How Austin's hair care billionaire helped bring a celebrity-favorite juice brand to town
"I'm just some crazy dude living under a bridge 17 years ago who is obsessed with health," says Khalil Rafati, the founder of SunLife Organics.
For 10 years, since Rafati opened the first store in Malibu, California, SunLife Organics has sold all-organic smoothies and expanded into all-organic açaÍ bowls, bone broth, healthy cookies and avocado toast. The menu is loaded with ingredients that Rafati has searched the world to find.
SunLife Organics has a loyal following, including people who come by every day, and celebrities, who first experienced it at that small Malibu store that didn't even have a sign out front.
One of those fans is Austinite John Paul DeJoria, the co-founder of John Paul Mitchell Systems haircare brand.
DeJoria first tried SunLife Organics when his family was vacationing in Malibu over Christmas a few years ago.
"Oh my gosh, it's great," DeJoria says. Now he gets the Green Man smoothie, which has strawberry, banana, kale and a green superfoods blend; he gets it with a whole apple blended in. His wife, Eloise, gets the Athlete smoothie, which has banana, blueberries, grass-fed whey protein, glutamine, flax oil and hemp milk.
"You might pay $15 or $16, but the quality of what's in it is the best in the world," DeJoria says. "What it does for your health is worth it."
He forged a friendship with Rafati and says, "he's a real straight-shooter" and a "smart entrepreneur."
DeJoria offered $1 million to Rafati to bring the smoothie and health food restaurant to Austin. In exchange, DeJoria gets 40 percent of the profits, half of which goes to JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Family Foundation, which supports homeless causes.
The foundation recently donated $2 million to establish a chair at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas to work specifically on improving health services for people who are experiencing homelessness. The foundation also is working on creating a community that will provide housing and medical care for people who are currently homeless. The foundation also has funded projects at Community First Village, including the entrepreneur center at the neighborhood designed to provide homes for people have been chronically homeless.
Rafati accepted DeJoria's offer and moved to Austin last year to see the launch of a SunLife Organics location on South Congress Avenue, with plans for more stores in Austin.
Healing, peace and love for others
DeJoria and Rafati both talk about peace and love for their fellow humans. On the walls and floor of SunLife Organics' Austin location are the words "Be Here Now," "Love Heal Inspire" and "Psalm 103:1-5," which talks about healing all your diseases.
They also both love great ingredients, have an entrepreneurial spirit and have been homeless.
Rafati was homeless in California for two years after bouncing around on couches for five years, and DeJoria for a few weeks. DeJoria lived in his car, a beat up Rolls-Royce with leaky windows that he stuffed with paper to keep the rain out. He learned the art of sleeping in the front seat and which way to position himself to have the most room. Rafati didn't have a car to sleep in.
Rafati came out to California from Ohio, where he grew up.
"Like most idiots, I went out west seeking fortune and fame," he says.
He started a band and got his Screen Actors Guild card, but he says, "I loved getting high because I felt like a loser." It felt like everyone there had a Range Rover, he says.
He started drinking and doing drugs, and he says, "when you're shooting heroin and cocaine at the same time, you don't care about rent or paying bills. That's how I ended up homeless."
He says he kicked drugs 100 times and was always saying to himself, "I'm going to start tomorrow."
Every day he wanted to get clean, and every day he wanted his fix.
Helping to end homelessness:Mobile Loaves & Fishes plans to quadruple its Community First Village for homeless Austinites
'I got tired of being sick and tired'
An assistance organization for musicians offered the chance for Rafati to get off the street and into a treatment center.
He knew he could not handle being sent to county jail again or the overdoses or the seizures. "I got tired of being sick and tired," he says.
After the treatment program, he lived in a halfway house and washed dogs and cars, anything he could to get a job. He was fresh out of rehab, a high-school dropout and a person with drug convictions.
"I saved every penny," he says.
Then he was offered a place to stay in exchange for walking dogs.
His body was malnourished from eating whatever unhealthy food he could find or not eating at all while he was living on the streets. A yoga teacher would bring him jars of green juice, raw almonds and cashews.
"I took to that stuff like a drowning man getting those real nutrients into my body," he says. "Like any good addict, I wanted more and more. I just switched the ingredients."
Finding healthy foods began to become "much like a compulsion and obsession," he says.
Improving health care:John Paul DeJoria gives $2 million for Dell Medical School chair on homelessness
Starting something new
Rafati says he always finds angels who see something in him and invest in him. One person helped him get certified as an interventionalist and sober companion.
Four years into his sobriety, he saved enough money to open a recovery center on a shoe-string budget with a benefactor who allowed him to rent her house for the center.
He invested his money in gold, silver and platinum and did well, but not quite enough to start his dream of a fully organic juice bar.
Then a client, whom he helped get sober, gave him $208,000 to start SunLife Organics and he put in $55,000 of his own money.
