Craig Sams and the birth of Gusto

In a 2007 interview with The Observer, Sir Paul McCartney recalled the birth of the healthy eating scene in 60s London. “Linda and I helped to kickstart the vegetarian food market in Britain,” he remembered. “We were the first, along with Craig Sams and his brother Greg.”

As endorsements go, it doesn’t get much more ‘Big Time’ than Macca, but then, few people have had as big an impact on the way we eat – and, more specifically, the way our eating habits are now evolving – than Craig Sams. The founder of Gusto Organic Drinks is also the co-founder of Whole Earth and, with his wife, Green & Blacks. Over the course of a fascinating life, he has launched the UK’s first ever macrobiotic restaurant, served brown rice and steamed vegetables to Marc Bolan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, cured himself (macrobiotically) of a life-threatening illness and advised the UK’s major supermarkets on how to go organic.

Understandably, the man has a lot of fascinating stories. On a sunny day in early February, we sat down with him for lunch in Hastings to hear a few of them in person.

“My brother and I always said that we both looked through the wrong end of the telescope: we could see the future but we always thought it was only a year or two away”

Tell me a bit about where Gusto came from. As I understand it, you’ve been brewing organic soft drinks for some time.

The first Gusto Organic drink was originally developed in 1987, and we called it Hurble Burble. It wasn’t actually a product; it was a concoction put together for the 20th birthday party of Whole Earth Foods, which we started in the Summer of Love, 1967. We had a party at the Groucho Club – a massive knees-up – and for the non-drinkers I made up a kind of energy concoction that was based loosely on Whole Earth Cola, but boosted with Siberian ginseng, pfaffia paniculata, which is also known as Brazilian ginseng, and extra guarana. By the end of the night, people were asking where they could get more, and whether it was even legal [laughs].

So I decided to bottle it, but my marketing director said, “You’re crazy! This is not a Whole Earth Foods product”. Whole Earth Food was known for its peanut butter, no-sugar-added jam, cornflakes, muesli, baked beans, ketchup… wholesome family food; everything that Heinz did but more natural. So we stalled on this drink for a couple of years. Meanwhile, my kids Rima and Karim were going out on the rave scene and, instead of taking ecstasy, they’d take along this Hurble Burble and party on down with the best of them, only without the comedown.

In 1990, my daughter told me I had to bottle it. I said she should do it, and I’d do the logistics to help make sure it worked as a business. So we took the recipe and toned it down a bit, making it a good, natural, all-round energy drink. We made it as righteous as we could, really going against the tide of all those synthetic caffeine and taurine combinations that were coming out at the time.

How did the name change come about? Why are we not drinking Hurble Burble now?

Well, Wrigley were making Hubble Bubble. They didn’t do drinks, but it was a bit close. We already had the brand name Gusto because we were the first people to import guarana from Brazil. Since 1979, we had marketed guarana capsules under that brand name – we sold them in little tubes in health food shops.

In Brazil, they call guarana ‘the intestinal policeman’, because if you have it in its natural form it’s also very good for digestion. It clears out the bad bugs and encourages the good ones, like a prebiotic. So, we sat down to think up a name around that, and my brother came up with Intesticlean, which obviously wasn’t too good [laughs]. Then he said Guts Fresh, then Gutso, and then he arrived at Gusto. Of course, in music ‘con gusto’ means ‘with flourish and energy’, and that became the product we marketed through the ‘80s. I phased it out around ‘87, but we still had the brand name.

“It became the drink of choice in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. They loved it because customers would come over, buy a couple of grams of grass, get stoned, stagger back to their hotel and fall asleep. With Gusto, they kept going!”

And was the drink a success?

Well, my children went about marketing it and it was in the Groucho and in Holland & Barrett. It became the drink of choice in the coffee shops of Amsterdam. They loved it because international customers would come over, buy a couple of grams of grass, get stoned and fall asleep. Gusto gave them that little bit extra – it kept them going! So that established the brand very solidly in Holland, and it still has a huge following there. All of those coffee shop customers from the beginning of the 90s are now families living in the suburbs.

And in the UK? Do you still have customers from that period with the same loyalty?

Oh yeah. They’re very loyal. My wife is one of them. She’s a journalist for various newspapers and magazines, and when she has an assignment in front of her, a bottle of Gusto Organic Energy is on her desk and it helps her focus. People who ‘get’ Gusto use it wisely and to good effect.

All of this is referring to the mother brand, of course. That’s Gusto Organic Energy. Our Lemon Energy drink followed. The we did Gingkola, which was gingko and cola, and then Gusto Goddess, which was a herb-based women’s drink.

