Dream big, plan masterfully and stay flexible. It took all three for a Chicago couple to grow their West African frozen food brand 80 times larger. AYO Foods went from the shelves of 50 grocery stores to 4,000 nationwide one year after arriving in frozen food aisles.
“We’re both kind of big thinkers. We always envisioned and worked towards building something that would get to this point or much larger,” says Perteet Spencer, co-founder of AYO Foods. “People who know us will often laugh and say, ‘You guys think about everything so big.’”
Launching West African Flavors
Perteet and her husband Fred created their company to share their love of flavor-packed, nutrient-rich West African dishes. AYO’s offerings first appeared in the frozen food sections of Whole Foods stores in July of 2020. “I think they were excited about the potential to lead with something different. But something that is also aligned with what they are delivering to their consumer base,” says co-founder Fred Spencer.
The Whole Foods Market list of 2020 trends included the growing popularity of West African foods. AYO Foods entered the frozen food aisles as more consumers began to explore superfoods traditionally eaten in Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and 13 other West African countries.
Fred also credits Perteet and her connections for making AYO attractive to Whole Foods. “Our packaging and marketing materials are extremely well done. The colors and and design complement the vibrancy of her family’s West African heritage,” he says. “Outside of that, once they tasted the products, their feedback was, ‘This is really, really good.’”
Both Fred and Perteet have more than 20 years of experience in the business world. He started his first business at age 24 before going to business school and working in corporate finance and real estate. Perteet spent a decade building packaged food brands for General Mills.
She joined SPINS, a data firm dedicated to being a driving force in the natural foods market. AYO’s co-founders worked full-time in their careers while launching and expanding their company. “I think that is the case for many entrepreneurs starting their own businesses. It is especially true for entrepreneurs of color who often don’t have access to the capital critical to implementing their plans. I left corporate officially in March, almost 9 months after we had officially launched AYO,” says Perteet.
Fred’s real estate projects and Perteet’s corporate work provided seed money for their new company. Finding a manufacturer to produce samples of their frozen dishes for Whole Foods executives to taste created one of the first major hurdles. “With these recipes, they have to be cooked at a certain pace in a certain amount of time, and that wasn’t going well with the guys we initially approached. We finally found someone willing to take a chance and cook at the pace we wanted, knowing over time we could improve the process once we had it to a level that we liked,” Fred says.
Pivots During the Pandemic
Getting samples in front of potential buyers during the coronavirus pandemic required the Spencers to come up with inventive tactics. With in-store demonstrations canceled, they re-imagined ways to broaden AYO’s outreach. Three co-manufacturers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Nevada currently produce AYO’s product line using the slow-cooking methods that keep the West African dishes authentic and flavorful.
Perteet believes some of the pivots they made are still helping the company today. Hosting a virtual West African cooking class for retailers is one example of their ingenuity. “It’s those types of things that actually made us more memorable and made us more top-of-mind with retailers as a truly disruptive brand. I think being able to focus on the end goal and be agile and nimble helped us turn what was a challenging situation into an asset for the brand,” she says.
The Chicago entrepreneurs made another creative move when they introduced AYO’s shito and pepper sauces much sooner than originally intended. “It’s so funny. When we first had the conversations, I was like, ‘I don’t know if that’s a great idea. But it turned out to be an amazing idea. It’s a little bit easier to deliver the sauces than the frozen foods, and it helped us get into an online market to get the brand out there,” Fred explains.
Bringing on a sales team and solidifying additional capital through two new investors boosted the brand’s distribution capacity. Cleveland Avenue, LLC is a Chicago company led by Don and Liz Thompson. They provide financial resources and expertise to restaurant, food tech and beverage entrepreneurs. AYO’s co-founders raised $1.5 million through Cleveland Avenue and the venture firm Supply Change Capital.
The additional capital helped AYO expand its distribution beyond Whole Foods to Mariano’s, The Fresh Market, Target, Kroger and other stores. Perteet gives a clearer picture of the couple’s strategy. “I think that big thinking helped us create a structure from the beginning that could support scale. While I won’t say there are no hiccups when you go from 50 stores to 4,000 stores overnight, I think we’ve been able to manage it relatively seamlessly because we were always envisioning we would get to this point.”
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Seeing Themselves on Shelves
The husband-wife team always wanted to start a business together. Fred and Perteet finally put their ideas on paper in 2019. The inspiration came from the West African cuisine their families have enjoyed for years. “We believe that you should be able to go into a grocery store and purchase food that reflects what you eat at home, and that led to our decision to launch,” Perteet says.
Her family is from Liberia, where ingredients for slow-cooked, flavor-infused dishes, such as cassava leaf stew, are readily available. Fred’s Nigerian best friend introduced him to West Africa’s food in high school. It was impossible to find their favorite dishes in most local grocery stores until they started AYO Foods.
“To me, it’s a travesty that the second largest continent in the world is not represented in our grocery stores. At the end of the day, the statistics and the numbers don’t lie. You have a massively underserved population,” says Perteet. “I think those deficits at least opened the doors for retailers to give us a conversation. When that was reinforced by superior tasting products, it became a game-changer in grocery stores.”
