Debra Sandler grew up on the tastes of the Carribean. Pepper sauces like soca sauce—an amalgam of fiery habañero and jalapeños, onions and papaya, and seasonings—coconut laden trini curries to bathe meat, fish, and vegetables, and herb marinades epitomized a childhood filled with West Indian culture and joy.
Now, Sandler’s family is bringing some of those tastes to the American table. Bazodee, a Trininidadian word that means to fall head over heels in love, is bringing the flavors of the islands to American kitchens, causing consumers to develop their own feelings of bazodee of the rich, tropical sauces.
“People really love the rich flavors and the homemade tastes that they get with the sauces,” Sandler told me from her New Jersey home.
Learning in the kitchen
Born in Venezuela and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Debra Sandler learned the flavors of upbringing through her Auntie Mavis Davis, the mastermind behind some of the family’s most treasured recipes. Sandler spent decades working in the corporate world, providing marketing expertise for companies like Pepsi Co., Johnson and Johnson, and eventually, in 2016, the board of Archer Daniels Midland. While in this new role, Sandler began spending more time with her mom, who was ailing at the time, and her Auntie Mavis. To Sandler’s surprise, her Auntie Mavis and mom began chastising her at a Thanksgiving dinner, for Debra and her generation of the family had not picked up the family tradition of cooking and carrying on family recipes.
“My thing was, it’s your fault! You guys spoiled us! You guys love to cook, and we’re just happy to enjoy!” a laughing Sandler told me, describing her responses to her aunt’s frustrations. Though Sandler knows they were teasing her in love, she also recognized that the concerns they had spoke an important reality of their family’s cooking legacy.
“I knew she was really saying, ‘Hey look, we’re getting older we can’t do it, so you guys have to pick up the mantle.’ So I said okay, you know what? Teach me some stuff.”
Auntie Mavis took her niece’s request to heart. Sandler began joining her aunt in the kitchen, first learning how to make the beloved pepper sauce. She realized that her aunt, like many homecooks of color, made her recipes by instinct, rather than measuring each ingredient.
“I likened it to a conductor in an orchestra because she literally was just taking different ingredients and putting them into the pot by sight,” said Sandler of her aunt’s culinary skills.
As Debra continued learning the family recipes, her marketing instincts set in, and she realized that she might have something more than sauces and marinades for her own family dinners.
“It was a wonderful experience because I got to spend time with my family and I got to learn how to do a few more things in West Indian, Venezuelan style. And as we went along, I realized that these items have some commercial viability. So I said, let’s do this. Let’s, let’s really develop the product, and let’s put it in bottles.”
Auntie Mavis’ products were already really popular within their New Jersey neighborhood. Nearby residents would ask for her product, and Mavis would occasionally sell her sauces to friends. Still, it wasn’t yet a brand. After a family discussion about turning the sauces into a company and retaining the family values that made the recipes what they were, Debra invoked her business expertise and started building the Bazodee brand. She began developing written recipes with her aunt, created a company, and started brand development for their family recipes.
“We loved the sauces, the neighborhood loved them, why wouldn’t other people?”
Bazodee, housed under Mavis Foods, LLC, is now thriving. Sharing the sauces and meal recipes for newcomers to Carribean cuisine, the Mavis family’s growing business means far more than just the tastes they’re offering. As a family and Black owned business, they are an example of the importance of diverse communities having ownership over their recipes, and reaping the financial benefits of their goods.
“You can build generational wealth if you can be a successful entrepreneur,” Sandler told me. “That’s really important for communities of color like ours.
The peppery, tropical flavors of Bazodee are available through their online story. Bazodee offers a wide variety of sauces and marinades, including tasty tamarind, real Trini curry, soca sauce, and hot soca sauce, and a marvelous marinade composed of green herbs and seasonings. Sold individually or as sets, the sauces can be used on a number of dishes, including seafood, meat, curries, pasta, and tacos. The family wanted customers to be able to add the flavors of the Carribean to everything, even if they weren’t traditional island dishes.
“We want everyone to be able to taste the flavors of our culture. That meant that we needed to make products that could work with many different types of food and cuisine.”
The sauces were made with the modern customer in mind. Between 2014 and 2017, Forbes reported a 600 percent increase in the number of vegans in the United States. Nearly all of Bazodee’s sauces are vegan or vegetarian, appeasing health and climate change-conscious eaters.
“We started off focusing on natural products, so making sure that there were no additives nor any preservatives, but vegan products weren’t necessarily a part of our initial planning,” said Sandler. “After researching, we wanted to make sure our sauces were accessible for everyone, so we made sure that the final bottles were vegan or vegetarian.”
This rise of Bazodee is far beyond anything Aunt Mavis, Debra Sandler, or any of the family could’ve imagined.
“You know, she’s not a business woman per se,” Debra said of her Auntie Mavis.” She loves to cook and she loves to entertain and feed people. But not in her wildest dreams did she ever think something like this was possible.”
Building their business as immigrants has added an increased sense of pride for the family, as they’ve been able to reach what they consider to be the true immigrant dream: business ownership and retaining one’s culture with family.
“It’s such a fun process because it’s such a family process,” said Sandler. “We wanted to create something that represented who we are as a family, and I think we’ve done just that.”