Chicago’s AYO Foods is taking West African food mainstream

The frozen meals that AYO Foods creates and markets sit next to P.F. Chang’s food in Target’s freezer section.

But AYO Foods founders, Perteet and Fred Spencer, would prefer their fare be next to Amy’s Kitchen, the organic packaged and prepared foods giant.

“If you look at our caloric intake, our protein content, our fiber content, it’s very comfortable, if not better than some of the other kind of ‘better for you’ frozen items out there,” Perteet Spencer said. “And I can guarantee you it’s going to be much more flavorful.”

The Spencers launched AYO Foods, an array of West African frozen meals and hot sauces, in July 2020. In two years, they’ve expanded into stores nationwide, including Chicagoland Mariano’s, Heinen’s, and The Fresh Market stores.

Frozen options range from jollof rice to cassava leaf stew, egusi seed soup just begging for some doughy fufu to sop up all the rich flavors, and chicken yassa, a popular dish of slow-braised chicken thighs with lemon and caramelized onion.

The couple partnered with “Top Chef” alumnus Eric Adjepong and chef Zoe Adjonyoh — cookbook author and founder of Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, to promote West African cuisine through the brand. As the daughter of a Liberian immigrant, Perteet Spencer said she believes everyone deserves to see themselves when they walk down the grocery aisle.

“We’re talking about an entire continent not represented in grocery stores,” Perteet Spencer said with an incredulous tone. “It’s not a monolith; we’re talking about 17 different countries (in West Africa). Every tribe, every country, they all have their unique way of doing things.”

The regional cuisines share similar ingredients, and “it’s just the process of cooking — the different seasoning and flavors that you use — that separates them,” her husband said.

Before making fresh egusi stew with egusi seeds, chicken, onions and collards, Perteet makes her way to an African market on Foster Avenue and North Broadway to gather dried crawfish and shrimp powder, seeds, and iru, also known as locust beans. Now, a version of the same dish with such hard-to-find ingredients is available at dozens of stores across the country.

“We’re really excited to take people on this journey through West Africa to allow them to experience the flavors and ingredients,” she said. “The common mark that unites the food are these really slow-cooked, layered flavors … that’s pretty consistent with everything, whether it’s the dough rising on the puff puff, or the stew simmering on the cassava leaf.”

Fred Spencer likens the AYO Foods process to cooking soul food, with big pots, layered flavors and hearty, traditional fare.

But finding ways to retain the depth and quality of those slow-cooked dishes on a mass production scale took serious effort, Perteet Spencer said. At one point, she brought in her mother so manufacturers could shadow her preparation in order to do it properly and not rush the process.

“We have lots of horror stories early in our journey of partners that didn’t work out because they wanted to speed up the process,” she said. “If you have a pot of greens, the best ones are those that cook low and slow. We needed to honor that process as we found partners to scale this up.”

The result are ingredient lists that are familiar and alluring: roasted garlic puree made of simply garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and thyme accents the chicken yassa; just five ingredients comprise the fried puff puff bread.

“We’re using fresh vegetables, we’re doing that slow-cooking process. We’re not cutting corners,” she said. “It was really important for us to honor the process and not short change it as we went through our journey. It’s just how we operate.”

That operation began three years ago, when the Spencers, DePaul University college sweethearts, noticed market trends changing.

“We saw this huge rise in global flavors, a massive gap in flavors of the continent in total,” she said. So she left her corporate job as a brand manager with General Mills to bring joy to the world — ayo means “joy” in Yoruba — full-time, with Fred’s urging and support.

While she takes credit for introducing her husband to Liberian food, she said she learned how to cook from her father. He immigrated from Lofa County, the northernmost portion of Liberia, to the Twin Cities in Minnesota at age 17, bringing with him cooking that reminded him of home. Her parents would eventually meet in Minnesota.

Perteet and Fred’s large families serve as inspiration to the food brand, but it’s the pair’s love of food that is the nexus of AYO Foods. Fred, a real estate developer, opened a restaurant when he was 24 years old (something he said the couple might get back to someday). With a grandmother from Alabama, the Roseland native recalls cooking as a childhood chore, because he would get all the tedious food prep duties. But that’s changed since he’s gotten older.

The family affair that cooking has always been is now one the youngest Spencers are picking up. Perteet and Fred’s daughters, 11 and 8 years old, like the kitchen so much, sometimes they have to be pushed out of the space. Their oldest tries to get her biscuits as flaky as her father’s, and she’s currently working on perfecting her macaroons, said Perteet Spencer.

“They love being involved in the kitchen with us,” she said. “I didn’t start cooking until college, and to see them start so young, it’s exciting to see. You can’t have family together without a ton of really incredible food.”

The first AYO Foods dishes were those the couple personally love — jollof rice, egusi soup and cassava leaf stew. The couple prides themselves on AYO Foods being rich in nutrients and low in sodium.

“Obesity is at an all-time high, diabetes is at an all-time high, hypertension is at an all-time high. We couldn’t in good conscience put out a product that was a contributor to all of that,” Perteet said. “I think one of the things that AYO does really beautifully is prove that food can be good and tasty, but still be good for you. We wanted to really be able to set a model for that.”

The plan for the brand is to expand beyond frozen foods to bring greater inclusivity and diversity to shelves. AYO Foods already has pepper and shito sauces — the former is habanero-based, the latter has a seafood base, complemented by hot peppers, tomatoes and caramelized onions.

“We started with frozen primarily because it’s the easiest transition to have authentic ingredients — not adding preservatives or anything like that — to bring the true essence of the food,” Fred Spencer said. “But we want to make this a broad brand, as opposed to just frozen.”

The self-described “big dreamers” know the platform AYO Foods allows has a lot of wingspan to make an impact above and beyond celebrating the culture through packaged foods. The Moonboi Project is the Spencers philanthropic effort born from that platform — one that enriches the West African culture.

In December, AYO Foods partnered with Girl Power Africa, a nonprofit committed to empowering women and children impacted by civil war and ebola in Liberia through entrepreneurship. AYO is supporting the cultivation of 15 acres of Liberian farmland, the Spencers said.

“Part of what we’re doing with these dishes is bringing awareness to these crops, to this food, which we hope in turn creates increased demand and economic change in West Africa,” Perteet said. “Already we’ve built three homes, fully cleared the land, (and) we’re starting to see the first crop yield. And the yield of that is actually being used to give back to women who were victims of either ebola or the Liberian civil war as seed capital to start businesses of their own.”

Seeing the impact the food brand is providing in such a short time has the Spencers excited about the potential of AYO Foods to not only change the lives of their immediate families, but other communities in desperate need of help, as well.

“If anything can get across from any of this is that, AYO was created as a family company,” Fred Spencer said. “We’re doing this as a family together, and that’s what’s going to make it successful.”

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