These are no longer part of the range, are they?

Well, we sold the brand to a company in Holland in the early 2000s, and they kind of lost the plot on it, so I bought it back a few years later. By that time it had become possible to get all of the ingredients as organics, so we relaunched as Gusto Organic.

Is it at that point that Gusto Real Cola came about?

That came along a few years later. We still had the Gusto Organic Energy drink and the Gusto Lemon Energy, but now we had the Gusto Real Cola, too. It took a while, but we eventually got to where we are now with the glass bottle and the sexy packaging and the two formulas that really work. And we’re now doing a cherry cola and various other drinks.

“I went to New York to the macrobiotic bookshop and the FBI was closing them down because they SOLD BOOKS THAT said cancer could be prevented if you had a healthy diet and lots of exercise.”

In terms of your background, you’re known for organics and Fairtrade-related work. How did your interest in all of that begin?

Oh, that goes back to April of 1965. I was in Delhi with serious dysentery and hepatitis. I was told at a hospital that I was going to die and that I should check in at once, but the hospital didn’t have any beds. I went on to Delhi General Hospital and I spent a day there and they gave me some vitamin B shots, and I realised I’d probably die if I stayed because I didn’t have anyone to bring me food. I went on to Peshawar and stayed in a dispensary there for a couple of days and then went on to Kabul.

Now, I knew through travelling in Iran that the way to treat dysentery was to have unsweetened tea and whole wheat flatbread, which is the kind of bread they all ate in the ‘60s. So I went on that diet, the dysentery cleared up, and lo and behold, my liver stopped hurting.

I eventually got back to England and was in reasonably good health during the summer. I went back to university in the autumn of ‘65, which coincided with my first acid trip (this was in Philadelphia), and I got involved with some of the people in the macrobiotic scene. There were about five or six people in Philly that were into the Zen macrobiotic diet. That really made a difference. I was back to 100% health in no time. I stopped drinking alcohol, of course, which you do with hepatitis. And that’s what got me into healthy eating.

I was on a career path at this point. I’d signed up to the Peace Corps, I’d been accepted and I was supposed to go for training after I graduated in June of ‘66. But in February of ‘66, I went to New York to buy macrobiotic food, went into the macrobiotic bookshop and they wouldn’t sell us any books because the FBI was closing them down – the shop sold books that said that cancer could be prevented if you had a healthy diet and lots of exercise. This is now standard medical stuff, but in those days it was heresy.

That same day, I went to The Paradox, a macrobiotic restaurant on the Lower East Side, and I just decided that this is what I wanted to do. I wrote to the Peace Corps and said that I wouldn’t be coming for training, and then I went back to London, where my mother lived, and opened a macrobiotic restaurant in February of ‘67.

So the whole timeline moves relatively quickly.

Yeah. I did brown rice and snack versions of macrobiotic food at the UFO club, which is where Pink Floyd used to play. We were the first people to sell Time Out magazine when it was just a mimeograph.

“John and Yoko were regular customers, as was Terence Stamp. It became a kind of groovy place to go. We did a free meal as part of our mission. Marc Bolan of T-Rex came long distances to get his bowl of free rice and vegetables, during his harder times.”

And from the macrobiotic restaurant, Whole Earth developed?

Well, then we had people saying, “We can’t come here every time we want to eat brown rice and miso soup!” We were the only people who had those foods, you see. So my brother Gregory led on opening a shop on All Saints road, next door to The Mangrove. Then Infinity in Brighton, Community Foods and various other similar whole food shops started opening up and they came to us for their miso and brown rice, so we created the Harmony brand which supplied brown rice, millet, buckwheat, aduki beans, miso, tamari, umeboshi plums, wakame seaweed and patchouli. All those shops sold patchouli because that was the identifying fragrance, if you like, for people who were on that scene.

After that we started manufacturing peanut butter, and then jam. Eventually brown rice and that kind of stuff became commoditized, and we changed the brand to Whole Earth because we couldn’t use Harmony in various European countries because it belonged to other people. Whole Earth went on to become a global brand.

Tell me about the UK’s first macrobiotic restaurant. Was that on Portobello Road?

No, the original restaurant was in Airlie Gardens, and it faced onto the Campden Hill Road. It was Notting Hill, basically. After three months we had an incident with Graham Bond [musician] who brought his Hammond organ down to do a gig. He didn’t get there until midnight, and then he played until 2am. We got legal notices from the neighbours. The owner of the property told us we had to go. We’d started to become a bit of a scene. It was meant to be a macrobiotic study centre and restaurant, but it just became a happening scene. We and the Baghdad House on the Fulham Road were the only places where the emerging hippie scene could go and chill out.

