How Ayeshah Abuelhiga Is Paving the Way for First-Generation Founders, One Meal at a Time

Ayeshah Abuelhiga

Ayeshah Abuelhiga is the Founder and CEO of the Mason Dixie Biscuit Company, a frozen biscuit brand committed to producing food made with fresh, clean, and natural ingredients. To fulfill her goal of transforming comfort food for the better, she left her corporate job to open a small restaurant. As an emerging food brand owner, Ayeshah has been named the Washington Business Journal’s Top 10 Innovator in 2017, voted a Top Millennial to Watch in 2014, and the Number 1 Food & Beverage Stunner by Industree DC.

Prior to founding Mason Dixie, Ayeshah worked for major fine-dining restaurants and hotels, including Passion Food Hospitality and Fairmont Hotels. She also consulted and managed marketing and product development projects for Fortune 500 companies, such as Audi, Microsoft, and Toshiba.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Ayeshah Abuelhiga shares her background and motivation for founding Mason Dixie Foods
  • Why did Ayeshah decide to transition from corporate America to entrepreneurship?
  • How to pitch your product to retail buyers — and the benefits of forming relationships with brand competitors
  • The evolution of DTC and how it complements CPG and the retail industry
  • Why Ayeshah and Mason Dixie have abolished the term “innovation”
  • The difference between emerging brands and established brands
  • What’s the recipe for building a positive company culture?
  • Ayeshah offers advice for first-generation founders

In this episode…

The consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry is highly competitive and requires specialized knowledge. However, it’s constantly seeking new and innovative products to bring to the market. So, how can emerging food brands get the attention of retail buyers?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga, founding partner of a frozen breakfast brand, recommends thinking about these four principles when developing a new food product: Is the food edible? Would you eat it? Would you feed it to your children? And do you think consumers would be excited to try it? The CPG industry is ever-evolving, and new brand owners shouldn’t be intimidated by established brands. In fact, it can be beneficial to create relationships with well-established labels and have prepared questions. Attending CPG conferences such as Natural Products East and Natural Products West is also a strategy to consider for marketing products and networking.

In this episode of the CPG Troublemakers, Aalap Shah welcomes Ayeshah Abuelhiga, Founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, to the podcast to discuss breaking into the CPG space and paving the way for first-generation entrepreneurs. Ayeshah shares how to pitch products to retail buyers, the evolution of DTC and how it complements CPG, and building a positive company culture.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

This episode is brought to you by 1o8 Agency. At 1o8 Agency, we are a holistic digital marketing agency that cultivates brand growth through creativity and innovation. We jump right in to create solutions with measurable marketing intelligence. 

The result? Our clients see increased engagement and increased e-commerce traffic, which equals more sales and profitability for our clients.

Episode Transcript

Intro  0:01  

Welcome to the CPG Troublemakers. The place where brands and makers, food and beverage nerds, and investors all gather to cause a little bit of mischief. We welcome industry leaders, whitespace thinkers, and channel partners to come together to turn problems into opportunities. Or, at the very least, have a little fun along the way.

Aalap Shah  0:26  

Say hello to Ayeshah, Founder of Mason Dixie, the frozen biscuit brand with nothing to hide — a mission to bring clean, natural ingredients to the world. I’ve had the great pleasure of knowing Ayeshah very early on. Welcome to the show.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  0:37  

Thanks for having me, Aalap.

Aalap Shah  0:38 

So good to talk to you again. Tell me a little bit about how you got started and how the world came to know your great biscuits.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  0:44  

Yeah, so we had a very non-traditional trajectory into the consumer product space, I started Mason Dixie as a restaurant chain. I was hoping to clean up fast food for good, you know, really tired of KFC Popeyes, and Chick-fil-A being the global image of American comfort food. So I wanted to create a fast casual chain that was centered around real American cover food and how it all got started, where was farm-to-table, fresh ingredients, recognizable foods. And so I ended up starting a concept in 2014 in Washington, DC. And it was a huge success, we had lines wrapped around blocks and blocks. And then when we had our second location, we had a two-mile long line of cars all it backed up to Costco a few miles down the road. So we knew we hit on something that people really wanted. The consumer side, though, was a happy accident, we we’ve gotten so much traction locally, in the DC market that we got secret shopped by a marketing manager at Whole Foods, who said that she was looking to kind of reinvent how the frozen category was being portrayed at Whole Foods. And she thought with our brand deal locally that it’d be a good product line to introduce. And so she asked us if we could introduce our frozen biscuit dough to Whole Foods. And we did, we did it the day before Thanksgiving in 2015. And we outsold butter and milk that day. So that all went viral through the whole foods ecosystem. And it kind of really cemented that, you know, more than just a restaurant, we could have a product line as well.

