BY SWETA VOHRA//
Clear glass jars of red, white, black and bamboo-infused rice line the kitchen counters in the home of Caryl Levine and Kenneth Lee. Pictures of rice farms and farmers in exotic locations hang on the walls in the hallway. Books and articles on global agriculture, entrepreneurship, and rice cultivation are neatly stacked on a bookshelf and strewn across the coffee table.
These earthy images, products and colors don’t simply decorate the home; they illustrate the life that Levine and Lee follow. This quaint house on a quiet street in El Cerrito is the headquarters for Lotus Foods, Inc. Levine and Lee, co-founders of Lotus Foods, are self-proclaimed lovers of rice. But more than that, they are using their love of rice as a tool to connect Americans with small family farms in places like India, Madagascar and Bhutan.
What Levine calls, “a small company with a big mission,” Lotus Foods offers American consumers “hand-crafted,” high-quality rice from private family plots in remote areas of the world. The vision of the company is to “support sustainable global agriculture” by encouraging production of locally grown rice “enabling the small rice farmer to earn an honorable living.”
The root of Lotus Foods grew from a marketing research trip back in 1993 by Levine and Lee. Both set out to travel the world in an effort to find sound entrepreneurial ideas to implement in the United States. “We wanted to do something but we didn’t know what,” says Levine.
They came back with 90 different ideas jotted down on paper. “I still have the list,” says Levine as she points to the corner shelf.
But one of their experiences stood out among all the others says Levine. Taking a break in a rural region of China, Levine and Lee were served steaming bowls of black rice, something they had never seen before. The roasted nutty flavor of the black grains pleasantly surprised them and provoked Levine and Lee to ask about the rice. The locals explained this black staple was well known for increasing blood circulation and longevity and therefore was served only to the Emperor for many centuries. “Ken had the perfect name right then and there – the Forbidden Rice,” says Levine.
The taste, the nutritional value and the compelling story behind this black rice planted the idea of selling traditional, hand-grown rice to Americans, a market that they believed was still untapped at the time. After spending months researching the rice market as well as some of other business ideas, Levine and Lee decided to undertake this nascent plan and grow it into a business. The “Forbidden Rice,” as it is still called today, was the first on the list of products.
But the challenges were great. “It’s all about relationships,” explains Levine, “ and we were innovators in this market so nobody knew what we were.”
The first relationship to cultivate was between the company and the local growers. Lee spent months traveling to and from remote areas in India, Nepal, Bhutan and parts of Africa visiting with farmers and understanding the methodology used for the grain production. He would seek out non-profits that already worked in many of these regions and explain the business concept of Lotus Foods. Slowly, by establishing trust, farmers started to supply rice to the Lotus food line – Kalijira rice from Bengal, black rice from China and Carnaroli rice from the Andes.
Besides building partnerships, the locals also had to be trained on the proper preparation, sorting, and cleaning of the crop. Most of these farmers were accustomed to selling only in their local markets where cleanliness and sorting are much less emphasized compared to American markets. By teaming up with local non-profits and other agricultural organizations in these regions, Lotus Foods was able to teach growers the methods of rice production for the global market.
The company also had to forge bonds with their American consumers. “We had to educate the market on why [our rice] was better,” says Levine.
The first target market was the “upscale foodies” and “white tablecloth restaurants” which they knew always look for new additions to their menu that look attractive on plates. The Lotus rice products were pitched as having cooking quality – they cook in less than 30 minutes, tasting better, and carrying high nutritional value. Then Levine and Lee targeted specialty food stores like Williams-Sonoma, followed by natural food stores like Whole Foods and eventually grocery stores like Safeway. Today, Lotus Foods has about one million dollars in sales annually around the country.
As a result of paying premium prices and high costs of shipping, Lotus Food products are pricier than the traditional commodity rice, says Levine. But she says with the nutritional quality, consumers will “save on doctor’s bills in the future,” and feels that spending a little more on high-quality rice is justified. Plus, it is indirectly in support of family farms across the world.
Levine relates a story from 1994 when they had met with the minister of agriculture in Bhutan. At that time, Bhutanese exclusively grew red rice, a huge part of the local diet. However, since there was no lucrative market for the staple crop, the minister was considering importing rice from India and getting rid of several of the farms. The locals were resistant. When Lotus Foods offered them a global outlet, Bhutan was able to sustain its long tradition of growing red rice. “We kept the bio-diversity alive,” says Levine, and today, the Bhutanese red rice is the country’s only export to the US.
“It’s a win-win situation,” says Levine. “We feel good about our work.”
Levine and Lee had no idea 15 years ago that this is the work they would be doing. In fact, living in El Cerrito was completely by chance and maybe a little luck. Levine was teaching music at the University of Hartford and was offered a job at UC Berkeley. Knowing nothing about the Bay Area, Levine relied on her cousin who lived in the East Bay to find a place for her and Lee. Levin’s cousin found a house in El Cerrito that was being sold by a friend and told Levine to call about it immediately.
“I had no idea where El Cerrito was, but I knew I needed a place to live. And my cousin loved the house,” says Levine. She called the owner from somewhere in Wisconsin on her cross-country drive to the West Coast, and bought the house.
A decision made on the whim turned out to be beneficial in the long run. Besides falling in love with the city, Levine says the location of El Cerrito for Lotus Foods is fateful. With such natural and specialty food stores like El Cerrito Natural Grocery, Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods nearby, there are not only numerous outlets for their rice but also a lot of local support.
With this support and their established relationships, Lotus Foods is now taking a new step forward in their business. A new method of rice farming called System of Rice Intensification, pioneered by a Cornell professor, is transforming the way rice is being grown worldwide. According to a New York Times article in July, this new system requires less water and produces a higher yield of crops. Cornell University contacted Lotus Foods to offer an international market to farms that have implemented this new system.
“This is an opportunity to revolutionize the way rice is grown,” says Levine. She and Lee jumped at the chance and are currently in the works with Cornell and its partners in this new endeavor.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Lotus Food rice products are going strong in local and national markets. The clear jars that line the counters in Levine’s kitchen are for the rice lovers in them, and they are also the display of Lotus Food’s product line – brown rice from Bengal, red rice from Bhutan, black rice from China.
But whether it’s black or brown, there’s one thing that Levine can guarantee when they pick their rice for Lotus: “It’s gotta taste great.” And they can assure you that they do.