Ibraheem Basir, founder and CEO of the new natural foods company A Dozen Cousins, was working for General Mills leading new product innovation for its natural foods brand Annie’s when entrepreneurial inspiration struck.
He had moved out to California to work at Annie’s Berkeley headquarters after the company was acquired by General Mills for $820 million in 2014, but he frequently traveled back East to visit his family in Brooklyn.
“Of course, in Berkeley, everyone is very health conscious and nutrition-focused and environmentally friendly. The conversation around food was shaped by that consciousness,” Basir tells me. “Then I’d go home to Brooklyn, where we were having a very different conversation about food. It was around culture and family. We would focus on seasonings, where does that recipe come from and will it fill me up.”
“I had this cognitive dissonance,” he adds. “I wanted to create a brand that could bring the two worlds together.”
So he founded A Dozen Cousins, in honor of his daughter and her 11 cousins, to evoke the joy and camaraderie of a large, noisy family. He wanted to draw from the rich heritage of Caribbean, Creole and Latin American cuisines in his diverse Brooklyn neighborhood—and to fuse that sensibility with his considerable knowledge of natural foods sourcing and ingredients.
For Basir, the logical starting point was the humble bean, which is central to the cuisines of many cultures. It’s an almost $3 billion category, but it hasn’t seen much innovation for decades, he says. While cooking dried beans yields the best flavor, most people don’t have the time to soak them overnight and simmer them for a few hours. And while canned beans are more convenient, they are often unseasoned and bland. Moreover, traditional canned refried beans and baked beans offer just two flavor profiles.
A Dozen Cousins – Soulfully Seasoned Beans
“Beans fit our mission as a brand,” he explains. “They’re high in protein and fiber, vitamins and minerals, but they also they taste really good, and they have a real cultural connection for the people we are addressing.”
A third of all U.S millennials are black or Latino. But the natural foods industry, by and large, hasn’t targeted that demographic. Like all millennials, that segment is also growing increasingly health conscious, Basir says.
“I wanted to welcome a more diverse audience into the natural product space,” says Basir, who has raised seed funding through angel investors.
A Dozen Cousins also has a broader social mission: to help improve the health and wellness of minority communities, who suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases such as diabetes. To that end, the company recently sponsored two six-week health and nutrition courses to serve a total of 50 families at Austin’s The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre, a project of the nonprofit Sustainable Food Center. The program uses peer facilitators and emphasizes culturally relevant foods that are local, seasonal and reasonably priced.
“Each year, we’re going to pick a nonprofit working on the issue of health disparity in a different way,” Basir says.
Initially, Dozen Cousins is offering three varieties of precooked and seasoned beans, which come in microwaveable pouches and are suitable for vegans. They are cooked in healthy avocado oil and include chunks of onions and peppers, and a variety of spices. My favorite was the Trinidadian chick pea curry with cilantro and turmeric—I added cauliflower to the leftovers for a tasty second meal, paired with quinoa. But I was also very happy with the Mexican cowboy beans, which worked well with tortillas. I found the Cuban black beans a bit too soupy.
Although Basir certainly hopes black and Latino consumers will find his products appealing and authentic, he also aims to reach a broader audience of people who enjoy eating different ethnic cuisines. “The beautiful thing about food is you can serve your people and at the same time welcome outsiders.,” he says.
In June, A Dozen Cousins launched its beans in about 450 Whole Foods Market stores throughout the U.S. The company also sells its beans online through Amazon, Whole Foods’ parent company, and in National Co-op Grocers supermarkets in the western U.S. region. The beans sell for $3.99 per pouch at Whole Foods and $24.99 for a six-pack on Amazon,
Christina Pearson, global grocery category merchant for Whole Foods Market, tells me by email that she first tasted A Dozen Cousin’s products when someone from Whole Foods’ development team dropped off some samples at her desk. She later visited the company’s booth at Natural Products Expo East in September 2018, and met with Basir.
“I was immediately struck by Ibraheem’s passion for food and family, which he channeled into an incredible product,” she says. “We are definitely interested in new products as they are developed and hope to continue to grow our partnership with the A Dozen Cousins team. We look forward to seeing what they come up with next.”
So, what’s next? Basir makes it clear he doesn’t plan to limit his market to beans, but he’s reluctant to divulge the next category for competitive reasons.
What he can say: in five years A Dozen Cousins hopes to offer foods that fill the entire dinner plate.
“Dinnertime is one of the most emotionally relevant meals in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s a time when families come together, and there is a desire to eat something wholesome, but there’s also this time crunch.”
As it scales up, A Dozen Cousins will continue to focus on ultra-convenience, healthful, nutrient-dense products and authentic tastes and seasonings, Basir says.
But, he adds, “We’re not done with beans yet. Candidly, there’s a lot of room to innovate.”