It began with a literal journey: Embarking on an effort to start their own business, in 1993 Caryl Levine and Ken Lee left their home in Berkeley, Calif., for a two-month market-research trip to China. Among dozens of concepts they uncovered, one stood out from the beginning.

by Denise Shoukas

“We tried black rice very early,” Levine recalls. “It had a roasted-nutty taste with hints of fruit and an exotic plate presentation.”

It also had a bevy of nutritional benefits, which were legendary in China. In every village, says Levine, “everybody would tell versions of the same story: During the days of the Ching and Ming dynasties, black rice was reserved exclusively for the emperors, and it was called longevity rice, or tribute rice, as the tribute to the longevity of the emperor.”

From that initial experience emerged Lotus Foods, a specialty food business co-owned by Levine and Lee that imports almost 600 tons of rice annually and carries a dozen individual rice products. But the company’s mission goes beyond providing consumers with high-quality rice. Lotus Foods has established relationships with small family farms committed to growing heirloom rice in countries such as China, Bhutan, Indonesia, Cambodia and Madagascar, helping farmers improve their livelihoods—and changing the way rice is grown. Along the way, the co-owners have learned the intricacies of international sourcing and effective branding.

A Name with Meaning

The pair found inspiration for branding the product during the initial trip to China. While walking through Beijing’s Forbidden City before returning to the states, Lee, who had worked in financial planning and insurance sales, came up with the idea of calling the crop Forbidden Rice: The Emperor’s Forbidden Grain. Levine, whose background was in fundraising and higher education, loved it. They returned to California, trademarked the name and spent the next year setting up the business and establishing their supply chain.

The company name went through a few iterations but was officially established in 1995 as Lotus Foods, pulling from Lee’s Buddhist practices. Buddhism emphasizes that the lotus grows from a muddy swamp to become a beautiful flower.

“We live the name every day,” Levine says. “Our vision from early on was to support not only sustainable agriculture but also to sustain the biodiversity of rice while providing the small rice family farmer an honorable living.” To that end, Lotus Foods has paid its farmers 30 to 40 percent above farm gate prices since the inception of the business, and sought fair-trade practices long before the label had the familiarity among consumers that it does today.

Sourcing a Product Line

When they returned from the trip, Levine and Lee focused on setting up the supply chain for black rice. “It took two years to find our first black-rice growers in China,” says Levine, joking that it became forbidden to them as well. Finding the two other rices that, with the black rice, would eventually launch their business was much easier.

The first, Bhutanese Red Rice, came serendipitously in 1993 while Levine was working on a development project at the University of California at Berkeley. The chair of her committee held a reception catered by his son, Christian Leatsch, who had spent time in Bhutan. “I went into the kitchen to introduce myself to him and asked if he catered full time and he said no—he was trying to bring in this Bhutanese red rice into the country.” The timing was uncanny, so Leatsch partnered with Lotus Foods for the next few years as the brand took off. “It was a real gift,” Levine says.

In that same year, Lotus Foods found the third rice in the line, Lowell Farms Organic Jasmine Rice, while attending a U.S. Rice Federation Conference. It was there that Levine and Lee met Lowell and Linda Rauns, first-generation rice growers of Lowell Farms in Texas who were just starting to cultivate and try to market the first organic jasmine rice in the country. “Once we tasted it and heard their story, we loved the idea of having domestic rice, as well as imported,” Levine notes. Later in 1995, they added Organic Brown Jasmine Rice to the line.

To find its initial customers, Lotus Foods focused on high-end retailers and chefs. “These are premium rice varieties from around the world, and no one knew about them,” Levine explains. The company approached specialty stores, which jumped at the chance to carry rice varieties that were exotic and new to the U.S. marketplace. Further, Levine and Lee knew retailers would be prepared and willing to educate consumers about heirloom rice to sell them. Williams-Sonoma was Lotus Foods’ first retail account, followed by other big players such as Andronico’s, Berkeley Bowl, Eat, Dean & Deluca and Zabar’s. “These were such unique items, which is why the specialty food market was, and still is, so important to us,” Levine adds. Today, retail represents 75 percent of their business.

Foodservice accounts for the other 25 percent, and chefs were equally important in introducing these exotic grains to consumers and, ultimately, building the business. The pair knew that chefs would embrace the distinctive products—and be able to swallow the slightly higher prices to sustain the company’s fair-trade goals. To reach these professionals, Lotus Foods sent letters to a dozen of San Francisco’s top chefs, such as Gary Danko and Todd Humphries, and got immediate responses. “Forbidden Rice is a true center-of-the-plate rice with great texture and cooking qualities that everybody fell in love with,” Levine says. The duo continued to grow with high-quality, innovative products with the introduction of Forbidden Rice Flour in 2000, and Carnaroli Rice in 2002.

