Vision — In a hyper competitive marketplace, vision is critical for longevity. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of your product as a singular item. Instead consider what the building blocks are to get your business you want it to go over the next 10 years. Thinking bigger will open up new expansion opportunities for your brand.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need to Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Perteet & Fred Spencer of AYO Foods.
Perteet brings nearly 20 years of packaged good sales and brand marketing experience to AYO. Her deep industry experience includes time at LEGO and General Mills. Most recently, Perteet led sales and consulting teams at SPINS where she advised fortune 500 companies and emerging natural brands on winning growth strategies. Inspired by her family’s own West African traditions, her love of Natural Products, and her co-founder husband, AYO was born
Co-Founder Fred Spencer brings over 20 years of entrepreneur, finance, and strategy experience to AYO. He has started, built, sold, and operated over 9 companies, including Global African Foods, a mid-market Wholesale/Importer of West African dry goods. Most recently Fred was the principal and managing member of PAC GROUP DEVELOPMENT, LLC a real estate development company specializing in multiunit residential and commercial development in Chicago.
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”?
Perteet: I suspect the seeds of AYO were planted long before either me or Fred knew it. We were both born into large extended families where food played a central role in most of our important moments together. My step-dad immigrated to the United States from Liberia along with his brother and sisters, so the unique flavors, spices, and smells of West Africa were ever present during these times with my family. These moments inspired my deep appreciation for culture and fresh food which have bled into many aspects of my life — in college before Fred and I had means to travel, we would explore the world through Chicago’s swath of ethnic restaurants; professionally in my work to amplify the healthfulness of our food landscape at General Mills and SPINS,
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Perteet: Fred and I had always talked about how great it would be to have a more convenient way to enjoy this food more often. One that didn’t involve a trip to a specialty market (or two) to get the right ingredients, and hours of cooking time to get just the right textures and flavors. Don’t get me wrong — we love that experience too, but it’s much more difficult to replicate on a Tuesday night. We started to see the frozen market shifting toward more premium options, with more and more ethnic products entering and having success, but our story was not being told. We suspected there were other families like ours, and knew there were also a lot more who may not have ever had West African food, but were excited to try it, based on the 38% of consumers who order ethnic food at least once a week, and our story began.
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?
While it wasn’t funny at the time, we can laugh about it now. We had secured a partnership with a major retailer and were on a quick timeline to have products set for delivery. While we had several manufacturers in the hopper, we had not solidified our production partner. Our lead partners was several states away, but for the sake of speed we were going to advance a contract. We opted to forgo that decision and make a quick trip to the facility. By far one of the best decisions we’ve made — — you will be able to spot the facilities that are not a fit quickly 😊
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?
One of the more common mistakes I think emerging brands make is not appropriately navigating their retail expansion. It makes sense — you’ve work months, if not years, to get you product just right, and you are excited to share it with the world and start to have money coming in versus going out. The challenge is keeping your consumer at the forefront of your distribution decisions. I’ve seen really specialized brands scale too quickly into retailers that were not the right fit and it hurt them in a lot of ways — it drained their working capital, and it diluted their brand equity. The brands I’ve seen navigate this well are clear on who their people are, and narrowly focused on how to reach them.
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?
I would recommend you start by understanding the market for your product inside and out — who is the competition, what is the market potential, and how will your product fill a void that exists for consumers.
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?
Seek as much guidance and advise as possible from people in your industry who have similar experiences. We were pleasantly surprise how many high accomplished people were willing to share their expertise and feedback early on. Their experience helped us move more quickly, and avoid potential pitfalls that could have hurt our business early on.
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?
