Eat our way out of recession, says Dragons' Den champion
One of the UK's most successful food entrepreneurs has urged Northern Ireland to seize the opportunity provided by the growing popularity of the sector.
Levi Roots is famous for walking away from the BBC show Dragons' Den with a £50,000 investment in his Reggae Reggae Sauce in 2007
He has since made an estimated £30m from the brand after moving into cookery books, microwave meals and now soft drinks.
It is a far cry from cooking up the Caribbean marinade in his garage to sell from a stand at the Notting Hill carnival.
The London native was in Bangor this week to address a conference organised by the SIGNAL Centre of Business Excellence at the Clandeboye Lodge hotel, where he told the audience to have "more passion" when pitching their ideas and to focus on a USP - unique selling point - in order to succeed.
He remains one of the most famous participants of the show and still keeps in contact with business mentor Peter Jones and spoke of the importance of mentoring for small firms and sole traders.
Levi said that a move into the soft drinks market with a spicy, ginger-infused beverage is aimed at the more spontaneous buyer.
Commentators and analysts have long said that Northern Ireland's biggest business asset is the ever-growing food and drink sector.
"This will help us target a different market, university kids, the middle ground," he said.
"To buy the sauce, you have to be in a certain mood, you need to think 'I want to cook tonight' and have plans and go into a bigger store," he said.
"With a soft drink, you can be on the move, be in a hurry, you can pick it up from any corner shop and this will take the brand further into the mainstream.
"Food and drink is a hugely important market, especially in these tough times, when people are spending money now, they are spending it carefully on a special, stand-out product."
The entrepreneur added that social media had been instrumental in the success of his own brand and says it has revolutionised small business promotion, having been one of the first big names to exploit the opportunities presented by early netwoking site MySpace.
"For personal and private businesses, it has created the best opportunities for marketing," he said. "Before, only the big companies could really survive out there and small firms could not afford marketing and PR.
"Now anyone, even the smallest companies, a guy printing t-shirts in his shed, can go onto Facebook or Twitter and sell and market goods."
Levi is also planning a move into export, hoping that: "The biggest Caribbean brand in the UK, can become the biggest Caribbean brand outside the UK."
SIGNAL Centre of Business Excellence is the brand name for North Down Borough Council's Economic Development initiative, aimed at the development of business excellence and growth.
The organisation is running a number of workshops over the coming months. Visit www.signalni.com for more information.