Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Ibraheem Basir is the founder and CEO of A Dozen Cousins, a natural food brand inspired by traditional Creole, Caribbean and Latin American dishes. He grew up in Brooklyn, a melting pot of many ethnicities, and was closely integrated with the Black and Latino community. In different parts of the world, these two groups are distinct entities – but not in Ibraheem’s experience. Many of his peers identified as both Black and Latino, and growing up with that community heavily influenced the music Ibraheem listened to, the foods that he ate, and his overall cultural experience. In hopes of translating his own community into a food-centric brand, he founded A Dozen Cousins in 2019.
How does your familial/ethnic identity relate to your passion for the food world?
IB: “I grew up in a really big family; I have nine siblings. My first-born daughter is the 12th cousin, which is where the brand gets its name. Food was a really big deal for us growing up – that’s how we celebrated holidays, marked milestones, and showed each other love. If you're in a working-class family that big, food is a very affordable way to be festive. It’s also an emotional tool for me. Within my career, it’s been really important for me to treat and enjoy the food I make in the same way that I grew up with it.”
Tell me about the start of your career and how you eventually created A Dozen Cousins.
IB: “I started my career working at a national food company. Over the course of five years, I rotated around and began working on more natural product brands. Eventually, the last company that I worked for was Annie's Homegrown, which is an organic kids food brand. I fell in love with the idea that business can be a force for good in the world. It showed me the importance of how you treat your employees, how you answer consumer questions, how you treat your vendor partners, what type of quality you put into the product itself. There's so many gray areas, especially in the food industry, so I found myself naturally gravitating towards telling the truth and doing the right thing. That’s the philosophy I’ve now built into A Dozen Cousins.
I reached a point where I felt like I was living a double life. During the day, I was very focused on natural, organic, clean eating, better agriculture, and then I would go home and eat fried chicken, red beans and rice, and empanadas – the types of foods that I grew up with. The first world was teaching me a lot, but the flavors and foods weren't necessarily things that I had a strong connection to. I became intrigued with a challenge: could I create a brand that felt really cultural, authentic, and captured that emotion of family and joy, but also leveraged everything that I had learned about in terms of sourcing, ingredient quality, and more?”
What kinds of foods/products do you offer? How have you curated your menu?
IB: “What we make are authentic meals and side dishes that are inspired by traditional Creole, Caribbean and Latin American recipes.
In terms of product, the first is our line of Seasoned Beans (12 pack - $45). They’re all fully cooked and seasoned, made with real vegetables and spices, cooked in avocado oil. The second product line is Rice Cooked in Bone Broth (12 pack - $45). Instead of cooking the rice in water, we cook it in chicken bone broth, so there's a really rich umami flavor. Then we have two lines of seasoning sauces which are designed around convenient cooking and meal prep. The first is a line of Entree Seasoning Sauces (10 pack - $35) that you just coat and cook your meat with, and our last product line, the one that is the most innovative and my favorite, is the Rice Seasoning Sauces (10 pack - $35).
Everything we make fits within the theme of encouraging people to make high quality, authentic dishes in an easy manner.”
Have you visited your countries of origin or the countries that you pull flavors from?
IB: “My family is African American. We've been in the U.S. for hundreds of years as descendents of American slaves so I'm in my country of origin in that regard. I have visited many of the countries that we pull our foods and flavors from. What I take away from those experiences, is the way that food is so much more than just food. When I eat certain food, I hear certain music in my head, I see a certain setting or I remember a backdrop. In the American natural food industry, many brands don't ask deeper questions such as: what is the history of this dish, how is it normally consumed, what feeling does it evoke in people? We really try to live in those moments.”
Tell me about working at the intersection of food and culture, and how you’re reinventing cultural exchange and preservation through the food that you offer.
IB: “If you spend time on our website or social media, you’ll notice we really take the time to talk about the history of the dish, the soundtrack that we want to play in our recipe video, the types of influencers that we work with. We're always trying to highlight and amplify people from the regions that we pull our foods and flavors from. Everyone on our team is either a minority or comes from a multi-ethnic background. The community we want to be a part of already exists, so we just want to be a member of it, we want to be a good steward of it, to celebrate and champion it. I really want to stress the economic benefit of a company like ours, which is why it's so important to me that our team is reflective of the communities that we pull from. The benefit needs to be returned to those communities in the largest percentage possible.
Our consumers come from all over the world. Brands sometimes get overly focused on these archetypical consumers, whereas I prefer to focus on psychographics. If you’re a busy person, you want to prepare your dinner in 20 minutes or less, we’re a good solution for you. Within our large demographic, I'm just as excited to be reconnecting a person with a dish of their youth or their heritage, as I am to be introducing people to new foods, cultures and flavors.”
Tell me about Project Potluck and the annual grant at A Dozen Cousins.
IB: “I have the pleasure of sitting on the board of Project Potluck, an organization based on a simple goal: how do we help make the CPG industry representative of the country that we live in? We're at a point where close to half of the people in the U.S. identify as being a person of color, or minority. But if you look at who owns these companies, who sits on the boards, who leads them, only 10-15% of those people are POC. We aim to help POC build successful companies and careers. We do everything – mentorship programs, community building events, knowledge and education events. It's a really holistic approach.
When I first started A Dozen Cousins, I wanted to get people from the communities that we’re a part of engaged with our products through a lens of accessibility and affordability. If you're in the U.S. and you're Black, Brown or poor, you're more likely to suffer from a food related illness, whether that's diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, etc.
We realized early on that we'll be able to impact some consumers through our products and branding, but there's still many people who can't afford our products. So we decided to start a social impact grant to help impact those consumers. Every year we give a grant to a nonprofit organization that is working to eliminate socioeconomic health disparities. Our most recent grant recipient is an organization based here in L.A. called Hike Clerb: a group that brings women of color together and connects them with the outdoors. There's a big gap referred to as ‘the nature gap,’ where our communities tend to live in very urban areas far away from nature, so this organization takes people on guided hikes and camping trips. We're now on our fourth grant.”
Have you felt confronted with the appropriation of these foods in the Western world? How are you trying to move away from that and create a more authentic menu?
IB: “Any type of cultural appropriation is exploitative. It’s taking something that's not yours and profiting from it. On the flip side, food is so fluid. Where do you draw the line between the exchange of ideas vs. appropriation? How do you create room for cultures to be exchanged, evolve and grow, but at the same time, acknowledge the origins and give credit to the people who originally created these flavors and dishes? We try to walk that fine line and find that middle ground. It’s not easy, but we try to be as respectful as we can.”
What do you hope that people will take away from A Dozen Cousins other than really tasty foods? What is your vision for the future of the company?
IB: “First and foremost, I hope that when people interact with the brand, they feel a sense of joy, of family, and of culture. We want you to really feel the love when eating our dishes. In terms of our hopes and dreams, we want to become a part of people's routines and a part of people's lives. And we want to stay that way, for hundreds of years.”
Want to know more about the delicious flavors A Dozen Cousins offers? Check out their latest dishes here.
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