Passion & Plan. Launching a specialty food line is no easy task you need equal parts passion and plan to be successful. Without one or the other you will have wasted energy, time and money.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yasameen, co-founder and Chief of Operations at Maazah, chutney company, which she founded with her sisters and mom in 2014. Growing up we can’t remember a meal that didn’t include Mom’s famous “Magic Green Sauce ‘’. A phenomenal cook, her secret blend of cilantro and peppers was the universal condiment that made everything more flavorful and delicious. We put it on everything — from rice and korma to tacos and pizza.
After graduating with her Master’s of Business from Augsburg University in 2020, Yasameen kicked this saucy side hustle into full swing. The move from markets to manufacturing wasn’t easy.
“Scaling our food company in 2020 brought on many challenges. There were major delays in sourcing materials, banks didn’t have time for us and we heard no from every direction. Regardless of the bottlenecks and odds stacked against us we will be hitting store shelves the week of Thanksgiving.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Iam the proud daughter of Afghan immigrants who came to the United States in the 1970’s to give their four children a better life. I grew up in a lively household where food and family were at the core of our values. As the youngest of all the Sajady children I was often called by my nickname “Yas the boss” and years later my family still playfully refers to me as this.
We have a big family like really really big, I have over 45 cousins and counting! We get together every weekend (pre-covid) for a birthday, graduation, etc. any reason you name it. The main question usually, what are we going to eat? Should we make kabobs? Which aunt makes the best rice? Who is going to pick up the nan? And from where? How fresh will the nan be?
For Thanksgiving we make the traditional Thanksgiving meal with 3 Turkeys and 1 back up turkey (Mom says it’s good for leftovers). Along with a full Afghan menu of basmati rice, beef korma, chicken korma, cachalu (potatoes), dahl (lentil), and sabzee (spinach) because we can’t eat a meal without basmati rice.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
You know that saying, “Sometimes the person you’re looking for is staring you right in the face and you don’t even notice them.” That’s what maazah has been for me my whole life! Growing up we can’t remember a celebration or gathering of any size that didn’t include mom’s famous “Magic Green Sauce ‘’. For decades it was the epicenter of our meals until suddenly one day we were having dinner at my parents house and the table was quiet, the only thing people were saying was “ Can you pass the chutney?” “Can you pass the chutney” And I slammed my fist down on the table and said “This is it! We have to share this with the world.” And the rest as they say is history!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My mom is an amazing cook, she can whip up the most delicious meal you ever tasted in 20 minutes or less. She’s got her pantries filled with spices, beans, rice and all her cooking hacks bases, starters, veggies from the garden, stocked in the freezer. She’s got many tricks up her sleeve and her greatest trick is she never measures a thing. It is almost impossible to replicate any of her recipes.
It probably took us a full year of exploring ingredients and learning how to actually measure ingredients for our product.
To this day I will call her for a recipe and she will walk me through the ingredients and I’ll ask how much and she’ll say “More than you think”.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
From our personal experience in launching maazah we’ve noticed that the most common mistake that new business owners make is lack of market research and not knowing who their ideal audience is. Early on we were fortunate enough to tap into the vibrant Twin Cities farmer’s market scene and from our perspective this helped us out in three ways:
- Having one-on-one relationships with consumers that help build brand loyalty for our business.
- Get live product feedback which we can incorporate into our research and development phase.
- Strengthen our value proposition from a customer perspective and redefine our brand from those learnings.
This experience has been invaluable to us as it’s helped us test our product in smaller volumes and really create a strong relationship with our customers.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Before purchasing anything or selling your first product you have to do your research. Take the time to understand the category that you’re going into and start asking yourself how your product is different or unique and how you can really share that story. Once you feel confident that your product or business can really outshine the competition, start doing all of the necessary legal and business groundwork to build out a viable business. This is when looking into trademarks, domains and local licenses should come into play. Then, get acquainted with your local resources and how you can utilize them to grow your business. Almost every city or county as a local farmer’s market or co-op, these are great resources to start acquiring real honest feedback on the product which will set you up for future success as you grow!
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
There is no such thing as the perfect business when you start. There is so much you don’t know but that you can’t know until you start. Sometimes you have to just go for it and take the leap knowing that it could easily fail or it could be your greatest adventure yet!
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
As a BIPOC founder the runway to strike it on your own is a lot shorter with a smaller network of people. Regardless of your background what I’ve learned throughout this journey is that at some point your leverage, network, and overall understanding of the industry can only get you so far.
The great thing about the food space is that it’s very relational, it’s all about who you know and sometimes it’s worth bringing in someone who is an expert in a field or area that you aren’t knowledgeable on. The best growth happens when we can all come together and excel in each of our strengths rather than trying to be good at everything.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Every startup requires some sort of bootstrap element, it’s just a matter of how long you bootstrap for. Building a food and beverage brand can be extremely expensive and it’s important you understand the financials of your business before you really start seeking capital. At Maazah, we bootstrapped for 5 years off our initial $500 investment and we built a successful family brand we love. The natural next step is to seek VC funding and part of that is identifying the right partners. For us it’s partners who value good food and diversity.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
The real value of a food company is your brand story and brand recognition. File your trademark when you have the cash and you most likely don’t need a patent.
As for sourcing ingredients, retail/distribution partners it’s important to build a network of partners that share similar business values and goals. Missteps or hasty decisions in this area will cost you time and money that you can mitigate by taking the time to strategize and map out key partnerships. Finding the right fit will take some time but overall the road ahead will have less bumps with a greater benefit to the success and growth of your business!
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Does it taste good? And do other people tell you it tastes good and are they actually buying it?
Our first few farmers markets we were nervous and unsure of how people would accept Maazah. We were shy at first and quickly realized we needed to re-strategize our selling tactics and convince the customer to try a sample. No doubt once the sample was in their mouth the wallets would open. 9/10 customers who tried it bought it.
2. Passion & Plan.
Launching a specialty food line is no easy task you need equal parts passion and plan to be successful. Without one or the other you will have wasted energy, time and money.
3. Do your research.
Where/how are you selling now and what will that strategy be in 5 years. Continue to do your research and adapt to what’s working.
4. Find your people and build a great team.
5. At the end of every day you are the boss and you should always remember it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself. 😉 hydrate, nourish, and be active.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
You are really creating an experience rather than just a product. What value can you provide to the end user that they need? Does buying your brand make them feel good? Is it healthier, tastier or an exciting substitution?
These are all things you should be asking yourself when creating a product. Consumers really want to feel like they are a part of something so it’s our job as the brand to ensure that they feel that way through every interaction of the brand.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
To honor our Afghan roots, we’ve named our company Maazah, meaning ‘flavor’ in Farsi. We’ve implicitly shared positive experiences with others and our Afghani heritage through food. Yes we have a passion for great tasting food and solving complex business problems but we are also driven to break through barriers, dismantle stereotypes and inspire others to do the same.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a minority in the food and beverage space we hope that our story helps pave the way for more opportunities for immigrants and people of color in this space. Our country is diverse and so should our food and beverage founders.
Traditionally this industry has been very stagnant in its growth of giving more diverse culture opportunities and we hope to change that. Starting with more access to VC funding, eliminating the ethnic aisles and true mentorship programs for people of color.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.