In 2004, surfer Ken Stittsworth moved to Santa Barbara from Maui to pursue classes at a local university--and of course, to surf. Stittsworth, who had always had an appreciation for quality food and felt drawn to learning about different cultures, says it wasn’t until he attended a lecture on campus hosted by Patagonia Founder Yvon Chiounard, that he was able to connect the dots between his passions and his future career.
“I was blown away by the business model and left that night feeling enthusiastic and enlightened,” recalls Stittsworth. “I understood the simple formula for potential success through their tagline, ‘Live Simply.’ I knew if I could find something good and positive to share with people, I could also live simply and do my part to hopefully be part of a solution rather than just kind of mindlessly jump into another j.o.b.”
Four months later, Stittsworth was in Peru and had an a-ha moment when he was introduced to maca, an ancient Peruvian superfood that was highly prized by Incan warriors to increase stamina and combat fatigue: “Everything I learned from Yvon that night just rung through my head. I kinda knew right then and there I just hung a right down this new unknown path in life. I’m still on it as things continue to unfold.”
The discovery prompted Stittsworth to found Sol Raiz Organics, which has since been embraced by the health food and wellness community, including being stocked by major grocery chain Whole Foods, as well as gaining serious momentum in the surf world after signing on as a Big Wave World Tour sponsor. Seeing a profound link between the maca product and creating strong, resilient athletes, Stittsworth brought on ambassadors like surfer Jamie Sterling and automatically received confirmation that he was on the right track: “While using Sol Raiz Maca my fitness level rose along with my athletic performance,” says Sterling. “I've noticed more energy, stamina, mental confidence, and relaxed moods."
Check out this video, to hear Sterling’s take on Sol Raiz and winning the Big Wave World Tour:
We caught up with Stittsworth to learn more about how his business plan for the unique product, how he moved the needle on Sol Raiz to get it where it is today, and his hope to increase the surf industry’s health-specific partnerships in the future.
Tell me more about the reason behind you founding the product? When did this happen and what was the catalyst behind it?
In 2005 I injured my knee surfing and chose to skip surgery. I was in my early 20’s and was learning about the importance of using your food as your medicine to repair my knee on a cellular level. I was incorporating a number of different ingredients to heal and towards the end of the healing process I was in Peru where I was introduced to Maca for breakfast by a local family we were staying with. The Peruvian woman who’s house we were at mixed this powder from a root into yogurt with some sliced up fruit. She told me it’s called maca and it was regarded as the most beneficial food for Incan warriors. She also told me if I ever hurt myself to double up on it because of the healing properties. I gathered it was very medicinal and effective and really enjoyed the taste. I knew it would be something to incorporate into my diet and I was eager to share my find with friends and family back home.
How deeply is the company involved in the surf industry and why do you identify the companies roots in surf?
Since surfing has always been my passion and so many of my good friends growing up have made careers out of it, I knew this would be one way I could actually give back to surfing- through health and nutrition. Surfers grow up having fun and that fun leads to parties. Without a balance it’s easy to become unhealthy and develop bad habits. A couple years after becoming an established company, I pitched my idea of creating that balance with Gary Linden, founder of Big Wave World Tour, which was then sponsored by Jim Beam. I told Gary it makes more sense to have a health brand supporting the Tour so he brought us on as a supporting sponsor to the Big Wave World Tour, and we remained the leading supporting sponsor for three years as the Tour gained momentum and just recently was bought by the ASP. In that time frame, most of the big wave riders on tour became interested in the product and the brand and today we get monthly calls from 35 of the worlds best as they’ve made Sol Raiz Organics Maca their go-to supplement for the unparalleled nutritional profile and the fact that 1 teaspoon is as effective as an entire meal. It’s exactly what they want for sustained energy and a complete meal without feeling weighed down. That was my original experience in Peru- Maca is so dense a little bit goes all day. I also think the element of maca being an Incan Warrior food applies to those guys (and girls). Jamie Sterling was our first sponsored rider to get on board with the brand. We sponsored him right before the Billabong Pico Alto contest in Peru, and he went down and won the event. He also ended up winning the title that year.
What are the specific crossovers you see between the action sports industry and health foods/wellness industry?