Sustainability Efforts

In 2005, the way Lotus Foods sourced rice changed when the business was approached by Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), which had been teaching farmers how to grow rice more sustainably for 15 years. It was a cause Levine and Lee were devoted to since their initial trip to China, where they discovered that the biodiversity of rice was in dire straits; the tons of water needed to cultivate rice was a scarce resource in many growing regions.

CIIFAD invited Lotus Foods to become its private-sector partner with the goal of enabling rice farmers to enter the global market. Together, they would promote the System Rice Intensification (SRI) method, a process of growing rice that teaches some of the poorest farmers—many who are earning less than $1 or $2 a day—how to grow it more sustainably using 50 percent less water, 90 percent less seed and no agrichemicals. To date, an estimated one million farmers in more than 30 countries have adopted SRI, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and reducing water use by 50 percent. “This was a way to help them have more food security, alleviate poverty and offer so many social and environmental benefits as well,” Levine adds.

The CIIFAD partnership helped evolve Lotus Foods’ business from Levine and Lee’s early grassroots efforts. “Now we have this world-class university doing the agronomy, the non-governmental organization on the ground in the countries offering support and technical assistance and the farmer cooperatives in the countries of origin,” she says.

This growth has allowed Levine and Lee to head straight to the farms and work directly with growers. “Not only do we observe and taste their rice, we set them up,” Levine says. Often farmers don’t have the proper milling or storing facilities or know how to prepare rice for export, so the couple helps them get proper organic and fair-trade certifications, educates them, and most important, creates a relationship that will endure the thousands of miles of distance between Lotus Foods’ office in California and the farmers. “When it comes to sourcing, it’s all about relationship,” Levine asserts.

The company’s product line doubled as a result of the Cornell partnership, Levine says. The introduction of new products was determined by which farmers Cornell felt were ready to enter the market and were able to feed themselves and their communities and grow rice according to SRI standards. Lotus Foods wanted to roll out at least three SRI rices for the new line, and three countries were ready at the time the partnership began. The first SRI rice in the line was Madagascar Pink Rice, followed by Organic Mekong Flower Rice from Cambodia and Organic Volcano Rice from West Java. In 2006, they brought in Brown Kalijira Rice from Bangladesh.

SRI is the standard that Lotus now employs for all rice brought into its product line, and the company plans to convert all of its suppliers in time. “This partnership was a major expansion of our social, economic and environmental commitment,” Levine says.

Levine and Lee devised the slogan “More Crop Per Drop” to represent SRI farming, adding the phrase to the packaging of their SRI rice and promoting it on the Lotus Foods website.

Hammering Home Nutrition

Levine and Lee have never overlooked Forbidden Rice’s most important element—its nutritional value. For more than a decade, Lotus Foods has promoted the benefits of black rice, as well as their other rice, through its website, in stores and at trade shows.

In August 2010, Dr. Zhimin Xu, associate professor of food science at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, came out with research that would help move the company forward. His work proved what they already knew: Black rice contains high levels of antioxidants and thiamine. The study found that a spoonful of black rice bran—or an equivalent 10 spoonfuls of cooked black rice—contains more anthocyanin antioxidants than are found in a spoonful of blueberries, but with less sugar and more fiber and vitamin E.

A few months later, Lotus Foods won the public-relations lotto. In January 2011, Dr. Mehmet Oz, surgeon, author and regular TV commentator on health, appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America with a bag of Forbidden Rice, declaring: “For a healthy new year, this is my secret weapon.” Within two minutes of that statement, sales of Forbidden Rice rocketed by 122 percent, according to UNFI Q1 Trends Report.

For a small company that can’t allocate its own research funds, data from other outlets will continue to be a boon for Lotus Foods. “New studies are showing that red rice might be even more beneficial than black,” Levine notes. But the team remains cautious with packaging claims, waiting for empirical data to be published before advertising the finds.

Refreshing the Brand

The burgeoning attention to black rice’s nutritional value coincided well with a brand refresh Lotus Foods underwent in 2010. The overhaul included new packaging, an updated marketing campaign and a website redesign.

As part of the refresh, Levine and Lee realized that their message of “healthier rice for a healthier life” was not being expressed in their overall branding. A first step was a tagline change for their logo, from “Lotus Foods: A World of Rice” to “Lotus Foods: Rice Is Life” to better tie in the message of health. “We changed our marketing and packaging to express exactly that,” Levine says. The logo sits prominently on each package to remind the consumer of the importance and value of rice.

