When Fred Spencer, a Chicago native and real estate investor, first approached his wife Perteet Spencer in 2011 with the idea of a frozen food brand featuring West African cuisine, she balked. A first-generation Liberian American, she was passionate about the low-and-slow stews her father spent hours concocting throughout her childhood, but as a brand manager at retail food giant General Mills, she questioned if there would be enough public interest to sustain a company.
Ten years later, that kernel of an idea has sprouted into a growing business: Ayo Foods (the name means “joy” in Yoruba), a line of frozen and boxed West African dishes, is now available in grocery stores across the country, including Mariano’s, Fresh Market, and Heinen’s stores in the Chicago area. The Spencers launched the company in July 2020 as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic upended the hospitality industry in Chicago and across the country, but the Hyde Park couple — undaunted — leapt into the fray.
“Starting a business is really tough because you put your heart and soul into it,” says Perteet Spencer. “But I think in some ways, it created an opportunity to get folks recentered with eating at home, cooking more, and being together more. We were serving an interesting need for customers and shoppers because we are able to provide something different from the go-to frozen pizza we all got worn out on.”
In the two years since, they’ve released a line of hot sauces and snagged partnerships with notable chefs who also seek to increase the visibility of West African food, including Top Chef competitor Eric Adjepong and London-based chef and writer Zoe Adjonyoh who runs the restaurant Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen. In May, Ayo introduced several new dishes in collaboration with Adjonyoh, including aboboi, a vegan stew of bambara beans, red peppers, and chilis; and groundnut stew (also known nkatenkwan and maafe) made with peanuts, tomatoes, and chicken.
West African cuisine — a broad category that encompasses 17 countries — varies between regions and tribes, but is united by a particular cooking approach: low and slow, with layers of flavor that grow deeper and more complex as they simmer on the stove. When Perteet Spencer’s father, a Liberian immigrant who came to the Midwest as a teen, cooked his traditional stews, the process could take up to six hours, and to her, it felt like magic.
For the uninitiated, however, the extended cook time can feel onerous. The Spencers knew they needed to expedite recipes and cycled through multiple manufacturing partners as they sought to find a balance between convenience and flavor. Their efforts have paid off, and customers can now expect to prepare frozen options such as chicken yassa (slow-braised chicken thighs with lemon and onion), egusi seed soup, and jollof rice in less than five minutes.
Chicago is home to a wealth of African restaurants, from Ethiopian institution Demera in Uptown to Nigerian-style Southside African Restaurant on the Southeast Side. The Spencers don’t plan to get into the business themselves, at least for the foreseeable future, though early in his career, Fred Spencer spent three years operating a Harold’s Chicken outpost. They have, however, turned their attentions to larger issues surrounding African cuisine with the Moonboi Project, a social justice arm of the brand that partners with nonprofits such as Girl Power Africa and has helped to cultivate 15 acres of rejuvenated farmland in the Liberian capital of Monrovia to produce crops for Ayo’s dishes.
Over the past decade, Perteet Spencer says she’s watched the U.S. market shift toward a significantly greater enthusiasm for culinary traditions from other continents. “From that perspective, there was a massive gap in the second largest continent in the world,” she says. “We are uniquely positioned to fill that gap, which has created an interesting sweet spot to bring something different.”
But the shift is about more than Western customers’ willingness to expand their culinary horizons. The couple have also observed a growing confidence among immigrant communities to highlight and share their food traditions.
“In the U.S. especially among immigrants and people who are used to eating this food, they’re not as fearful as before to push their food out of the shadows,” says Fred Spencer. “Three years ago, we decided, we know this food is good, we know it tastes great, and we want people to experience what we experience.”