerful herbal kick, with guarana, pfaffia, ginseng, Siberian ginseng and a blend of Chinese herbs called ‘Free and Easy Wanderer’ that dated back to 12th century Taoism.

People loved it and, in 1990, my daughter persuaded me to bottle it and she and her brother did the sales and marketing. We couldn’t call it Herbal Burble because Wrigley’s owned Hubble Bubble and it sounded too close, so we called it Gusto. They did a great job and it sold well in Holland & Barrett and, unsurprisingly, in Dutch coffee shops.

Why did you sell the Gusto brand, and why did you buy it back?

We sold the Whole Earth brand to fuel the marketing budget of Green & Black’s and the buyer also asked to purchase the Gusto brand, so my kids agreed to sell. The buyer did well with Whole Earth but Gusto lost its way. So, I bought it back to restore it to its former glory.

Do you think the wholefood market is going mainstream? Do you think it is possible to produce wholefoods at a scale and price point to support the majority of consumers?

People understand the gut microbiome like never before. When you do, the importance of fibre and organic quality becomes more important than cost. Food is only 10 per cent of most people’s budget, so an extra per cent or two doesn’t break the bank.

Now that agriculture is waking up to the importance of reducing carbon emissions and increasing the carbon-rich organic matter in soil, the economics are tipping too – if there was a price on carbon then organic food would cost less than industrial food. Then who would pay more to have food that pollutes the planet and has pesticide residues?

Do you still follow a macrobiotic diet? What are your lifestyle priorities?

I adopted macrobiotics in 1965. I last saw a doctor a few months before that and have been in good health ever since. When something hasn’t been right healthwise I’ve used diet, Pilates and exercise to put it right.

I sleep 7 or 8 hours a night and stopped drinking 5 years ago. I don’t smoke cigarettes. I spend a lot of time absorbing sunlight on as much of my body as possible; I believe it is a major food group, eaten via the skin. Sun rays penetrate the body too, so it’s good to get them on your belly whenever possible.

Can you tell me about your work with Carbon Gold Ltd? What is biochar and why is it important?

The dumbest thing we do is to burn wood instead of oil or gas. Yes, it’s renewable, over a 100-year cycle, but it’s dirty and polluting and it means deforesting large areas of land and it only happens because of subsidies; your money and mine paid as taxes.

We should leave trees alone; they suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. If we cut them down, we should use them in construction or furniture so that the carbon they capture is kept out of the atmosphere.

All residues and other biomass waste should be turned into biochar, which is the same as charcoal, but ground up into small particles and added to the soil. It stays there for thousands of years and encourages the proliferation of the bacteria and fungi that make plants, from tomatoes to trees, grow faster and resist disease. And it keeps that carbon permanently out of the atmosphere.

We sell it for pasture, turf, trees, fruit, vegetable and many other crops and it has saved the lives of many venerable English trees. Ascot uses it on the racecourse and golf courses use it instead of fungicides.

Are there any other ventures you’d like to pursue? What are your plans for the future?

We have 50 acres of beautiful woodland near Hastings and are hooking up with our neighbours to create a nature reserve.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt over the course of your career?

Somebody somewhere can do almost everything I can do better and cheaper than I can, so find them, do what you’re best at yourself and outsource, outsource, outsource. It reduces the cost of operating and reduces stress. Just don’t outsource to incompetents.

What are you passionate about, outside of work?

I love barefoot walking and am creating barefoot trails in our woodlands. Jo and I walk the Seven Sisters on the Sussex Downs barefoot. The energy of the earth draws out all your stress and makes you feel better and it’s good for your posture and overall health.

Since my earliest days, I have liked to dance. In Hastings, there’s always somewhere where there is good music and I’m also happy doing my workout exercises with musical accompaniment.

I also spend a lot of time immersed in history – understanding the pattern of how one civilisation after the other makes the same daft mistakes and are unable to stop repeating themselves. What I hate most is how the war business sucks money out of the real economy for unnecessary wars and destroys or weakens otherwise viable economies all around the planet. Love and peace, man.