It really depends on the complexity of the idea. For us we have a lot of unique ingredients that are not broadly available so having a development consultant was incredibly helpful. While our line is inspired by our family, it’s not as simple as packaging to go plates in Tupperware containers. Our development team was a tremendous asset in helping us find the highest quality, commercial-ready ingredients and in codifying the measurements and cooking processes to help us drive consistency in every dish.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
If you have the means and are clear on the market potential of your products, I would recommend that you bootstrap as long as possible. This approach gives you the maximum amount of flexibility to grow your business where and how you see fit. Most companies will inevitably hit a point where bootstrapping will limit the growth potential of the business and you will need venture capital to realize your full potential. When the business reaches that point, make sure you align with a partner who shares your vision for the business and will be an asset in helping you reach your goals.
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?
- File a patent — When you looking at copyrights and patents try to keep the broader view of your business in mind. We’ve seen pretty quickly that good ideas inspire other good ideas. Build a structure that protects not only the business that you have today, but also the business you are looking to build in the future.
- Sourcing good raw ingredients — We are fully committed to building the most sustainable supply chain at AYO and agree that every ingredient has a story to tell. While we work to build a scalable business where we can create that story for ourselves, we worked closely with our development partner to find trusted supply on every ingredient.
- Sourcing a good manufacturer — Finding a good manufacturer was one of the most challenging parts of our journey to date, particularly because we were an unproven concept with a bunch of new ingredients. Once we were able to identify a short list, visiting the facilities during a run was the best indicator of fit.
- Finding a Retailer or distributor — Let the consumer guide who your commercialization partners are and work backwards. Based on your assessment of who your consumer is, identify retail partners that are most closely aligned with those people. Once you have a list of targeted retailers, you’ll be able to back into a list of must win distributor partners based on coverage.
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.)
- Passion — Getting a product to market is not easy. We worked on our line for nearly two years before we were in market and spent a lot of time and money that could have gone against other things. Passion was a critical ingredient that pushed us when things got hard, and forced our pen when the checks needed to be written.
- Natural Curiosity — An inquisitive nature
- Persistence — We got pretty far down a path with more than 10 co-manufacturers before we found our current partner. Believe in your vision, keep moving forward, and have the confidence to know that you will find a way to get it done.
- Resourcefulness — As a lean start up, you quickly realize that you wear all the hats, which requires a degree of resourcefulness to identify the most efficient way to get everything done and the critical partners needed to advance your vision. I’ve managed a plant run, built and presented a key retailer presentation, pitched an investor, and wrote social media copy all in the same day. It’s incredibly rewarding.
- Vision — In a hyper competitive marketplace, vision is critical for longevity. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of your product as a singular item. Instead consider what the building blocks are to get your business you want it to go over the next 10 years. Thinking bigger will open up new expansion opportunities for your brand.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Perteet: I think the starting point for creating a product that people really love is identifying a true need. How will your product make the world a better place for your consumers? If it doesn’t do that, think hard about how you can pivot to deliver.
Once you are clear on what need you are delivering against, you have to make sure that you execute well against that need. We know we are addressing a white space in the market at AYO Foods which is incredibly exciting, but we also know the white space is only where our work begins, which is why we’re narrowly focus on delivering an incredible, consciously sourced product.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of our beliefs at AYO Foods is that good food, and do real good. We live this purpose by enriching the communities that inspired our brand in everything we do. As a new company, we have the luxury to build the model we wish to see more of in the world. This extends across our sourcing practices, agency and influencer partners, employees, and altruistic efforts.
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.
AYO means joy, so in a year that has been particularly challenging for our country, our wish would be that people find more joy. For us, we’ve found joy in those moments filled with laughter, love, empathy and respect for the communities we are a part of — big and small.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Marcus Samuelsson for lunch. Beyond the fact, that I love lunch and I’m sure he’d pick and amazing place, I am so inspired by what he is doing to bring broader awareness to the diverse cuisine of Africa. Earlier this year, he did a feature of West Africa on his PBS Show, Parts Unknown. He spoke so beautifully about the food culture in Houston and with so aligned with what we are trying to build with AYO Foods — An exploration through the incredible flavors of West Africa.