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.”