Aalap Shah  2:24  

That’s an amazing, amazing story. And, and I find that having a good product, good market fit, right, having a successful location. I can can can be the starting block to the success. Tell me a little bit about your background? And why kind of the focus on comfort food. Yeah,

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  2:41  

so I grew up in restaurants, my parents had a small carry-out deli corner store in Baltimore when I was really little. And my you know, my parents are both immigrants. And they really taught me from a very early, late age, the importance of food, and we’re knowing where it comes from, and what is the difference between good food and bad food. And so, you know, just really lucky to have that kind of background, but also unlucky in that, as I grew older, and when I went to college and moved out on my own, and had to learn how to feed myself, you know, every college students seeking out comfort food, you know, brain food, whatever, to get them through a class or a hangover. Right? So, you know, as I was, like, kind of looking around what was available, it was kind of scary to me, you know, what was actually being qualified as comfort food, like it was, you know, greasy and nutritionally devoid, like you could not recognize half the food because it wasn’t made with fresh ingredients. So it was always basically SOP right? It was just like this, like bowl of unrecognizable things. Everything was brown and Laden in gravy to hide its freshness. So just it was pretty alarming to me, how different the standard for what American comfort food was compared to what I was told, and what I watched my parents make. And so fast forward, you know, I was a first kid to go to college. So, you know, I didn’t know a lot of money. Any money? So how do you go to school on scholarship, and on top of that, did not and could not afford to live on campus. So to put myself through school by actually being there. I had to work, you know. So at one point, I was working four restaurant jobs. So I worked in the restaurant industry, because it was quick cash. But it was also comfortable, right? Like I was I was the first kid to go to a very expensive University where a majority of the students were very well off. And that was a culture shock to me. I grew up in Section Eight housing, you know, and so I was a preteen so I, I was not used to walking into that world and just hanging out with these people and I actually couldn’t afford to I had to I had to work so it’s kind of refreshing to be in a restaurant. You know, you’re hearing four different languages. You’re learning all the curse words, you’re seeing those sampling all the staff meals that are made with all the leftovers. It’s just a different kind of camaraderie. And it was very comfortable. It was my people, right. So I think, as even though, you know, I ended up with a really, you know, amazing career, I grew so quickly in 15 years through the corporate world of tech, and auto, and software, and all of that. But I never really felt that same sense of community. So I knew I wanted to kind of center my entrepreneurial journey around returning to that community and food,

Aalap Shah  5:27  

I hear you on that. And I have, I resonate with your background, because I grew up in the basement of my parents kind of first retail business, when they finally got an investment from the community to open up a store on an Archer and Kedzie in downtown Chicago. So growing up in that environment, and knowing and watching your parents work hard, and then bringing that work ethic, both to the corporate end and your own businesses is always inspiring to hear. And I was going to touch on that too. Like you had some solid years of corporate experience, like how did you make that jump from, you know, being a fellow, you know, first gen, that comfort and security of being at a corporate environment to owning your own business? How do you make that decision?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  6:10 

It’s funny, because I think is as children of immigrants, were told that there’s a comfort and security in the corporate world and actually never felt that way. I never felt secure. And I certainly didn’t feel as though my job was ever certain. Like, I’ll never forget, when I was in LA, I was working for this company, and the recession banter had hit. And one of the one of my colleagues had just returned from maternity leave, she had triplets already. And she had gotten pregnant naturally and gotten had another baby, obviously had to come back to work. Now she’s got four kids under the age of two to feed. And they laid her off that day. And she was the only woman that did her specific type of technical work. So I was like, wow, so So no one’s really safe when you’re in those types of environments. And then, even when I you know, my last corporate position was, you know, an automotive I, I had to at one point apply for my own job because it had a different promotional potential and base salary it had been elevated. And I didn’t get it. Because there was a guy who had been there longer mind, you had no experience in product management and intelligent vehicle systems or IT or anything, no experience, he was actually marketing, he got my job. And he had no qualifications for it. So I’m like, how the heck am I supposed to succeed, and believe that the corporate world is safer when your own job is at stake, because some guy had more seniority than you did with no direct experience. So to me, it was never actually that safe. And I said, you know, the only person I could bet on is myself, if I jumped into this entrepreneurial world on my own, the only person I had to bet on is me. And to me that was more secure. Because I knew what I was able to produce, I knew that if I put my mind to something, I was going to succeed, no matter what the definition was, there’s degrees of succeed, success, right? Like you can be ultra successful and hit beyond your wildest dreams, or you could just be successful and hit. So I was banking on myself. And I think that really, to me, allowed me the freedom to make that decision. Because I said, you know, what’s the worst that can happen? The business fails, and I go back to the corporate world, it is safe. It’s not, it’s safe, that it’s always there, it’s not safe, that you will always be there. So, you know, so in that way, I kind of rationalized it. And, and, you know, I don’t think this gets talked about enough. But I think especially people of our generation, coming as you know, first generations away from our immigrant parents, there’s this rationalization of what you’re told, because you have such great respect for your parents, and you have no idea how to navigate the world when you’re a kid, and you want to do what’s right for them. But then you enter into the real world, that has changed a lot since they probably emigrated to the US. And the conditions for how you succeed in this country have changed so much. You know, every five years, I think it’s been a lot of pressure, especially on those who are people of color or immigrants, first-generation wealth, anyone who’s experiencing those shifts, it’s been a lot of pressure on them to not just fight the system, but then also have to fight what their parents told them was truth.