"I was incredibly naive," he says. "We were in a terrible location. We didn't have a sign. We didn't have shelves."
The ingredients were expensive, which made the smoothies expensive. There was no seating.
Rafati knows that nothing about his business makes financial sense, but he's obsessed with the healthiest food and providing it to SunLife Organics' customers. And it comes at a price — $9.95 to $28 for a smoothie.
"There are 100 different types of dates, but only one 100 percent certified organic Medjool date. They are the Rolls-Royce of dates. Nobody would ever put those in smoothies, but we did," he says.
That first day at that first store, he was scared when he took the cardboard off the windows at 7 a.m. By 7:45 a.m., he says, there was a line out the door waiting to get in.
Building a brand
The first six months, he says, it took 30 minutes or longer to get a juice order made, but something magical was happening.
People kept coming back, and many of them were famous like Robert Downey Jr., Owen Wilson and David Duchovny.
"It was really intimidating," he says, but they told their friends and the world through social media.
The first six months was shaky financially, he says. "It was brutal."
He didn't know how to price items and realized he priced some too low, actually costing him money to serve.
He made adjustments.
By the one-year anniversary, he was able to draw a salary. By two years, there was still a line out the door, and he was able to open up a second store when a wealthy man asked him to put a store in his center.
That kept happening. A person with money wanted a store near them. "They make the deal where you can't refuse it," Rafati says.
Health no matter what
With every store opening, eight in California, the one in Austin, with one planned for Miami and New York City, Rafati has not compromised on the the quality and integrity of the ingredients, but he has learned a few things.
He enjoys the research into new ingredients and the health benefits of them, and then blending them with other ingredients to see if they work. He is not the person to worry about the details of the day-to-day business. For that, he's built a team of loyal employees who asked him two years ago if they could take over the operations while he created the vision.
"They do a beautiful job, and I stay out of their way," he says. "I wouldn't know how to run a company with 300 employees."
After the decision to stay out of their way, the company became profitable.
More than a smoothie
That vision has led Rafati to some unusual ingredients.
The loyal vegan and vegetarian following he built in California began to push back when he started adding animal products like goat colostrum into some smoothies and putting bone broth on the menu before bone broth was trendy.
"People lost their minds," he says. But he knew that if he was drinking bone broth and seeing positive results and he was helped by goat colostrum, he should offer it at SunLife Organics, too.
"People were mad; now everyone serves bone broth," he says.
He's passionate about the right kinds of mushrooms to add, the right heirloom variety of matcha only grown at 12,000 feet from Southern Japan, the best cacao beans from the jungles of Ecuador.
He can tell you the story behind every ingredient and how he came to find it.
"I sound like an addict," he says. "I'm obsessed."
Some of the names of the items wink at their lack of cost-effectiveness. The Million Dollar Smoothie sells for $16.95 and is banana, raw cashew butter, raw plant protein, raw cacao nibs, maca, colostrum, flax oil, trace mineral complex, Himalayan sea salt, chia seeds, raw rescue honey and hemp milk. The Billion Dollar Bowl sells for $35 and is an açaí blend, protein, tocos, collagen, colostrum, almond butter, MCT, glutamine, silica with granola, fruit, cashew butter, goji, cacao, lotus pollen, sea salt, coconut and honey.
The Austin store sells more Billion Dollar Bowls than any other location. "I really felt like nobody would get it," Rafati says. "I don't even push it," he says, but they found it and they continue to buy it.
Settling in Austin
Rafati grew into his love of healthful, unusual foods after growing up a picky eater who would choose gummy bears over a vegetable.
Now he wakes up every morning and makes himself a super food coffee. "I throw a bunch of weird stuff in there, but there's always medicinal mushrooms," he says.
Then he heads to the store and has a giant smoothie or an açaí bowl.
For dinner "all bets are off," though he tries to not eat processed sugar or gluten. He'll head to Torchy's Tacos or the Peacock restaurant, where he might eat a steak or lambchops. One day recently he had wings at Plucker's with the crew building his house. About once a month, he says, "I break down and forget about the no-gluten rule and go to Home Slice and eat three-fourths of a large pizza."
He says he wants to enjoy his life and that includes eating.
He's settling into Austin and loves the "weirdness" and "coolness" of South Congress. "It doesn't take itself seriously," he says.
He never imagined he would be living in Texas, but five years ago, when he came to South by Southwest, he says, he fell in love with the people first and the food second.
Now, he says, "I'm the happiest I've been in my life."
If you go: SunLife Organics
The store is at 1011 S. Congress Ave. Building 2, Suite 120. It's open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday and Sunday.
Smoothies run from $9.95 to $28. The menu also includes açaÍ bowls, bone broth, healthy cookies and avocado toast.
Information: sunlifeorganics.com; 737-243-9851