Then we got a restaurant in Westbourne Terrace, on the corner of Bishop’s Bridge Road between Paddington Station and Queensway. It was a big place with a basement. John and Yoko were regular customers, as was Terence Stamp. It became a kind of groovy place to go. We did a free meal as part of our mission. Marc Bolan of T-Rex came long distances to get our offer of a bowl of free rice and vegetables, during his harder times [laughs].

Eventually we were too busy with the other stuff, so we gave the restaurant to a group of macrobiotics from Boston but it got too serious and lost its mojo. We closed it down and then opened a small restaurant called Green Genes, named after a Frank Zappa song called ‘Son of Mr Green Genes’. Our idea anticipated epigenetics by about 40 years – that if you ate well, your genes could change for the better. We all knew that you could have hereditary disease, but we believed that you could also have hereditary health.

We put Green Genes into our shop next to The Mangrove, and then we moved the whole thing over to Portobello Road – the Ceres Grain Shop. It’s still there now. They still call it the Grain Shop.

Did the likes of John and Yoko stay involved in the macrobiotics movement, or was it a passing phase for them?

No, they stayed involved. I had known Yoko from before she was married to John, while she was still married to Tony Cox. They used to come to my first restaurant. She was the only person in London who knew what macrobiotics was at the time that I started, so she was right in there from beginning. When she hooked up with John she would bring him there. I think she still eats the diet. She’s pretty fit.

“I’ve always believed that Nirvana is just around the next corner… The world is an oil tanker in terms of the speed with which it can turn around.”

How involved are you with Gusto these days? I know Will Fugard is now the CEO.  

I’ve stayed the course with it. I believe in it as a product. I think it’s a wonderful product, but I personally formulated it, so I would say that wouldn’t I [laughs]. I’m still involved but Will does the heavy lifting. My focus these days is on Carbon Gold, the biochar company that is helping growers and farmers and greenkeepers to stop using chemical inputs while getting better results and helping with climate change.

I hear that you’ve become the soft drink of choice at the Tate museums. Why do you think that now is Gusto’s moment? Why are people suddenly turning to products like yours rather than the traditional cola companies?

I’ve always believed that Nirvana is just around the next corner [laughs]. When Waitrose were trying to persuade their suppliers to go organic in the 1990s, they dragged me and a few other people along to give speeches at four separate events for different categories of supplier, explaining to them why organic was on the rise and the change in attitudes that were coming. My brother and I always said that we both looked through the wrong end of the telescope: we could see the future but we always thought it was only a year or two away [laughs]. The world is an oil tanker in terms of the speed with which it can turn around.

I think that we’re finding, now, that the old brand loyalty is gone and people have expectations. They want those expectations fulfilled and they’re very fussy. We’ve always been fussy, as a company, so it’s very timely that people are getting a grip and saying, “I don’t want a crappy drink in a can with phosphoric acid, synthetic vanilla, artificial colourings and flavourings, petrochemicals,” and they’re prepared to pay for that difference and manage their diets in a more sensible way. We’ll never sell Gusto in two litre bottles because our kind of customers don’t guzzle like that. People are learning more and more about what goes in their mouth.

All of which applies to customers of the range of brands you’ve created, I suppose.

Yes, for Whole Earth it’s the same. People trust these brands more. With Green & Blacks it’s the same. When we launched 70% chocolate, the supermarket buyers here said, “You’ll never sell this. It’s cooking chocolate! Nobody will eat this.” Now premium chocolate is 15-20% of the total market, and it’s all dark. You get 70, 75, 95% dark chocolates these days. People are just growing up.

Do you think the big conglomerates mass-producing soft drinks are looking at this situation with unease?

It’s very hard for these huge, global companies to come up with a product that directly addresses all the things that are wrong with the product that is their core business. It’d be very hard to come out with an organic, natural cola because it kind of points the finger at all the things that are wrong with the mainstream product. Maybe one day they will. But it’s hard. Imagine a fast food restaurant suddenly using organic chicken. It would instantly highlight that the existing item on the menu is raised in terrible conditions. That’s the perennial problem for most of these big conglomerates.

How do they progress?

Occasionally they’ll buy smaller businesses in order to learn. They recognise that smaller companies are doing business in a way that everyone will have to do business in the years ahead.

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