“Rice is life for three-quarters of the world’s population,” says Levine. So farming it sustainably is imperative for the future of rice harvesting—and the livelihood of the harvesters. In addition to the logo tagline, the top of each package is branded with the phrase “Healthier Rice for a Healthier Life.”

Among Lotus Foods’ goals is to connect consumers to the rice farmers. Photos of the actual farmers who cultivate each variety of rice appears on the new More Crop Per Drop SKUs. “Those pictures are not a generic farmer,” Levine asserts. “Those are real farmers.”

Lotus Foods also rolled out pre-made bags for their packaging. “We wanted a bag that could stand up better with a flatter bottom. Because as beautiful as any package is going to be, if it doesn’t stand up on the shelf, forget about it,” Levine says. All of the company’s taglines, from Rice Is Life to Healthier Rice for a Healthier Life, are woven throughout the company’s culture.

The website underwent an update to provide more information about the products’ countries of origin, the terroir and the farmers themselves, in addition to the nutritional value.

In lieu of traditional advertising, Levine says that Lotus Foods is putting its limited resources into the stores and the web. “We’re trying to support the stores that support us in conjunction with this brand refresh by setting up more demos and promotions,” she explains. Additionally, the company regularly offers promos online. “Our website is handled by World Pantry, and every week they write a newsletter blurb that goes to all of our subscribers, along with a weekly promotion, like 15 percent off Forbidden Rice.”

Consumer Outreach

Consumer education is at the forefront of Lotus Foods’ marketing efforts. “You have to explain what makes our rice different from others,” says Levine, “and help shoppers understand why it’s more expensive.”

Rice, particularly exotic grains, can be intimidating to cook, Levine adds. To address consumer hesitation, Lotus Foods conducts ongoing in-store demos and has even introduced a stainless-steel rice cooker to its line that sells alone or as a gift pack with the rice.

Consumer press and accolades have helped increase awareness. “Florence Fabricant has been a tremendous steward of Lotus Foods,” says Levine. The New York Times writer’s “Foodstuffs” column has brought attention to the company’s products numerous times over the years.

Awards also play a big role in marketing Lotus Foods’ products. In their first year as a member of the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) in 1998, Forbidden Rice became a Silver Finalist in the Outstanding New Product category of the annual sofi™ Awards competition. To date, the company has won nine sofi awards. “It keeps you relevant in the eyes of the retailers and the consumers,” Levine says of the multiple wins.

Social marketing has been an effective way to empower consumers and get the company’s message out, adds Levine. Part of the message Lotus Foods stresses in its outreach is that growing rice organically is no longer enough; the process must be sustainable.

“We worked hard to make sure that message of ‘Better for You, Better for Planet’ is conveyed,” Levine says of the message printed on the back of each bag of Lotus Foods rice. Descriptive copy on the back of the bag also asks consumers to be a part of the solution by buying Lotus Foods’ rice, calling out a three-pronged benefit: Because SRI rice varieties use fewer natural resources and decrease global warming, the rice is good for consumer’s health, for the farmers in developing countries and for the planet.

To keep content fresh and engaging, Lotus Foods retains a social-marketing consultant to maintain its Twitter and Facebook accounts and create videos, such as those taken on-site at the farms for its YouTube channel where it spreads the word about SRI rice. Future tech integration plans include a blog and QR technology. “QR was just coming out when we were putting the new packaging together,” Levine notes. Already used at trade shows, the QR codes will appear on a channel strip for retail shelves—and eventually, directly on the packaging in the company’s next printing. Scanning a package’s QR with a smartphone will bring consumers to videos and interviews with the farmers of that particular variety. The Organic Madagascar Pink Rice packaging, for example, features an image of that varietal’s farmer, Emmanuel; the QR code will call up a video of Emmanuel in his field, sharing why organic and SRI are important for him and his family. “It’s important to us to get to the consumer to know their farmers,” Levine stresses.

“What makes social media so powerful is now consumers have a chance to be a part of the solution too,” says Levine, who believes they want to make good choices, but often don’t know how. “That’s something I learned early on in my career in fundraising: Donors want to give, but they didn’t know how to do that. My job was to put it all together. And that’s the way I feel about what we do here.”

Looking Ahead

Currently, Lotus Foods is importing from three countries participating in the More Crop Per Drop farming: Indonesia, Madagascar and Cambodia. The co-owners’ next trip will be to India and Sri Lanka, and later, Vietnam. “There are 39 other countries that eventually will be ready and about half a dozen that are ready now,” Levine says. Lotus Foods will continue its efforts to bring the SRI method to its older products while continuing to grow the More Crop Per Drop line and build awareness worldwide. “We’re committed to changing how rice is grown around the world.” |SFM|

Denise Shoukas is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.