The frozen foods that AYO Meals creates and markets take a seat subsequent to P.F. Chang’s meals in Goal’s freezer phase.
However AYO Meals founders, Perteet and Fred Spencer, would favor their fare be subsequent to Amy’s Kitchen, the natural packaged and ready meals large.
“If you happen to have a look at our caloric consumption, our protein content material, our fiber content material, it’s very comfy, if no longer higher than one of the vital different roughly ‘higher for you’ frozen pieces in the market,” Perteet Spencer stated. “And I will ensure you it’s going to be a lot more flavorful.”
The Spencers introduced AYO Meals, an array of West African frozen foods and scorching sauces, in July 2020. In two years, they’ve expanded into retail outlets national, together with Chicagoland Mariano’s, Heinen’s, and The Recent Marketplace retail outlets.
Frozen choices vary from jollof rice to cassava leaf stew, egusi seed soup simply begging for some doughy fufu to sop up the entire wealthy flavors, and hen yassa, a well-liked dish of slow-braised hen thighs with lemon and caramelized onion.
The couple partnered with “Most sensible Chef” alumnus Eric Adjepong and chef Zoe Adjonyoh — cookbook creator and founding father of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, to advertise West African delicacies throughout the logo. Because the daughter of a Liberian immigrant, Perteet Spencer stated she believes everybody merits to look themselves after they stroll down the grocery aisle.
“We’re speaking about a complete continent no longer represented in grocery retail outlets,” Perteet Spencer stated with an incredulous tone. “It’s no longer a monolith; we’re speaking about 17 other nations (in West Africa). Each and every tribe, each and every nation, all of them have their distinctive manner of doing issues.”
The regional cuisines percentage identical elements, and “it’s simply the method of cooking — the other seasoning and flavors that you simply use — that separates them,” her husband stated.
Sooner than making contemporary egusi stew with egusi seeds, hen, onions and collards, Perteet makes her solution to an African marketplace on Foster Road and North Broadway to collect dried crawfish and shrimp powder, seeds, and iru, sometimes called locust beans. Now, a model of the similar dish with such hard-to-find elements is to be had at dozens of retail outlets around the nation.
“We’re in reality excited to take folks in this adventure via West Africa so they can revel in the flavors and elements,” she stated. “The typical mark that unites the meals are those in reality slow-cooked, layered flavors … that’s lovely in line with the entirety, whether or not it’s the dough emerging at the puff puff, or the stew simmering at the cassava leaf.”
Fred Spencer likens the AYO Meals procedure to cooking soul meals, with giant pots, layered flavors and hearty, conventional fare.
However discovering techniques to retain the intensity and high quality of the ones slow-cooked dishes on a mass manufacturing scale took severe effort, Perteet Spencer stated. At one level, she introduced in her mom so producers may just shadow her preparation with a purpose to do it correctly and no longer rush the method.
“We’ve a number of horror tales early in our adventure of companions that didn’t figure out as a result of they sought after to hurry up the method,” she stated. “In case you have a pot of vegetables, the most efficient ones are those who prepare dinner low and sluggish. We had to honor that procedure as we discovered companions to scale this up.”
The outcome are element lists which can be acquainted and inviting: roasted garlic puree made from merely garlic, further virgin olive oil, and thyme accents the hen yassa; simply 5 elements include the fried puff puff bread.
“We’re the usage of contemporary greens, we’re doing that slow-cooking procedure. We’re no longer reducing corners,” she stated. “It used to be in reality necessary for us to honor the method and no longer brief alternate it as we went via our adventure. It’s simply how we perform.”
That operation started 3 years in the past, when the Spencers, DePaul College school sweethearts, spotted marketplace tendencies converting.
“We noticed this large upward thrust in world flavors, a large hole in flavors of the continent in overall,” she stated. So she left her company task as a logo supervisor with Basic Generators to deliver pleasure to the arena — ayo way “pleasure” in Yoruba — full-time, with Fred’s urging and reinforce.
Whilst she takes credit score for introducing her husband to Liberian meals, she stated she realized the way to prepare dinner from her father. He immigrated from Lofa County, the northernmost portion of Liberia, to the Dual Towns in Minnesota at age 17, bringing with him cooking that reminded him of house. Her folks would in the end meet in Minnesota.
Perteet and Fred’s massive households function inspiration to the meals logo, nevertheless it’s the pair’s love of meals that’s the nexus of AYO Meals. Fred, an actual property developer, opened a cafe when he used to be 24 years outdated (one thing he stated the couple may get again to in the future). With a grandmother from Alabama, the Roseland local recollects cooking as a formative years chore, as a result of he would get the entire tedious meals prep tasks. However that’s modified since he’s gotten older.
The circle of relatives affair that cooking has all the time been is now one the youngest Spencers are choosing up. Perteet and Fred’s daughters, 11 and eight years outdated, just like the kitchen such a lot, on occasion they need to be driven out of the distance. Their oldest tries to get her biscuits as flaky as her father’s, and he or she’s lately operating on perfecting her macaroons, stated Perteet Spencer.
“They love being concerned within the kitchen with us,” she stated. “I didn’t get started cooking till school, and to look them get started so younger, it’s thrilling to look. You’ll be able to’t have circle of relatives in combination with out a ton of in reality improbable meals.”
The primary AYO Meals dishes had been the ones the couple individually love — jollof rice, egusi soup and cassava leaf stew. The couple prides themselves on AYO Meals being wealthy in vitamins and coffee in sodium.
“Weight problems is at an all-time top, diabetes is at an all-time top, high blood pressure is at an all-time top. We couldn’t in just right sense of right and wrong put out a product that used to be a contributor to all of that,” Perteet stated. “I feel one of the vital issues that AYO does in reality fantastically is end up that meals may also be just right and engaging, however nonetheless be just right for you. We needed to in reality be capable to set a style for that.”
The plan for the logo is to extend past frozen meals to deliver better inclusivity and variety to cabinets. AYO Meals already has pepper and shito sauces — the previous is habanero-based, the latter has a seafood base, complemented via scorching peppers, tomatoes and caramelized onions.
“We began with frozen basically as it’s the perfect transition to have unique elements — no longer including preservatives or the rest like that — to deliver the real essence of the meals,” Fred Spencer stated. “However we wish to make this a vast logo, versus simply frozen.”
The self-described “giant dreamers” know the platform AYO Meals permits has numerous wingspan to make an have an effect on above and past celebrating the tradition via packaged meals. The Moonboi Undertaking is the Spencers philanthropic effort born from that platform — one who enriches the West African tradition.
In December, AYO Meals partnered with Girl Power Africa, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering ladies and kids impacted via civil conflict and ebola in Liberia via entrepreneurship. AYO is supporting the cultivation of 15 acres of Liberian farmland, the Spencers stated.
“A part of what we’re doing with those dishes is bringing consciousness to those vegetation, to this meals, which we are hoping in flip creates larger call for and financial alternate in West Africa,” Perteet stated. “Already we’ve constructed 3 houses, totally cleared the land, (and) we’re beginning to see the primary crop yield. And the yield of this is in fact getting used to offer again to ladies who had been sufferers of both ebola or the Liberian civil conflict as seed capital to begin companies of their very own.”
Seeing the have an effect on the meals logo is offering in one of these little while has the Spencers thinking about the potential for AYO Meals not to best alternate the lives in their quick households, however different communities in determined want of assist, as neatly.
“If the rest can get throughout from any of that is that, AYO used to be created as a circle of relatives corporate,” Fred Spencer stated. “We’re doing this as a circle of relatives in combination, and that’s what’s going to make it a hit.”