True Products co-founders (left to right) Malik Saleem, Abdur-Rahim Shaheed and Ali B. Muhammad show off their line of detergents inside the company’s College Park production facility. (Photo by Donnell Suggs)

A bell rang out and the large machine started to buzz and hum. At top speed, the automatic filling machine can fill hundreds of 1-gallon pouches in preparation for distribution. These days, the team behind the True detergent brand needs the Chinese-made machine in order to keep up with demand. 

True Products is breaking into a market that isn’t commonly known for Black contributions. The Atlanta-based brand started small and is now producing products in its College Park-based factory, employing five workers and producing not only laundry detergent, but fabric softener and its new line of biodegradable, eco-friendly dryer sheets. The automatic filling machine has been more than worth the money it cost to get it through customs and into the factory. 

How the company began was similar to how many companies looking to break into already existent industries began: with an idea.

The formula

Co-owners Ali B. Muhammad, Malik Saleem, and Abdur-Rahim Shaheed brought their individual talents into the laundry detergent business nearly 11 years ago. The trio had a mission of changing the way laundry detergent is sold. The idea for making a detergent was birthed by Muhammad’s older brother, Lonzell Graham, who worked as a research chemist for Dow Chemical in Marietta. The formula for True detergent begins and ends with him. 

“His formula was so strong that we decided we needed to get to work bottling it up,” Muhammad, 76, said of his brother’s original formula which has since been formulated for sensitive skin. A native of Newark, New Jersey and a Vietnam War veteran, Muhammad had owned small businesses in the past. He knew a good idea when he saw one. 

Difficulties are part of any business

Black-owned barbershops, auto repair shops, package stores, clothing stores and corner groceries are a constant sight on the Southside and Westside of Atlanta. Starting a business like those would not have been very difficult for the team behind True Products, but laundry detergent was another story.

“Finding a package to put the laundry detergent, that was our difficulty,” said Saleem, 63. “It was so expensive and when we tried to get the bottles made by companies that bottle other laundry detergents, they expected us to make a million bottles at one time. That was a major stumbling block.”

The team decided to introduce their detergent in a jug similar to the one you see in restaurant kitchens for vinegar. The bottle wasn’t attractive but it was cheaper than the traditional detergent bottle that brands like Tide and Gain are sold in.

The company has since switched to a distinctive pouch-type package with a handle. “Image is everything,” joked Muhammad. 

The factory produces hundreds of bottles of True detergent per week. The detergent is available online and in stores throughout Georgia. (Photo by Donnell Suggs)

Supply and demand

“We sold 5,000 bottles and then sold another 5,000 bottles and that’s when we knew we were into

something,” said Shaheed, 72. “People were getting over 100 loads done for $10 and they wanted more detergent.”

That’s when the current factory and the Siemens brand automatic filling machine came into play.  The production level has risen with the demand for more product. The business reports an increase in sales every year since, according to the True team.

More specifically, since the pandemic began and online sales rose for businesses of all types, True Products saw sale increase by 25%. “We were selling detergent to everybody, it’s not just a Black product or a white product, it’s laundry detergent,” Saleem said. “Everybody needs to wash their clothes.”

True Products shares the factory space with and Champs Boxers, a Black-owned men’s underwear brand owned by Saleem’s 35-year-old son, Jawwaad Saleem. 

The next level

Along with the new dryer sheets, the True team is looking to continue growing its inventory. “The goal is to build an entire line of household products,” admitted Shaheed. “We want to become our own version of Procter & Gamble.”

True products can be purchased online via Amazon and in stores such as the Ace Hardware store on Old National Highway in College Park, at the New Black Wall Street Market in Stonecrest, and The Grocery Spot ATL in the Grove Park neighborhood.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the word ‘true’ as comfortable to fact; being in accordance with actual state of things; a true relation or narration. Of the detergent brand, Muhammad said, “It’s 11 years old, if the product was fake we wouldn’t still be here. It’s true and here we are.” 

Donnell Suggs

Donnell Suggs is an Atlanta-based journalist.