I believe the surf world is more in tune with the health/wellness industry than any other athletes. The nature of our sport has everything to do with a healthy environment. I know we’ve been practically taken over by giant corporations and that’s where the big bucks come from but ultimately, I believe the core values of any surfer lies in health and wellness on every level. Look at the latest posts from Kelly Slater. He’s always dropping jewels about eating and being healthy- mentally and physically. We all want to keep the oceans and reefs healthy, and we want to be healthy to surf them up to our full potential. If alcohol and energy drinks found their way into our lifestyle in the 2008- 2013 time frame, I see Sol Raiz Organics and other companies focused on health and wellness taking it back from here out.
How did you come up with the name Sol Raiz and what does it stand for?
Our logo is the Monument of Junin (Who- neen) on the Junin Plateau where the Maca grows above 14,000 ft. This is the site where Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish which gave not only Peru independence from the Spanish rule, but all of Latin America. Our logo is basically the statue of liberty for all Latin America, and it happens to be about a kilometer away from our partners plantation. I wanted to represent the strength of not only the product, but the people who grow it and thrive in such rugged conditions. The sun rising behind it invokes the H.I.C. vibe so it’s kind of a way to combine the high Andes with the roots of surfing in Hawaii (and Peru). Since Sol Raiz means “sun roots” in Spanish, and Maca’s a root that lives only above 14,000 ft, it makes sense to call it a sun root, but is also intended to roll off the tongue as “Soul Rise” giving you that uplifting boost of pure positive energy throughout the day. A very important point about the product we work with is this: it’s an adaptogen. The meaning behind this is that there is no negativity associated with it and it has the ability to hone in on your specific needs. Sol Raiz Organics Maca is the most powerful adaptogenic whole food available on the market so in reality, we’ve never had to sell it. Grab an item from the product line and let it work for you the same way it works for our team. We know you’ll love the benefits no matter who you are and we’re proud to have the opportunity to help!
Tell me about the athletes you have as brand ambassadors and share some of their stories around Sol Raiz.
Since then we have worked closely with influential people to build a responsible brand and portray the importance of a healthy and active lifestyle. Some of our brand ambassadors are the best people in the community. People who really care about the environment and the well being of the community and the world. Crystal Thornburg-Homcy has been a big help getting us realigned with Patagonia and 1% For The Planet in an effort to give back. Jamie Sterling is a fitness maniac and just plain maniac so he uses our maca religiously. We have some really cool talent from Maui with Aloha Lopez leading the pack for the new generation of girls who train hard and eat organic healthy food and we are proud to be working with Dustin Barca as he leads the charge for a non-GMO Hawaii.
What stores are you found in?
Working directly with the President of Ecological and Organic Maca for the Country of Peru has given us access to the only true quality maca to reach the U.S. marketplace. We are the only Source verified Single Plantation brand who does not go through 4th or 5th party brokers. Real maca grows exclusively above 14,000 ft. in the Andes mountains of Peru. Many low quality roots end up on the market and are marketed as a superfood. Most of these roots are grown as low as 3,500 ft. with little to no nutritional value. If you want to invest in your health and feel a difference, Sol Raiz Organics will help get you there. With the quality assurance aspect of what we do in place, we became the number one selling maca brand at Whole Foods primarily at locations with a beach nearby. We are found in quality health food stores nationwide and owe it all to surfing.
Have you talked with any action sports specific brands and retailers about partnering with them on product collaborations, or just working together to increase your brand awareness? If so which ones, and what?
We have worked on a number of co-branding projects and are found in the Good on Ya “Superhero” bar. We work with Chocolatl to put out a very high quality maca infused chocolate and continue to work on delivery systems for our tea, the only loose leaf maca tea available in the world, but otherwise are found in the vitamin/supplement department of health food stores.
What specific ways do you hope to partner with the surf industry to give back in the future?
Along with supplying our friends with a superior food, we plan on giving back to the surf community by putting out an ethically sourced product and essentially staying in tune with our latest Ambassador, Dustin Barca, who has the vision for a GMO free world. As a non GMO verified project and 1% For the Planet Member, we will continue to educate people to the direct correlation between a healthy environment and a healthy you! We promote organic crops and sustainable farming techniques that we feel can begin to reshape the world into the once-far-less-toxic place it was. We believe in organic foods and see the purchasing power of the citizens of the world starting to demand clean food again. Ultimately the products we sell, both food and a healthy lifestyle in general, is what we believe can make a true change for the better. Aloha.