Food innovation meets family wisdom

Brand owners are balancing new-school food science with wisdom and insight from the ultimate critics: their elders.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 11, 2024

3 Min Read
Hands sorting produce.

At a Glance

  • Family members can help brands identify novel “traditional” ingredients that have fallen off the global radar.
  • Feedback from community elders helps entrepreneurs make bold, unique choices rather than choosing overly safe flavors.
  • Leaning into tradition can help modern brands attract financial backers and stand out on the shelf.

Homing in on a modern food product often involves navigating a complex gauntlet of international sourcing and modern technology. But making sure the product tastes and feels authentic is a different challenge that can require help from closer to home — like a founder’s own family.

Here’s how two rising brands have utilized feedback and guidance from their community elders to make products that win awards and shine on the shelf.

Traditional ingredients to meet modern dietary needs

Wife and husband team Satvinder and Parm Bains founded the U.K.-based brand SHICKEN Foods in 2020 to release plant-based, supermarket-available versions of classic Indian dishes like butter chicken, korma and curries. But in the product development phase, they found themselves facing a wall.

Indian cooks (and aunties) often utilize cashews to help impart creaminess in vegetarian sauces. But the Bains wanted their dishes to be safe for customers with nut allergies. The pair worked alongside food scientists to help create the plant-based “chicken” that forms the backbone of their dishes, but when it came to the sauce, the solution unexpectedly came from women who have been making these dishes for decades.

“Satvinda’s gram said to Satvinda’s mum, ‘We used to use melon seeds in India when we wanted to get something really creamy, and we couldn’t access cashews because they were too expensive,” Parm explained. “Our family's heritage is from northern India — farmers in Punjab. With lower incomes, they had to be more adventurous in terms of ingredients.”

The resulting dishes finally met the Bains’ nutritional goals — and their family’s equally stringent taste standards — allowing the pair to focus more on the logistics of growing the brand.

The brand is now available at Costco and Tesco stores in the U.K., and after receiving funding from plant-focused venture capital firms, Schicken Foods expanded into 380 Sprouts Farmers Market stores in 23 U.S. states in 2024.

Tough feedback to help products stand out

Food scientist and entrepreneur Abena Foli knew she wanted to make a spice blend that reflected her roots in Ghana. But she feared that making it too bold, or too African-inspired, might risk putting off American consumers.

So for her first round of POKS Spices, Foli dialed back the intensity and called her creation an “all-purpose” seasoning. Then, crucially, she sent it out for testing to members of the West African community — including her father, a Ghanan farmer who she said is “my biggest critic and my biggest fan.”

“My dad gave me 1 out of 5,” she recalled. “But I needed that push, because he said, ‘You can take it, you can do it better.’ And so I really leaned into those results, because there was a firsthand knowledge that he had of the culinary landscape of West Africa that I didn't have. All of that information helped me to fine-tune the product.”

Foli’s uncompromising final spices dialed up the intensity and embraced the title of “West African Seasoning.” But POKS blend didn't just appeal to the Ghanan old guard. It also helped POKS nab a number of prestigious spicy foods awards stateside.

Similar to Foli, Satvinda Bain said she continues to welcome feedback from the women in her family — even when it’s hard to hear.

“I’m still nervous in front of mom,” Satvinda admitted. “No matter how old you are, or how good you are, your mom’s cooking is always your mom’s cooking. Between mum and gram, they have decades of experience cooking. And I think they’re the experts.”

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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