The frozen product line made from fresh ingredients offers on-demand convenience to people with a taste for West African dishes, including cassava leaf stew, jollof rice, puff puff and egusi seed soup. “To be able to have these well-developed flavors on-demand was something that personally was a need for our family. But we also knew that there was a much broader group of people who had never tried West African flavors but were interested,” Perteet says.
AYO’s co-founder points to a more than 300% increase in online searches for West African recipes on Pinterest in 2019. Additionally, Perteet sees rising consumer interest in global flavors and modern frozen foods as new opportunities for the Spencers’ brand. “I think the growth of technology in frozen foods makes it easier to protect the freshness of ingredients. It really opened the doors to the next generation of frozen meals and enabled consumers not to have to sacrifice. So you can still have fresh ingredients and fresh flavors but also benefit from convenience.”
Connected to Community
The frozen foods selling at a suggested retail price of $5.99 are inspired by family recipes and traditional dishes from the West African diaspora. Perteet’s aunt, Margaret Seibeh, holds the title of cassava leaf connoisseur. Seibeh makes her recipe in huge batches that travel to the Spencers and other relatives. The authentic, rich flavors in AYO frozen meals generate some heartwarming notes sent to Fred and Perteet. “They are like, ‘I never thought I would see the foods I eat at home in grocery stores,”’ she says. “It’s incredibly exciting to get that feedback. But I think more broadly, people love the food. They are really excited about it and excited to see what is next from us.”
The Spencers’ celebration of West African foods introduces consumers to lesser-known superfoods that are good for them, as Perteet explains. “You think of things like egusi seeds (melon seeds), which are incredibly rich in protein. You think of sorghum leaves that we use in our Waakye, which are putting out massive amounts of anti-oxidants.”
The Chicago company also reflects Fred and Perteet’s commitment to sharing personal connections to family and community. Her dad, James Sanigular, grew up eating kala in Liberia before immigrating to the U.S. in his teens. “He has these tremendous memories of being a kid, his mom making that for him and being able to walk with that on his way to school,” says Perteet. It inspired one of AYO’S most popular products, the puff puff bread. “I think being able to bring those emotions to light through food that we personally have deep connections to was part of it.”
Building Brand Partnerships
Another avenue for celebrating community with AYO Foods is through partnerships. Chef Eric Adjepong brought his passion for West African flavors to the brand. The fan-favorite alum of Bravo’s “Top Chef” worked with the food firm to deliver two new entrees this year. AYO’s chicken yassa, a Senegalese dish and waakye, a Ghanaian dish of rice and beans, are increasingly popular. “Eric has been a beautiful partner for us,” Fred says. “AYO had a trajectory, but the flavors he helped deliver to the brand are magnificent.”
There could be other chef collaborations in the future. In the meantime, the Spencers are forming other partnerships to enrich communities that inspired their brand. They invested in 15 acres of farmland in Liberia for a project with Girl Power Africa. Perteet describes how it will help women in her family’s native land. “We just started to see the yield of the early crops from the AYO farms. That yield is going to provide seed capital for women who are victims of the ebola epidemic and civil war in Liberia to start businesses of their own.”
The co-founders hope to increase the presence of AYO Foods outside of the U.S. soon. “It is definitely on our radar. We have seen AYO received pretty well in Canada and the U.K. In 2022, we will make efforts to land our products in both of those countries,” Fred says.
Joy of Family Enterprise
Ayo, the word Fred and Perteet chose for their company means joy in West Africa, and the reception their products have received gives them reasons to smile. “We’ve gotten quite a bit of traction in a relatively short time. We often say no matter how this ends, we’ve done something in that we’ve inspired folks to know that this is possible. That is probably my greatest sense of pride,” Perteet says.
“For me, just starting a company, in general, is an amazing feat in itself. We love coming to work,” Fred responds before continuing on a humorous note. “We started a company where I get to work next to my best friend and my wife every day, although sometimes we want to kill each other.”
Perteet can see Fred rolling his eyes when she talks about one day having AYO Foods in every aisle of grocery stores, not just the frozen food section. For now, the parents of two young daughters are thrilled with how 8-year-old Addison and 10-year-old Clark support them. “It took a lot of patience on their part, especially during the pandemic, to allow us to develop the company. Some days, they had to sit out in the car with the engine running for heat, listening to their iPads because we had to be in the production facility,” Fred says.
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The girls fixed dinner for their hard-working parents on a few occasions. Perteet will never forget the special day the family went to Mariano’s in Chicago to see AYO Foods on display in the frozen food aisle. “Because we launched during the pandemic, we actually had never seen our products on shelves until the Mariano’s launch. Our 8-year-old said, ‘Mommy and daddy are we a part of this?’”
The answer is a resounding yes from Perteet and Fred. “Our daughters both feel that they are involved in it as well. They both feel like this is their company. They are so prideful in taking the meals to school for lunch and sharing them with their teachers,” he says. “I think that having them happy and admiring us is the joy I get from it.”
Neither parent knows whether their daughters will take over AYO Foods someday. The Spencers want Addison and Clark to pursue excellence in education and their own dreams. “We feel lucky to have them as our kids, but it’s certainly inspiring what their visions for their own futures look like,” says Perteet. “ If AYO Foods is a part of their plan, we would welcome it.”
Visit the AYO Foods website for more information and locations of retailers carrying the product line. Follow @AYOFoods on Instagram and Facebook for updates on the company and its West African-inspired frozen meals.