This ready-to-eat food startup relies on inspiration from traditional recipes

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

A Dozen Cousins offers a line of modernized ready-to-eat beans inspired by traditional African American, Creole, and Latino recipes. And in honor of Black History Month, the brand is launching a new, limited-edition Creole Red Bean variety on Feb. 10. These Louisiana-style beans are slow simmered with bell peppers and spices, and in keeping with the rest of the company’s mission to encourage better eating habits with nutrient-dense ingredients, the product is vegan and gluten-free.

The company says it was inspired to debut this variety as Creole Red Beans have a unique blend of influences from African, French, and Spanish cuisine, and the dish is a staple throughout Louisiana and the Southern United States. New Orleans, in particular, has culinary connection to the lowly red bean, stretching over centuries and across cultures and communities worldwide.

A Dozen Cousins’ African American founder and CEO, Ibraheem Basir, says that on a personal note, he is very excited about this limited-edition launch to celebrate his mother’s native Southern cooking and her special red beans and rice recipe, as well as Black history.

Fortune recently spoke with Basir to learn more about his insights and predictions for his business and the retail food industry after a year in which grocery shopping was completely upended.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Courtesy of A Dozen Cousins

Fortune: Could you share a bit about your background? What were you doing prior to launching A Dozen Cousins?

Basir: I grew up in Brooklyn in a big family with nine siblings, and when my daughter was born, she was one of 12 cousins, which is where the brand gets its name. Throughout my life, food has played a special role in my family. It is how we celebrate holidays, mark milestones, and stay connected to each other, so I have always felt a strong pull toward a career in the food industry.

Prior to launching A Dozen Cousins, I worked as a brand manager at a large national food company. Most of my roles were focused on innovation and new product development, so I would literally spend entire weeks talking to people about what they were eating, which products they loved, and which categories and products were falling short of their expectations. During this time, I learned to focus less on trends and buzzwords and instead to focus on what was going on in people’s lives and how food was playing a role in that.

Another big part of my professional journey was moving to California and falling in love with the natural food movement. For most of my life, I didn’t really pay much attention to health or wellness when it came to food. I was just focused on whether it tasted good! As my job forced me to learn more about ingredient sourcing and nutrition, I found myself drawn more and more to simple, natural foods.

Beans are a staple for a reason, so there’s no shortage of options for consumers to choose from. What motivated the launch of A Dozen Cousins? What makes it stand apart from what is already on the market?

First and foremost, I launched A Dozen Cousins because my family and I were starting to get more conscious about what we were eating, and it felt like we constantly had to choose between taste, health, and culture. On the one hand, we loved the ethos and ingredients of a lot of natural food brands, but on the other hand we missed the taste of the traditional Creole, Caribbean, and Latin American dishes that we had grown up enjoying. I started A Dozen Cousins so that people on a similar journey could have all three of those things without feeling the need to compromise.

In terms of our first product, our belief is that we can get people to eat more beans simply by making them delicious and easy to prepare. Even though beans are a pantry staple, it still takes a fair amount of time and effort to cook a good pot of beans from scratch. We solve that by slow-simmering our beans and packing them in a BPA-free microwavable pouch so that customers just have to warm and serve them. Most importantly, we don’t make any sacrifices when it comes to ingredient quality. Instead of using processed flavorings, we season our beans with real onion, garlic, peppers, and spices, and they are cooked with nutrient-dense avocado oil.

All of the brand’s products are 100% plant-based protein and gluten-free, and are made with avocado oil.
Courtesy of A Dozen Cousins

Two of the big selling points behind A Dozen Cousins’ products are that they’re easy to cook fast and they’re really tasty. But achieving both of those qualities in a ready-to-eat food product is not an easy feat. What went into the recipe development process?

I like to joke that hundreds of years of research and development went into our products, because it’s kind of true. The recipes for our beans have been refined and passed down from generation to generation, so we started out with great recipes that were already really complex and well-balanced.

The key for us was just to make sure that we kept a high bar on quality and refused to compromise. When you start to produce anything at scale, there are a million different places that it can go wrong. Sometimes brands will make their products blander to appeal to people that don’t like spice, or they will add some sketchy ingredient so that it is easier or cheaper to manufacture. Thankfully, we’ve been able to avoid all of those temptations. As a result, I think you can taste that care and quality in the final products.

A Dozen Cousins is also releasing a new, limited-edition flavor celebrating Creole-style red beans and rice. What’s the inspiration behind this special product?

This is the second year that we are launching a limited-edition item in honor of Black History Month. As a Black-owned brand, these products are a fun opportunity for us to celebrate the foods of the African Diaspora and share them with a broader audience. Creole Red Beans are special because they have roots in African, French, and Spanish cuisine, but in many ways the dish that we enjoy today was truly born in Louisiana. Throughout the month, we will be sharing content about the history of the dish, why it is loved, and how it is served.

On a personal note, my mother is from South Carolina, and Creole Red Beans were one of the dishes that she cooked most often when I was young, so I am excited to share one of her favorite recipes with the world.

Grocery shopping has become complicated, to say the least, during the pandemic. What has it been like working in the food retail market in the last year? How have e-commerce sales balanced out with wholesale partners?

First and foremost, I feel blessed that our business is growing and that our employees and partners have had a stable income throughout this crisis. With that said, this hasn’t been an easy year to run a food business. We have had to deal with unpredictable surges in demand, delays in our supply chain, and retailers that have been understandably focused on their biggest brands and largest categories. With that said, we have been able to react quickly and keep everything on track, which we are thankful for.

One thing that I have been very excited about has been people’s shift to buying more groceries online. During the last year, we launched our first direct-to-consumer website, and that has allowed us to establish a relationship with more of our customers than ever before. At the same time, we partner with several online retailers that are making it easier than ever for people to keep their pantries stocked without having to go out to stores.

Economic downturns often prove to be a fruitful time for startups that can fill a void. What has it been like to secure funding for A Dozen Cousins? Is it privately funded or backed by venture capital?

To be honest, I have always found the process of raising capital to be difficult and time-consuming. With that said, I think some of that friction is healthy. I emerge from every fundraise with a better game plan for the coming year and even more confidence in what we are building. Most importantly, the investors that make it to the other side are people who I respect and who fundamentally believe in our mission and the company we are building.

Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see A Dozen Cousins?

Five years from now, I hope A Dozen Cousins has products in several different categories and that we are the first brand people think of when they want to prepare a Creole, Caribbean, or Latin American meal at home.

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