Delightful Foods Builds on 40 Years of Sweet Success

By Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
June 12, 2020

“People see a picture of my daughter on the cookies and say, ‘Wow, that’s a Black-owned business,’” says Bilal Sabir, founder of Delightful Foods and maker of the No Cookie. “‘They’ve been making this cookie forever, and they had her picture on there even when it wasn’t fashionable.’ Now that it’s fashionable, they’re supporting us even more.”

In recent weeks, there has been an outpouring of recognition and support for Black chefsfarmers, and food community, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Bilal takes the surge in attention with ease. For more than 40 years, the Oakland-based Delightful Foods has built a loyal and national following by making moist and delicious vegan cookies and pies that speak for themselves.

“People are now walking into their local health food store and buying our cookies, and saying, ‘These cookies are really good! I should have been buying these cookies all along,” he says.

From Easy-Bake Ovens to Reinventing the Vegan Cookie

Built by Bilal and his wife, Rafia (pictured above), with help from their nine children, Delightful Foods is a true family business. Bilal fell in love with baking as a child, watching his mother (a professional cook) in the kitchen and experimenting with his own baking creations in his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. “I remember I was nine or ten years old, and everyone was going trick-or-treating. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to stay home and learn how to make a sweet potato pumpkin pie.”

Early on, Bilal discovered he had a second gift: sales. In high school, he participated in the Junior Achievement program, where he created his own business and sold products at a local mall. When his team out-grossed all the teams from other cities, his class voted him Vice-President of Sales.

As a young man in the 1970s, he started selling goods for another baker, but soon realized he should be selling for himself. At the age of 24, he decided to found his own baking company.

Delightful Foods started with traditional pies and cookies, but by the 1990s Bilal started experimenting with dairy-, egg-, and wheat-free confections, long before “vegan” was a household term. “We head to define what ‘vegan’ meant,” says Bilal. “Vegan products were bad 25 years ago. They were hard. They had no taste. We were one of the first companies that learned how to do vegan well.”

Baking Sustainablility into the Business

Sales were slow at first, but Bilal knew there was a market for his vegan cookie, which he called the “No Cookie.” When a San Francisco store stopped carrying his cookies, Bilal was contacted by a representative of the actor Danny Glover, who was a loyal No Cookie fan. Bilal then knew he was onto something.

“If this famous person loved our cookies, that made me believe that it could work,” says Bilal. He started reaching out to Whole Foods, doing demos, and shipping his cookies throughout the country. Made with love and care using minimal ingredients, the No Cookie is now in 200 stores nationwide, and loved by vegan and nonvegan customers alike.

Sixteen years ago, Bilal met his wife, Rafia, while on a trip to Ghana. When she moved to the United States, she began working at the bakery, but she became restless and wanted to do more out in the community.

“I told Bilal, ‘We need to start doing farmers markets. I’m going crazy!’” says Rafia, who had worked at markets in Ghana. “Once I started doing the markets, I was happy. I got a chance to say to hi people and get feedback. I love the community and the workers.”

Since then, she has become the face of Delightful Foods at Bay Area farmers markets, and has pushed Bilal to start selling his pies again in a variety of fresh, seasonal flavors, from bean pie and sweet potato pie to blueberry cheesecake and peach cobbler.

“Whatever your passion is, don’t leave it alone,” says Rafia. “Go after it.”

Weathering Eviction and the Pandemic

In the cut-throat Bay Area food landscape where businesses come and go, Delightful Foods’ ingredients of success include developing delicious, tried-and-true products and growing sustainably without debt.

“We strive for excellence,” says Bilal. “We have to be so much better than other people because we were at a disadvantage and didn’t start out with any money. We still don’t have any money, but we operate with no debt. We realize that we won’t grow like some companies who borrow, but we have contentment. Even if with a pandemic or anything else that may happen, we will still stay in business. No one will force us to close.”

Three months before the pandemic, Delightful Foods was put to the test. Due to a sprinkler issue in the building, they received an eviction notice for their commercial kitchen in Fruitvale of 29 years. Bilal tried to remain optimistic, despite his worries. “If we lose this place, at least we still have our customers, our equipment, our recipes, and our help. We can just go to a different place and bake. I could keep smiling, but deep down I was still feeling this sadness, this feeling that this isn’t right.”

Even as they began packing up the bakery, the Sabirs and their neighbors hired a lawyer and fought back. They won and were able to keep their kitchen.

So, when the pandemic hit in March, Bilal and his family felt prepared to take on anything. “We have six of us in the house right now,” says Bilal. “All six of us go to the bakery every day. Since we don’t have other employees, we don’t have to wear masks because we live together. We go to the bakery and we come home. That’s our life right now.”

The Future Is Family

According to Bilal, farmers markets have helped to keep business steady during the pandemic. “We’re actually doing better because people are coming to farmers markets more, because the air is fresh and the farmers markets are much safer than grocery stores,” he says.

For the Sabirs, the recent pandemic and protests have not changed how they do business, how they take care of each other, or how generously they give back. They have always prioritized their community, whether that means giving free cookies to homeless neighbors in Oakland or sending money to people in need in Ghana.

Having built a deep and solid foundation with family at the heart, they are hopeful about the future of Delightful Foods, as they aim to pass it on to the next generation some day. Bilal and Rafia’s daughter Faruza⁠—the confident four-year-old Black girl who appears on the No Cookie label⁠—is now 12 years old and has baking aspirations of her own.

“I see growing it big,” says Rafia. “At first, I was thinking that, with just me and my husband doing it, what if we get old and die? Who is going to take it on? But my daughter is doing cupcakes and pound cake. Now I think that when we die, all the work that we put into Delightful Foods won’t die. It will be different recipes, but it will carry on. That makes me happy.”

Visit Delightful Foods and taste the No Cookie for yourself at the Mission Community Market on Thursdays. UPDATE (July 3, 2020): Delightful Foods is also at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Delightful Foods bakery photos by Square.

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