September 14, 2021
For years, the natural products industry has been predominantly white folks making food for white folks. But now, with the U.S. population becoming increasingly diverse, and amidst a widespread awakening to long-held racial disparities and the need for inclusion, there is a real call for change.
“Because it is through economic and social empowerment that we can reduce racial disparities in our country, consumers are demanding more representation from smaller, diverse companies,” says Jordan Buckner, a BIPOC entrepreneur and founder of Foodbevy, an online platform to support food and beverage entrepreneurs. Many independent retailers are stepping up their efforts to uplift these companies. How? Here are nine ideas to consider for your store.
BIPOC entrepreneur and advocate
founder of Foodbevy and advocate for diverse entrepreneurs,
based in Madison, Wisconsin
Merchandise and market effectively. While many BIPOC-owned companies make very approachable mainstream items, others offer more ethnic products. Historically, grocery stores have had one ethnic aisle that includes everything not considered mainstream. Consumers are rejecting that notion, and some retailers are incorporating these foods throughout the store. It’s beneficial for all diverse brands to be merchandised with their respective categories, but I believe they should also have placement that highlights the founders’ stories. You can do this with shelf tags that show a photo of the founder to call special attention to their story. Or you can create endcaps that highlight and promote BIPOC brands—at no charge to them.
Offer optional self-certification. Organizations such as the National Minority Supplier Development Council certify minority-owned companies. The problem is that for many diverse-owned brands, third-party certification is a big hurdle and monetary cost. That’s why offering self-certification—where the retailer asks a founder if their brand is BIPOC owned—is a great start. But self-certification should be optional for brands because of the historical bias against minority-owned companies.
Give breaks on fees. Retailers’ margins have decreased over time, so many make up revenue on free fills, marketing and other costs and fees associated with doing business. But those fees often squeeze smaller vendors more than larger ones. I suggest implementing a threshold for the fees you charge new brands you bring in to make sure you’re not overburdening them. Whether you have a special program to support BIPOC-owned brands in this way or you offer this assistance across all small brands until they meet a certain threshold of sales, waiving or reducing fees is a great way to support diverse companies.
Amy Bennett, owner of The Greene Grape,
Brooklyn, New York
Meet your makers. Retailers may carry some brands they don’t even realize are BIPOC owned because the brands don’t market themselves in that way. Take Pipcorn, for example. People love the brand and story: One of the founders couldn’t digest full-kernel popcorn, so they found a smaller varietal. They didn’t go out of their way to say they have Black heritage—they went out with “it’s a tiny kernel.” Because the founders don’t market themselves as a BIPOC-owned brand, many people don’t know that they are. If you want to give small brands a lift, getting to know them is the best thing you can do.
Focus on flavor. For food and beverage, taste and usefulness should be the spotlight. It’s great that a brand is BIPOC owned, but at the end of the day, you want to feature the products because they’re high quality and delicious. For instance, Mouton Noir makes fabulous wines—and that’s why we carry and recommend them; it’s an aside that the company is Black owned. We don’t want shoppers to buy Mouton Noir once a year during Black History Month; we want them to become connected to the brand and feel proud to have it on their table. That’s what makes difference between lip service—just trying to show shoppers that you support BIPOC-owned brands—and actually supporting BIPOC-owned brands.
Be creative with support. As a retailer, I know it’s easier to order from three or four vendors or wholesalers. I understand that ordering from lots of small vendors adds to your overhead. But it’s definitely worth the extra effort. I urge retailers to understand small brands’ limitations, and when you see a problem, find a solution. And get creative. Knowing that BIPOC entrepreneurs often don’t have access to capital that other brands might, the solution may be to pay upfront. I’ve paid in advance for a large amount of inventory. I’ve even paid a small brand’s printing bill directly and bought in bulk so they didn’t have to put capital upfront. I did these things happily because I knew I could move the product and I was solving a cash crunch—a win-win.
Business development expert
Heidi Traore, business development manager at National Co+op Grocers in St. Paul, Minnesota
Lead with humility. If you’re a white person, lead with humility and don’t go into diversity work assuming you have all the answers. Avoid tokenizing or objectifying people, and refrain from making broad assumptions across entire groups. If you are doing a marketing campaign and are unsure of specifics, talk to people. Seek out a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant or a local racial justice organization that can help you understand whether you’re making any missteps. Or ask helpful coworkers. However, you don’t want to overburden people of color on your staff—it’s not their job to educate everyone on racial justice.
Understand common barriers. Understand the traditional barriers for BIPOC-owned brands. Is it access to capital? Or is there industry language or insider speak that doesn’t match with their business experience? It is really important to help these brands understand how to do business with you and to be clear on what the pathways are to success. Help them understand your shoppers, what their needs are and how their brand will match up with those needs. My advice is to add a formal supplier diversity system to your business plan, which may offer a basic platform of benefits for brands. But beyond that, engage with individual brands to make sure those benefits meet their specific needs.
Make diversity a companywide mission. Yes, you want to market BIPOC-owned brands, but what are you doing to support diversity throughout your broader organization? You want to be really authentic, so examine why you’re doing this work. Is this effort all about the bottom line, or are you truly trying to effect change? Think about your organization’s long-term goals in this space, then establish a baseline and measure against those goals. Is your organization making progress? If you say you are doing X, are your efforts actually making a difference?
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