In this time of food world reckonings, the latest once-beloved brand to come under scrutiny is Sqirl, the uber-hip, Los Angeles-based avatar of artisanal toast, grain bowls, and jam — jam that, as online allegations revealed over the weekend, had been stored improperly, leading to buckets topped with thick layers of mold. Beyond that, the cafe and its founder, Jessica Koslow, are facing criticism for their role in gentrifying Sqirl’s LA neighborhood, and for their alleged unfair treatment of its employees of color.
Somewhat lost amid the more obviously resonant aspects of the scandal, however, is the fact that at least one Bay Area food company — Diaspora Co., an Oakland-based, queer-woman-of-color-led spice company focused on decolonizing the supply chain of Indian-grown spices like turmeric and cardamom — was caught in the undertow of the controversy. Just a few days earlier, the company had announced its first-ever collaboration with Sqirl — a new jam made with Diaspora Co.’s single-origin green cardamom and rhubarb from a family farm in Fresno. According to Diaspora founder Sana Javeri Kadri, it was a dream partnership for a small company like hers — especially, Kadri says, because she herself had long admired Koslow and her restaurant.
Kadri says she received immediate pushback from a couple of longtime customers as soon as she announced the collaboration this past Friday. As more and more details about the apparent atmosphere at Sqirl emerged over the weekend — and as Kadri herself had conversations with employees at the cafe — she ultimately decided to pull out of the collaboration. By Sunday, Kadri had issued a statement on Instagram and offered a full refund to anyone who’d already purchased the jam. While she says she expects to be able to work out the finances with Sqirl, as of now, Diaspora stands to lose as much as $10,000 on the deal.
Eater SF spoke to Kadri about the fallout — and about the risks that are inherent when small companies enter into partnerships with powerful, high-profile brands. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
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UPDATE 07/12: in light of the recent allegations against Sqirl, we’ve pulled the remaining product from our online store. We believe these jams to be safe to eat, but if you have any concerns at all, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll give you a full refund and make it right. Your safety and well-being is our highest priority and we’re sorry to have let our community down with this collab Summer 2020 Collabs are LIVE! @sqirlla x #BarakaCardamom x @kongthao03 = dream jam !!!
Eater: How did your collaboration with Sqirl start?
Sana Javeri Kadri: I have known about Sqirl for a very long time. I moved to the U.S. in 2012 when Sqirl was the newest, hottest thing at the time. I went to Pomona College, which is outside of LA. I took a bus and a train and another bus over four hours to get to Sqirl for the first time. So I have always been a fan. I met Jessica [Koslow] for the first time last March. I had sent her samples of turmeric for years before that, which she says she had received, but we never interacted; she never acknowledged it. After that, we kind of kept in touch.
Now that I’m saying it aloud, I feel kind of silly and even embarrassed that I didn’t see her reaching out about the jam as maybe a move to position herself progressively. I think it’s possible that it was more subconscious than that; I really don’t want to throw this person under the bus. But I think all white-owned companies started thinking about, “Who can I partner with?” — or maybe even start under a more condescending “who can I uplift now?” point of view, and think of themselves as doing little guys like us a favor. In some ways, they were: I was really excited that we were going to have this collaboration. Having a Sqirl collab jam, that’s a status symbol. [Ed. note: A representative for Koslow reached out to Eater SF to say that Kadri first suggested the collaboration and provided a screenshot of a text exchange between the two to support that.]
But at the same time, we have really doubled down and said that our values are rooted in decolonization. I had said over and over that I started this company because I didn’t see people like me represented; I see the problems in chasing white-led status symbols or white-defined status symbols. But to an extent that feels a little bit unfair that I have to redefine what success looks like in a way that white-owned companies don’t have to worry about or get cut slack on. It makes it feel like the responsibility I’ve taken on is bigger than is fair a lot of the time.
The main thing that I’m sitting with right now is that I need to redefine who I go to for exposure and success and marketing. Three months ago, that was Bon Appétit. That has crashed and burned. Now it’s Sqirl. On the one hand, I need to reach a larger audience. People see us on Instagram, see our 45,000 followers, they think that we’re this huge company. But we maybe have 10,000 customers — actual paying customers. In order for us to grow, I need many many times that, and I can only achieve that with significant exposure, and collaborations with people in power is part of that.
Maybe the easiest answer is to collaborate with people who are BIPOC. But then reducing your collaboration just to somebody’s identity also feels fake and forced.
It seemed initially like this collaboration was a real win and something you were excited about. Can you talk about what the positive aspects were?
I think the way I justified the Sqirl collaboration is I know that Jessica, despite whatever is going to come out about her, she does a lot for the POC farmers of LA and really reps their produce in a pretty amazing way. My incentive was, she’s doing a lot for POC farmers; it would be so cool to pair this super special cardamom with this super special rhubarb in a way that more people can taste it than just the people that walk up and buy a slice of pie.
Sqirl agreed to buy [Fresno-based farmer] Kong Thao’s entire rhubarb harvest for this year — this jam collaboration was part of being able to do that. To me, that felt very beautiful because [Diaspora also agrees] to buy all of our spice farmers’ entire harvests, especially when they need it, and usually just because we have the demand for it.
All of this comes at a time when there are all these calls to support BIPOC-owned businesses, which, as this case illustrates, comes with some real opportunities — as well as potential risks — for BIPOC-owned food businesses. As you noted in your statement announcing the end of the collaboration, businesses like Diaspora can serve as a kind of “trendy marketing boost” for big brands looking to earn social capital. Can you speak to how this experience will inform your decisions to collaborate — or not — moving forward?
I fell into this trap literally two months ago with Alison Roman [the former New York Times recipe writer who has praised Diaspora’s turmeric and who faced a major backlash after controversial statements about two women of color]. It all feels a bit too familiar: a white woman really celebrating our work in a way that we profited — and ultimately realizing that our decolonized turmeric made her stew look less problematic. That was our role, and I was too starstruck to really notice it. I can’t really speak to the Sqirl collaboration because I don’t know what their intentions were. Similarly, with Alison, I asked her outright whether that was her intention — she said no, and she said, “I hope you trust us. That was not my intention.” But that’s sure what it feels like.
I just felt so special. It’s hard not to when the New York Times food writer is suddenly saying that your turmeric is the best in the world, and you’re seeing thousands of dollars of sales from white ladies who are using it to make “The Stew” or “The Cake” or whatever. I think I got caught up in that because as a CEO, that’s good business.
I think I need to recognize that even if financially and logistically we’re not a big company, in terms of impact and reach and thought, we’re seen as a leader, and we’re seen as a trailblazer. I want to sit with that responsibility. How can I continue to lead — to think more like a leader and less like a cash-strapped CEO? That means spotlighting really interesting brands doing cool work even if those collaborations are harder or look less sexy on Instagram. The whole point of my work with Diaspora was to make an industry and a system that has never been given its due, and that has never been sexy, look interesting and delicious — but also to do the work to make that supply chain ethical, equitable, and sustainable.
So maybe our collaborations are not the easy quick marketing collabs that I’ve been seeing, but actually an extension of doing the work in our industry. Like, who is decolonizing coffee? Who is decolonizing jam? Collaborate from that point of view. And that’s a cool responsibility to have.