Small Business: The Auckland firm championing Brazilian acai in New Zealand

Businessman and tennis coach Pablo Lemos, originally from Brazil, talks setting up an import and retail business to bring acai to New Zealand and the next chapter in the Auckland business’ journey as it partners with an international giant.

What does your business do?

Riversea Trading Co is a Auckland-based brand that markets and supplies acai to retailers, consumers and food service outlets across New Zealand, which was founded in August 2015. We import acai printed and packed in our brand and distribute it throughout the whole country. We also do events where we set up a pop-up store and sell acai bowls and smoothies as a way to share the lifestyle of Rio de Janeiro.

What was the motivation for starting it?

Tennis and acai bowls for me have been happening since I was a 4, 5 years old. I’ve played big tournaments in South America and tennis coaching first came to me in Australia. Living in Australia in Bondi, acai was always part of my staple diet and it was one of the things I missed the most when I moved to New Zealand in 2013. Acai in Australia is bananas, you’ve got four players over there making millions, and I always had the idea of bringing it to NZ.

I met a client at the club who was putting acai in the shops and after a tennis lesson they asked me what do you miss the most about Brazil and I said acai and they said there is acai in that shop. I went there that afternoon and I had a acai smoothie and a acai bowl and I completely disliked it, and a week after I had the same clients and I said I had acai last week like you guys told me and it was terrible, and they said ‘We are the owners’, so to save me I pretty much gave them a little consultancy about acai and how to get the consistency and how to top it up with bananas and granola like we do the traditional way in Brazil.

I began to link the dots, and I found a supplier in Brazil, found an importer and I partnered with one of biggest clients and nowadays one of my best friends who is now my business partner Dave Kinnear, he is also a business consultant. We joined forces and created a brand Riversea, which is New Zealand’s first acai brand – we were the first brand to put acai in the supermarkets. We’ve now got nationwide distribution and supply supermarkets and cafe and juice bar chains.

How big is your team?

There’s four. Me, David and Theresa and Trish, and we’ve got an accountant and third-party companies that help out as well.

How has Covid-19 affected operations?

Food service was affected as no one could go to cafes and juice bars during the two lockdowns. On the retail part of the business, we had a little peak because people wanted to get healthy and still have their acai. We had a lot of online orders and of course we were still supplying the supermarkets and organic stores as an essential service.

You recently signed a partnership-takeover deal with the world’s largest acai retailer, tell me about that and what does it mean for the Riversea brand?

We’ve entered into partnership with Sambazon. They acknowledge and recognise the job we have done in building and establishing the acai market in New Zealand and they have big plans for the New Zealand market. We’re right in the middle of the transition now. It’s bittersweet because the business is not my baby any more, but at the same time there is recognition that if we are to really accelerate the scale of the business this is a key way forward. They will take the lead on import and distribution and I will take the lead on sales and marketing.

What are your long-term plans for the business?

The plan for the long run is to join forces with Sambazon and make acai even more popular in New Zealand. Sambazon has more buying power than us as a bigger company so the price of acai can go down and acai can be a bit more accessible. Getting acai into every freezer in the country would be a great result. It’s good for you, has more antioxidants than any other fruit and it gives me a taste of Rio right here in New Zealand.

What advice do you have for others who want to start their own business?

Coming from Brazil, we are very passionate about everything. If you have passion for the idea you want to start then go for it – but don’t be emotional about it. Make sure you have reasoning behind the business and never be afraid to keep your ears open. Often when people have a fixed idea in their head, they struggle to listen and the best advice I can give is to listen. Never be afraid to ask for help because you can’t do everything on your own.

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