By Shruti Kothari-Tomar
“I felt awful, like a rotting corpse, it took months and months of misery and pain,” says Khalil Rafati, recalling his days as a panhandling heroin addict on Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row, before his discovery of organic superfoods and an ascent away from addiction, towards millionairehood.
Born in Ohio, USA, as a high school dropout who could not spell or type, Rafati took flight from his hometown to LA to flee from years of sexual abuse. There, he ended up selling luxury cars to glitzy clients but his newfound stability was fleeting as he soon found himself in the grips of heroin addiction. In 2001, he almost died after overdosing at a house party in Malibu, but the incident didn’t prove to be a curtain call for Rafati, on life’s stage.
He fought hard to kick the habit several times over the next few years and finally embraced abstinence in 2003 at the age of 33, after his 9thoverdose. Emaciated and ravaged by years of drug abuse, Rafati set forth on an arduous journey towards sobriety. It was around this time that a friend, concerned about his frail physical state, introduced him to superfoods by offering him a superfood smoothie.
“I’m a high school dropout. I’m a convicted felon. I can’t spell. I can’t type. I was homeless. Whatever it is you are suffering from, you can change. And you can change in such a profound way that within a short period of time you won’t even recognise yourself anymore”
Impressed with the surge of energy he received from superfood smoothies, which he attributes as “paramount and intrinsic to the success” of his recovery, Rafati began experimenting with dozens of recipes and started making smoothies for fellow addicts in recovery at the Riviera Recovery sober living recovery centre in Malibu. They soon became a hit at the rehab, with people asking for more.
The company offers 50 items on its menu, with its organic fruit and vegetable smoothies, superfood smoothies, juices, fruit and nut bowls, and green powders being the most sought after products. Employing over 200, SUNLIFE looks forward to adding international franchises in the near future.
Especially in demand was his concoction, ‘Wolverine’—a rejuvenating smoothie comprising banana, almond butter, dates, maca, cacao nibs, coconut manna, bee pollen, royal jelly and almond milk—which is now the signature smoothie of SUNLIFE Organics, the USD10-mn a year juicing company of which, Rafati is CEO today.
And so began his quest to find and consume the best nature had to offer. He travelled far and wide, from India to Indonesia and Central America, to learn about health and to source the best materials for his juices and smoothies. On his travels, he met spiritual gurus, seasoned surfers, ayurvedic doctors and street vendors selling herbs. Back home, he explored traditional Western medicine. He visited longevity specialists, ‘healers’, holistic coaches and nutritionists.
Finally, the truth surfaced and it was not a revelation: Eat fruits and vegetables. “By consuming a diet of organic whole foods—with the addition of some superfoods, regular exercise, a lot of love and compassion from friends and neighbours, and a daily practice of trying to do good deeds for others without getting caught— I found that I didn’t need a guru or ‘healer’ or Western medicine to recover,” Rafati says.
In April 2011, Rafati and his partner, Hayley, founded the first SUNLIFE Organics outlet in Malibu, California, with a mission “to love, heal and inspire”. “We wanted to share with our friends, neighbours and members of the community an opportunity to experience what I had—access to true nourishment. With SUNLIFE, I wanted to provide a sanctuary where people could come for organic juices, organic smoothies, organic salads, organic everything really. Organic happiness,” smiles Rafati, who believes non organic foods defy common sense as they’re sprayed with chemicals.
It has been 14 years since Rafati’s last fix. His health is restored and it’s difficult to conjecture his past by his robust appearance. SUNLIFE is successful, with stores across Malibu, Thousand Oaks, Calabasas, Pasadena and Manhattan, with two more outlets coming up in LA. Having started with only a handful of menu offerings, today, the company offers approximately 50 items on its menu, with its organic fruit and vegetable smoothies, superfood smoothies, juices, fruit and nut bowls and green powders being the most sought after products by consumers. Employer to over 200, SUNLIFE looks forward to adding international franchises in the near future.
The juice company’s popularity traverses a wide spectrum of clients and is not limited to the lay health nut. Hollywood celebrities and Instagram savvy teenagers with millions of followers throng its outlets. The paparazzi release shots of celebrities (Charlie Sheen, Willow Smith, Kendall Jenner, Denise Richards, Julia Roberts, to name a few) carrying green juices in SUNLIFE-branded cups; Instagrammed smoothie pictures by trend setting teenagers go viral and add to demand and repute.
Rafati’s life now is a far cry from his Skid Row days. He marvels at how things panned out. “When I recovered, my dreams were basic—to have an apartment, a job and hopefully, someday, a girlfriend. I had no idea I’d be a millionaire one day. I thought I was just opening a tiny mom-and-pop shop to survive,” says Rafati, who shares he worked “like a madman” for 18-20 hours a day and compensated for his lack of education by hiring people for skills he did not possess.
Rafati believes in the power of superfoods and the fortitude of the human spirit. “Whatever it is you are suffering from, you can change. And you can change in such a profound way that within a short period of time you won’t even recognise yourself anymore,” he says.
An Indophile, Rafati swears by Indian ancient wisdom and foods. “We are ignorant here in the West. We borrow lots of wisdom from your beautiful country of India. We are just now going crazy over turmeric and cumin, and yoga is a massive fad here, with thousands and thousands of people joining yoga classes every day. So, stop putting poison in your body. Listen to your grandmother, she has all of the answers,” is his message to Indians reading this.
For strugglers in health or fortune, Rafati has a special message: “Never, ever, ever, give up. Do not submit no matter what the circumstances.” He recounts, at length, his excruciating but ultimately rewarding journey from rags to riches and from addiction to health in his bestselling memoir, ‘I Forgot to Die’, which can be purchased at sunlifeorganics.myshopify.com.
In his quest to survive, Rafati did not forget to die. He remembered to live.