The Chicago-based company produces frozen and boxed foods as well as a line of hot sauces. In less than two years, the business went from selling its products in 50 stores to more than 4,000 locations nationwide, including Kroger, Target and Whole Foods.

Audarshia Townsend, Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider

September 30, 2022

3 Min Read
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Imagine strolling down the grocery aisles and not finding your favorite comfort foods and ingredients. No tortillas and salsas. No noodles and tomato sauces. No frozen pizzas, burritos or eggrolls.  

For Perteet Spencer, this was a life-long occurrence—until she finally decided to do something about it. As a first-generation Liberian American citizen, she grew up eating authentic West African fare at home and even learned how to cook it from her father. But like others who just want to come home after a long day and pop a frozen pizza in the oven instead of making it from scratch, she wanted the convenience of doing the same with West African dishes.  

That’s when Spencer and her husband, Frederick, conceived AYO Foods, a Chicago-based company specializing in West African cuisine. Launched in July 2020, AYO Foods produces frozen and boxed foods as well as a line of hot sauces. In less than two years, the business went from selling its products in 50 stores to more than 4,000 locations nationwide, including Kroger, Target and Whole Foods.  

The road to success for AYO Foods 

While AYO Foods sounds like an overnight success story, Spencer will attest that their journey was hardly a cakewalk. For one, she said, West African food is “very anti-mass production.” 

“It’s very hard to turn [West African fare] into a CPG brand,” the former foodservice executive further explained, “so that had its own set of challenges, and that’s why we haven’t seen this food on a broader stage before. But once we actually got the food in people’s mouths for the first time, they [appreciated] it. There are a lot of misperceptions about West African foods, and we’re on a mission to debunk that.”  

They’re doing it by producing some of the most popular West African dishes, with the first product a Liberian classic, a cassava leaf stew made with ground cassava leaves, chicken and several spices.  

“That’s a go-to for Liberians,” Spencer said. “We wanted to provide dishes that were true to our experiences from home, but also dishes that were shared across cultures.” She added that narrowing down AYO’s offerings was difficult as there are 17 countries comprising West Africa with their own unique traditions and cultures.  

“Our first dishes were really rooted in this idea of let’s celebrate in the shared experiences—even though everyone might put a slightly different flair on it,” she explained. In addition to the frozen cassava leaf stew, the line includes a traditional preparation of the tomato-based jollof rice as well as egusi soup, chicken Yassa and waakye.  

They’ve even commissioned culinary notables Eric Adjepong and Zoe Adjonyoh for their star power and recipes for chicken Yassa and waakye, respectively. And in 2021, AYO Foods launched pepper sauce, a traditional, spicy concoction that’s her family’s signature recipe, and shito sauce, a slow-cooked, thick paste with a fish base. “It goes on pretty much everything at the house, from eggs to pizza to grilled vegetables,” Spencer said. “There is always shito on the table.” 

Normalizing West African flavors in the grocery aisles 

Early in AYO Food’s CPG journey, said Spencer, people questioned why its products were in the frozen aisles. 

“For us, it was very much the obvious place because we wanted to provide [traditional West African dishes], and frozen was a space where we could deliver a complete experience and make it really easy to enjoy,” she explained. “Our vision is to extend [West African] flavors across the store. Frozen was the beginning. And the launch of sauces was the indicator of that as well as what’s to come for our brand.” 

About the Author(s)

Audarshia Townsend

Content Director, Food & Beverage Insider, Informa Markets

A lifelong Chicagoan, Audarshia Townsend is an award-winning, veteran food and beverage journalist who serves as the content director for the Food & Beverage Insider brand. She is Informa Markets' 2024 "Star Storyteller" winner. Her experience as a visionary editor and writer spans 30 years, with an emphasis in print and digital magazines. Audarshia's professional passion is to champion and amplify underserved business communities. Some of her most recent content includes her review of 2023's F&B trends, the future of food science careers, an interview with culinary star Padma Lakshmi, and Pescavore's sustainable ahi tuna jerky strips. She also appears regularly on local and national media outlets to discuss food and beverage trends, most notably FOX-32 Chicago, WGN-TV, WXRT-FM, NPR-Chicago and the Travel Channel. She is often called on to serve as a judge for prestigious food, beverage and restaurant awards, including the James Beard Foundation, NEXTY Awards and Black Women in Food. She continues to write for Chicago magazine, and previously she has written for the likes of the Chicago Tribune, Eater Chicago, Esquire, Essence, Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Time Out Global and World’s Best Bars. With food and beverage being her longtime, chosen beat in media, she has created content for a number of prestigious brands such as AOL, Google, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, Lexus, MasterCard, Markon Cooperative Inc., Miller Brewing Co., Resy and Simplot Foods.

To date, Audarshia has guest lectured at the following higher-education institutions: Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University Chicago for undergraduate journalism students; Northwestern University for graduate journalism students; and Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) for undergraduate, graduate and PhD food science students. She also mentors aspiring young writers and journalists whenever she can. Email her at [email protected] and also connect with her on LinkedIn.

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