Hyde Park resident Perteet Spencer and her husband Fred are banking on her Liberian heritage and experience in the food industry as they launch AYO Foods, a line of West African frozen meals.
As a girl, she helped her father run a Twin Cities import wholesale business, later working as a brand manager at General Mills in Minneapolis for a decade. She met her husband at DePaul University, and the two moved to Hyde Park six years ago.
"One of the things that we really fell in love with about Chicago was the breadth of so many delicious kinds of ethnic foods," she said. "I come from a really strong entrepreneurial background. I come from many, many years in the food industry really building brands, and we're personally foodies. As we thought through all of our personal talents, strengths and passions, we quickly landed on the idea of launching a brand that really representing our story."
"The brand is really about delivering joy through the flavors of West Africa, so we really view this as an exploration," she continued. "While one of the dishes is born out of a Liberian family recipe, as we identified items for the brand, we tried to find ones that had strong commonalities across regions."
West Africa is a physically large, populous, post-colonial region, and each country puts its own flair on dishes, she said, but AYO's products are striving for a sort of trans-national Platonic idealism.
In addition to jollof rice — perhaps the quintessential dish of the region, with tomatoes, red peppers and onions — AYO has frozen single servings of cassava leaf soup, with chicken, cayenne and other spices, and an egusi seed soup, with ground melon seeds, chicken, peppers, onions and spinach. Ingredients are sourced locally as well as from West Africa and South America, and packaging is done by a contractor in Dalton.
The big packaged food industry has seen uneven returns in recent years; the Chicago-based Kraft Heinz Co. has seen share prices slump two-thirds from a peak in February 2017. But Perteet said ethnic food has been an exception to the business's "fish tail" over the past few years.
"We've started to see a resurgence in frozen as folks are starting to look for more convenient options, and as you look at that growth, it was really fueled by more specialty, premium entrees entering the space," she said. "There's been a pretty big disruption in frozen over the past three years with the big growth of brands like Saffron Rose and Frontera."
Chicago's West African immigrant community is centered in Uptown, but foods of the African diaspora — particularly jerk chicken shops — are found across the South Side. Fred pointed out African American cuisine's tendency towards one-pot cooking, a link to its West African roots. He added cassava leaf soup has taken off in Minneapolis' Black community; Perteet pointed out the ingredient's similarity to collards.
As it stands, AYO, which means "joy" in Yoruba, is the first West African frozen food line in the United States. Perteet said customers include recent West African immigrants as well as a segment she dubbed "the ethnic explorers, folks who are looking for authentic ethnic experiences," whom she said represent 30% of the market. And as being homebound is now the norm, Perteet said AYO functions well as a small, escapist luxury.
Right now, AYO is the couple's self-funded passion project — Perteet currently works for SPINS, a River North natural foods consultancy, and Fred, a native South Sider, works in real estate development. The brand is currently in 50 Whole Foods locations across the South and a few retailers in Illinois
"We have big visions for this brand," she said. "Frozen is kind of the gateway, but we see the opportunity to really expand our offerings across the stores." Beginning with a frozen meal line allows people an introduction to the cuisine without having to go to specialty stores, but the Spencers would like to expand their offerings.
The Spencers only wanted to live in Hyde Park when they returned to Chicago. Their children attend the Lab School. While AYO products are currently available within the city only at Green Grocer Chicago, 1402 W. Grand Ave., the two have pitched to Hyde Park Produce, 1226 E. 53rd St., and Open Produce, 1635 E. 55th St.
"As you think about the community that we want represented and to experience our brand, Hyde Park is so interesting … in terms of racial and socioeconomic diversity that I think it represents a nice microcosm in terms of who we're trying to reach," Perteet said.