Meet the Ginjan Bros.
Mohammed and Ibrahima Diallo spent their childhood in Conakry, Guinea. On hot summer days or with dinner, the brothers would order a West African ginger beverage. Each establishment had its unique version with varying levels of sweetness, spice and citrus. It was the lemonade of Guinea. Today, the two brothers have banded together to create their own organic version of the traditional ginger drink called Ginjan.
The Ginjan Bros. initially came to the Bronx for a vacation as teenagers in the early 2000s. That vacation eventually became a permanent stay, as political state worsened in Guinea. Without their parents, the duo stayed with family friends and relatives while completing their education. It was Ibrahima’s first glimpse of the U.S.
“What you see on the news and the movies about the U.S. is a little cleaned up,” says Ibrahima. “So when we got here and moved to the Bronx, we had a very different picture than what was actually on the ground.”
For them, The Bronx became a new home base, one that they kept coming back to even after graduate school in Germany and stints in Atlanta. They went from not speaking English and not knowing anyone to being integral members of the community.
“There was definitely a huge learning curve,” says Ibrahima. “It pretty much becomes the new normal, and you just have to get past that to communicate with folks.”
Throughout the boroughs of New York and in the Bronx, Ibrahima and Mohammed continued to search for the ginger beverage they called niamkouleidy (phonetically spelled, which translates to “pepper of the earth” or “earth pepper”) for a taste of home. The drink combined ginger, pineapple juice, lemon juice, vanilla, anise and sugar. The trouble was that it was never consistent. Often the restaurant would run out for the day, or it would be made terribly unbalanced.
“We walked into a restaurant one day in Midtown and bought it,” says Ibrahima. “It was perfect. We loved it. I was, like, ‘We finally found a good one!’ We went back about a week later to get it again, and it was terrible, like, really bad.” And this kept happening everywhere they’d try it. One day it would be too spicy, and the next they couldn’t taste the lemon. The next, it would be too sweet.
“There was also no branding on it, so you wouldn’t order it if you didn’t know what it was. We kept saying someone ought to make this better. We couldn’t find a single company that made it on a commercial scale, and we kept saying that someone should do this, but no one did.”
So they did. The two brothers had never started a beverage company before and had never made it themselves, but they wanted to share their love of the drink with others in a way that was organic, consistent and scalable.
“We pretty much had to develop the recipe and learn the beverage business,” says Ibrahima. “It’s a brutal business, and we’re still learning.” It took them two years to test and perfect the recipe. One day, they were catching up with friends, and the Diallo brothers had made a small pitch for the business that they decided to show them. One of their friends started cracking up and calling them the Ginjan Brothers, and the name stuck.
On July 18, 2015, they sold their first bottle, but it wasn’t easy. “Let me put it this way,” says Ibrahima. “We picked that date because of an African food festival. On July 15, we had no bottles, no labels; we had nothing.” On top of that, the biggest batch they had ever produced was one gallon. They were about to multiply that by 20 and time was running out. At 7 a.m. on the 18th, they finished making the juice for the festival that would start at 8 a.m. It ended up being the best batch they had ever made.
Today, Ginjan can be found at more than 100 locations, including Chez Amina on Boston Road, in the Bronx. Local bartenders have taken to it as a favorite drink mixer for a Moscow Mule with a twist, but the most surprising use Ibrahima has seen is as a salad dressing. He also recommends heating it up. It’s an excellent remedy to sooth sore throats. If steamed, it becomes frothy and creamy on top, like the head of beer or milk froth from lattes.
Though the most challenging aspect of it all has been finding the money and getting the investments, the duo plans on expanding in the next two years. They hope to raise $1.5 million to expand to more than 1,200 locations, including a new production facility and expanding distribution in the Bronx.
“We’d love to be in every fridge everywhere, but the Bronx has been our stomping ground,” says Ibrahima. “We grew up in that environment and we know that there are a lot of hardworking, dedicated folks that just don’t have enough options. We hope that having a production facility there, we’ll be able to employ residents and give others the courage and confidence to start their own ventures.”