This story is part of a three-part series on Black-owned businesses who have filled holes created by an industry criticized for its lack of diversity. Check out these startups' stories.
Ibraheem Basir grew up in a big household with nine siblings in Brooklyn, where food was a big deal for his family. It was how they celebrated holidays and how everyone got together for dinner at the end of the day.
Fast forward many years, Basir started his career in the food industry at General Mills, where he worked on a range of different brands. But after about five years, he said he began to get the feeling that the brands in the national product space didn't necessarily reflect his own experience growing up with food.
"I grew up with food being more of this joyful, communal, cultural experience, so I wanted to create a brand that was really healthy, that was made with great ingredients, but that really focused on taste and culture," he said. "Specifically, the community that I'm a part of. I'm African American, but grew up in this Black and Latino melting pot in Brooklyn. So a lot of our foods are really focused on those flavor profiles."
Basir is the founder and CEO of A Dozen Cousins, named after his 11 nieces and nephews, as well as his daughter. A Dozen Cousins, with the tagline "soulfully seasoned beans," sells ready-to-eat beans cooked and seasoned like they would be traditionally in Cuba, Mexico and Trinidad.
"I know this community, I know these flavor profiles, I've been eating these dishes since I was a little kid and so I feel a certain connection and the ability to innovate and serve this part of the market in a way that other brands might not be able to," he said.
The company offers products like Cuban Black Beans, Mexican Cowboy Pinto Beans and Trini Chickpea Curry. Shelf-stable products, like beans, have seen a sales boost amid the pandemic.
"Beans are high in protein, they're high in fiber, but they also taste really good. There's almost this emotional connection between Black and Latino cuisine and beans. Every region, every country has a dish that they can hold close — whether that's pinto beans in Mexico or black beans in the Caribbean," he said.
Basir said the bean category is relatively stagnant in terms of innovation, with standard canned and dry beans. He said there wasn't really a product that was delivering convenience, quality and more of a meal approach compared to just an ingredient for a larger meal.
"The gap that I saw was around really high-quality ingredients and diverse flavor profiles," he said. "So for those reasons I thought I'd be a great opportunity to enter the category and bring something new. So far I'm really happy with the response."
Breaking into the natural products space
Not long after the company’s debut, A Dozen Cousins won a Nexty award for Best New Pantry Product at 2019's Natural Products Expo West show. Basir said the award helped to get more people in the natural products industry, which has been criticized for its lack of diversity, to really notice the company.
"In general my approach is that the first step to getting anyone to like your brand and buy your brand, they have to know you exist," Basir said. "I want as many people as possible to know that A Dozen Cousins exists, then hopefully that can lead to them trying the product, buying the product, enjoying it, putting it on the shelves at their stores."
He said he has seen an evolution and acceleration in the last few years of more brands launching that are culturally minded. Basir said that "the reality is that the country is getting more diverse... which means the entrepreneurship base is getting more diverse and the brands they create are getting more diverse and hopefully we will just continue from there."
"I know this community, I know these flavor profiles, I've been eating these dishes since I was a little kid and so I feel a certain connection and the ability to innovate and serve this part of the market in a way that other brands might not be able to."
Founder and CEO, A Dozen Cousins
A Dozen Cousins continues to embrace culture with its launches. For Black History Month this year, A Dozen Cousins released three varieties of heirloom rice, each with a history behind it. Each were cultivated by the African diaspora hundreds of years ago.
The varieties included Heirloom Ofada Rice, which is native to Nigeria and is historically hard to mill; Hoppin’ John Rice, which makes black-eyed peas with heirloom Carolina Gold rice; and Coconut Rice, which is made with traditional recipes from the state of Bahia in northeast Brazil.
"For at least 3,000 years, rice has been grown in Africa using a variety of methods," the company previously told Food Dive. "Not only was it both a field and a paddy crop, but there are even deep water varieties of wild rice that were harvested by canoe. It was the agricultural expertise of enslaved Africans (and not just their labor) that enabled the rice crop to thrive in the hot and humid weather of The Carolinas."
Will this moment bring meaningful change?
After George Floyd was killed, many small and large company leaders were more open with how they felt. Basir said it is a "frustrating and angering time to be a Black person in America," watching the unjust loss of life. A Dozen Cousins posted on social media about the heartbreak they felt, being a Black-owned brand and demanding justice for Floyd.
On the flip side, he said his business has seen tremendous exposure during the #BuyBlackOwned movement, growing its social media following about 40%, and selling out of some products online. It exposed the company to thousands of new people that will hopefully like the beans and continue to be shoppers, he said.
"So in that way, I am happy as an entrepreneur. I just wish that this was happening under different and better circumstances," he said.
Basir said the million-dollar question now is if this trend will lead to meaningful change.
"Will people now be more open to trying, experimenting or even seeking out brands founded by diverse people? I hope so. I've always enjoyed buying products made by underrepresented groups... If that enters into more peoples' mindframes, that would be great, but to be honest the answer to all those questions are I don’t know. I hope so," he said.
He said he is also hopeful that this moment can lead to more diverse voices in the industry. When Basir started the company, he saw an opportunity because many of the people that make specifically natural food don't reflect the country, he said.
"It's easier to market and create products when your people reflect that," Basir said.
He said diverse founders can struggle when getting investments and getting off the ground because they often face traditional bias or investors just not understanding the consumers and communities that they could serve.
"There's so many reasons why an investor might not see potential in a business that is started by a diverse founder, but that is something that can be overcome. If your team is diverse, and the people making the investment decisions are more diverse, then it could be easier to fund diverse founders," he said.
CPG companies will need to look at if they are hiring a diverse team and treating them fairly by giving them opportunities to advance, he said. "That would be my first challenge to any company that is making statements. Does your team reflect the diversity that you're seeking? Specifically, does your leadership reflect it?"
Overall though, Basir is hopeful about this time being different.
"I would underline the balance between the sadness of the tragedy that occurred and the hopefulness about the response," he said. "This is the most large and sustained, broad-based response I’ve ever seen … Maybe this represents a meaningful difference to how people are thinking about race in America."