Chicago’s West African Frozen Food Brand Is Shaking Up the Grocery Game

When Fred Spencer, a Chicago indigenous and authentic estate trader, 1st approached his wife Perteet Spencer in 2011 with the strategy of a frozen food stuff model showcasing West African delicacies, she balked. A initial-technology Liberian American, she was passionate about the low-and-sluggish stews her father spent hours concocting all over her childhood, but as a manufacturer supervisor at retail food items huge Typical Mills, she questioned if there would be ample public desire to sustain a corporation.

Ten yrs later on, that kernel of an concept has sprouted into a expanding small business: Ayo Foodstuff (the identify usually means “joy” in Yoruba), a line of frozen and boxed West African dishes, is now obtainable in grocery stores throughout the place, like Mariano’s, Clean Sector, and Heinen’s suppliers in the Chicago location. The Spencers introduced the corporation in July 2020 as the early levels of the COVID-19 pandemic upended the hospitality marketplace in Chicago and across the state, but the Hyde Park pair — undaunted — leapt into the fray.

Eight colorful boxes of frozen West African food are displayed on a kitchen counter.

The pandemic shift to cooking at house designed an opportunity for Ayo Meals.
Ayo Food

A bowl of white and red jollof rice.

Jollof rice.
Ayo Food items

“Starting a business is seriously difficult mainly because you place your heart and soul into it,” claims Perteet Spencer. “But I believe in some strategies, it produced an prospect to get folks recentered with feeding on at home, cooking extra, and getting jointly much more. We had been serving an exciting require for shoppers and customers simply because we are equipped to provide anything various from the go-to frozen pizza we all got worn out on.”

In the two decades since, they’ve unveiled a line of hot sauces and snagged partnerships with notable cooks who also request to improve the visibility of West African meals, which includes Top rated Chef competitor Eric Adjepong and London-primarily based chef and author Zoe Adjonyoh who runs the restaurant Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. In Could, Ayo launched many new dishes in collaboration with Adjonyoh, including aboboi, a vegan stew of bambara beans, crimson peppers, and chilis and groundnut stew (also known nkatenkwan and maafe) built with peanuts, tomatoes, and hen.

West African cuisine — a broad class that encompasses 17 nations around the world — may differ among regions and tribes, but is united by a particular cooking strategy: low and slow, with layers of flavor that develop further and far more advanced as they simmer on the stove. When Perteet Spencer’s father, a Liberian immigrant who came to the Midwest as a teen, cooked his standard stews, the system could take up to 6 hrs, and to her, it felt like magic.

For the uninitiated, on the other hand, the prolonged cook time can really feel onerous. The Spencers realized they desired to expedite recipes and cycled by means of many producing partners as they sought to find a stability among benefit and flavor. Their initiatives have paid out off, and consumers can now assume to put together frozen choices such as hen yassa (gradual-braised hen thighs with lemon and onion), egusi seed soup, and jollof rice in a lot less than five minutes.

A man, a woman, and two little girls sit together in front of a fireplace.

The Spencer household.
Ayo Food items

Chicago is property to a wealth of African eating places, from Ethiopian institution Demera in Uptown to Nigerian-design Southside African Restaurant on the Southeast Facet. The Spencers really do not system to get into the company them selves, at minimum for the foreseeable long term, though early in his vocation, Fred Spencer expended a few many years functioning a Harold’s Rooster outpost. They have, having said that, turned their attentions to more substantial concerns encompassing African cuisine with the Moonboi Challenge, a social justice arm of the manufacturer that associates with nonprofits these types of as Female Ability Africa and has aided to cultivate 15 acres of rejuvenated farmland in the Liberian cash of Monrovia to generate crops for Ayo’s dishes.

In excess of the past ten years, Perteet Spencer claims she’s watched the U.S. market place shift towards a drastically better enthusiasm for culinary traditions from other continents. “From that viewpoint, there was a huge hole in the next major continent in the entire world,” she says. “We are uniquely positioned to fill that gap, which has designed an exciting sweet spot to bring a thing diverse.”

But the change is about a lot more than Western customers’ willingness to grow their culinary horizons. The few have also observed a growing self-confidence amid immigrant communities to highlight and share their food stuff traditions.

“In the U.S. in particular amongst immigrants and individuals who are utilized to feeding on this food, they are not as fearful as before to drive their foodstuff out of the shadows,” states Fred Spencer. “Three decades in the past, we made a decision, we know this foods is very good, we know it preferences excellent, and we want people today to knowledge what we knowledge.”