November 18, 2019

Mother-Son Team Brings Persian Cuisine to the Frozen Food Aisle

Jordan Elist and his mom, Nancy Elist, started Baaz Bites, a new Persian frozen food line.

Jordan Elist is on a mission to make Persian food as ubiquitous as Mexican food on the American table. But he doesn’t cook. Fortunately, his Iranian-born mother, Nancy, does. The two are the founders of Baaz Bites, a brand new line of Persian frozen food.

The younger Elist admits this wasn’t his original career plan. After graduating from USC in 2017, the Los Angeles native landed a coveted job with J.P. Morgan in San Francisco. 

“I was really excited about it,”  Elist, 24, told the Journal. “I got to work with some phenomenal companies. Essentially it involved taking tech companies through the IPO process.”

A few months in, though, Elist realized that what most interested him about his work was the founders of these companies — the people who had nurtured the businesses from Day One. 

“I started really admiring entrepreneurs,” he said. “I said, why not take a chance on being an entrepreneur myself? I’m enjoying this job but it may not be where my passions are in the long term.”

Elist began to think about Persian food, which he ate regularly while growing up in Beverly Hills: delicious stews cooked by either his mother or grandmother, kebabs that they would sometimes pick up for easy Sunday night dinners, and tahdig, basmati rice with the irresistible crispy bottom.

“Food was the centerpiece of every single occasion we had at my house,” he said.

After long days at J.P. Morgan, Elist would return to the apartment he shared with two roommates and work on his idea. He kept coming back to tahdig, a dish so beloved that friends and loved ones are known to fight over the last bites of crispy goodness. The prospect of walking away from a steady paycheck was scary. But eventually the “nagging” feeling became overwhelming and Elist gave notice. He had worked there long enough to receive a one-year bonus, which he knew would be helpful in launching the business.

Back in Los Angeles, Elist and his mom spent hours in the kitchen of the family’s Beverly Hills home, trying different recipes and cooking techniques. Early on, Elist became aware of a challenge they faced. His mother had learned many of the recipes she cooked from her own mother. She cooked from memory, from feel. But nothing was written down. So out came measuring cups and spoons.

In the fall of 2018, when they had perfected several recipes, including tahdig made not in a big pot — the traditional method — but in miniature muffin tins, they started to sell the dishes at the Sunday Brentwood Farmers Market, “really trying to see what would ring with consumers who weren’t familiar with Persian food,” Elist said.

Selling at the market and interacting with customers not only helped them determine which dishes were most popular, it helped them decide what language to use on the packaging. For example, most customers weren’t familiar with ‘tahdig.’ But everyone understood “crispy basmati rice cups.”

Last month, Baaz Bites debuted at Vicente Foods in Brentwood. Co+opportunity in Santa Monica, and Culver City started to carry the line a couple of weeks later. Elist is currently in talks with other regional grocery chains.

There are three varieties of Baaz Bites: fesenjon made with pomegranate molasses and walnuts; ghormeh sabsi made with herbs, beans and dried lime; and gheymeh made with split peas, mushrooms and tomatoes. All feature the same golden, little cakes of rice.

As for the name, Elist said “Baaz” is a play on bazaar, the traditional Middle East marketplaces he likes to think of as the forerunner to the modern farmers market, where they got their start. “ ‘Baaz’ means ‘open’ in Farsi,” he added. “We see it as two ways of being open. We are hoping consumers will be open to trying a new cuisine. And Persians are tremendously hospitable people. Baaz Bites are the opening of the Persian kitchen to the mainstream market.”

It’s been a steep learning curve for Elist and his mom, with some unexpected twists along the way. Most notably, in doing research about launching a frozen food product, Elist reached out to several frozen food companies he admires, including Halo Top ice cream. “One thing led to another,” he said. “It morphed into a job interview.” Now Elist is part of Halo Top’s international strategy team.

But he’s still working hard on Baaz Bites. 

“Right now we’re really trying to figure out how to scale up production,” he said. For the time being, it’s just him, his mom and one other person cooking in a commercial kitchen. 

“One of our missions is to have Persian food gain the same kind of notoriety other foods have earned,” he said. “In looking at it more philosophically, we see Baaz Bites as playing a role in gastrodiplomacy, introducing consumers to Persian culture and Persian heritage through Persian cuisine.”