Sourcing authentic ingredients while balancing sustainability and market challenges were among the many hurdles Perteet Spencer faced when creating AYO Foods.
Spencer and her husband, Fred, founded the company in July 2020 because they often couldn’t find her family’s beloved West African ingredients in the local supermarket aisles. Now, AYO foods products are available in 5,200 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods, Target and Kroger.
She and Audarshia Townsend, content director, Food & Beverage Insider, discussed the obstacles Spencer faced and shared entrepreneurial advice at the SupplySide West stage. Here's where you may watch the video from their discussion.
West African flavors
AYO Foods is the first national brand to celebrate the unique ingredients and flavors of the 17 countries of West Africa across the store. Spencer, a first-generation Liberian American, grew up in Minnesota, eating a hybrid of foods and flavors.
“After being in the food industry for many, many years, I saw a massive gap in the flavors I grew up eating at home and saw a big opportunity to bring those flavors to the market,” Spencer said. “With some prodding from my husband who’s also my co-founder, we took the leap. It’s been such a source of pride for us.”
Sourcing challenges of red palm oil
AYO Foods’ primary challenge was introducing new products to new spaces while staying true to their cultural heritage. For example, improperly harvested red palm oil is controversial due to claims by environmental groups of deforestation and alleged human rights violations of its workers.
If harvested correctly, Spencer said, palm oil is rich in beta-carotene and has a unique, rich flavor. AYO Foods uses red palm oil in many of its products, including two of its first three offerings.
“I love the innovation that’s happening in the plant-based space, in terms of plant-based technology,” Spencer said. “But I think we have to balance that with next-generation agriculture. That’s what we’re trying to do with AYO—surface some of these ingredients that have been overlooked for so long.”
AYO didn’t have as many supply chain issues as other companies during the pandemic making red palm oil. Its plentifulness during scarcity allowed the company to leverage its position with retailers.
One item, many uses
The egusi seed is one of the primary ingredients AYO uses. It is a versatile, protein-rich seed containing healthy fats. Egusi looks like a watermelon, but its flesh is bitter. The seeds are dried, ground, and used in foods from countries like Nigeria, Togo and Ghana.
“It’s one of the more differentiated items of our lines as you look at adoption and how it’s served,” Spencer said.
AYO’s Egusi Seed Soup recipe uses fresh ground seeds, hormone-free chicken and collard greens. Its spices are slowly simmered with organic red palm oil.
If crushed egusi seeds are not the hero of the dish, AYO uses it as an alternative to corn starch, without the gluten but with protein benefits.
“Our hope was that in celebrating these ingredients, these flavors,” Spencer said, “we would inspire people to think about these ingredients differently.”
Winner of the New York Times Award for Outstanding Journalism, Kerra Bolton is a versatile storyteller across digital and traditional platforms and film. Kerra's work has been featured on CNN, Ebony, The Times of Israel, New Worlder Magazine, Eat Your World Blog and Now Magazine in Toronto. Her first job was in the world-renowned photography department in National Geographic magazine.