Aalap Shah  9:21 

That pat on the back right from your parents saying, Hey, you followed my guidance and my values and all these things. And then you bucked the trend. And I can tell you how much more I agree with you on betting on yourself, whether you succeed or fail, at least I control my job and paycheck to as much as I can control and I get value for the time I put in. And it’s directly related to the effort I put in. So I love hearing that. And I agree with you. It’s not It’s not often talked about whether it’s in our generation, or even this next generation that’s coming in to talk about what does success look like? What does Job security look like in this era of kinda the bottom line, right and bottom line thinking and, and all the other hidden things that we don’t even see that happen, right that affect us whether we’re an entrepreneur or whether we have a corporate job, like there’s so many things at play that, that we’ll never fully see, unless we just take it into our own hands.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  10:16 


Aalap Shah  10:17  

I love it. So okay, so you have a successful restaurant, you’ve been noticed by and secretly shopped by a Whole Foods buyer. Tell me about that meeting? Like, how does it look and feel like when you walk into kind of that meeting, being an entrepreneur having a busy business? Like, how does someone even prepare for something like that?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  10:36  

Well, you know, I, especially now, we’ve been in business for over nine years. And I have to caveat that every time I think about my startup experience that a lot has changed in that amount of time, Whole Foods and getting started as a consumer natural consumer product was a very different startup process than it is today. Probably because there was just not as much energy at that time. This is 2014. You know, there wasn’t as much energy around this space. In fact, I literally was just talking to someone earlier today about it, where, you know, my first Expo, I think it was Expo East. There were no POC, everyone was a white guy with a blue collared shirt on from a finance background, or they just graduated from college or their dad was some big finance EA, it was it was a very different world than you know, and I, you know, I know that people were like, Oh, well, Expo could be so much more diverse, this industry could be so much more diverse. It’s getting there. And it from from when I started to now, it’s just such a different place. So caveat to that was, because there were less things happening in this industry. At that time, it was a lot easier to start with breaking the rules, it was still very wild, wild west, right. Like, I had no idea what it was like to walk into a Whole Foods meeting. In fact, our first meeting I misconstrued as the, the the marketing manager asking me for samples to give to her son because their email kind of set or some of them, and she wanted me to drop off samples at HQ. I thought she wanted them for her kid. There was like a produce box that was empty from the restaurant and I shoved a bunch of the stuff in there. And I was like, here, I gave you 12 different flavors, enjoy it, and I literally just ready to walk out and she was like, holding the bags up and putting them like as if she’s gonna put them on a shelf. And I’m like, What are you doing? And she’s like, oh, you know, trying to figure out how we would actually hang these in the freezer. And I was like, well, well, well, what freezer? You know, so I wasn’t even prepared that she was actually trying to merchandise them. So it was kind of a funny, weird first meeting, because I think at that point, she realized I had no clue what I was doing. And I was like, proud to say I didn’t, I was like, you know, I think that’s an awesome opportunity. But I have no idea how to get onto a store. She was like, Oh, well, you got to find an advocate, you gotta find a buyer, you got to start with one store. And then you grow from each store. Right? So I was like, okay, that’s just not it’s so nebulous. But, sure. And I was just really lucky because the were a restaurant was our landlord, who happened to be dating, one of the buyers, one of the whole food stores, and I took that as low hanging fruit opportunity to go pitch selling the biscuits there. Because it was the only person I knew I didn’t know any of the buyers. I didn’t know any of the general managers, I had no idea on folding work. So there was a general lack of just any experience on my part I just took a lot of, you know, I just asked him that question, right, where today, knowing how successful Whole Foods was and recruiting small local brands, they formalize that process, and you can go online and understand how to become a vendor. Or you can talk to 1000s of brands now that have succeeded in some level shape or form of getting into these retailers. So there’s a lot more information. I mean, I was telling somebody else other day, like when I started the consumer side, I had no idea even how packaging work. And I got all my packaging advice from the dye line, which is basically just a bunch of you know, creative agencies posting really cool work that maybe never makes it to light right. But it was the only resource I had to learn what how do I find packaging? Where do I buy it? You know, so I didn’t really the plus side while West could do whatever you wanted, probably could walk into Whole Foods ignorantly and try to get your product in downside was I didn’t have nearly as much information access as there is today about how to get started in this space. So let me just use a very different sort of experience.

Aalap Shah  14:29  

I think it’s interesting. You mentioned that at first of all, I mean that spirits awesome. And I think about my first time when this is like 10 years ago, and I had a major like Fortune 500 client come to me to run Facebook ads and they asked me to like provide them an insertion order and I had zero idea what that meant, but I actually couldn’t ask the buyer what that meant without giving away that I had no idea what he was talking about right like is you’re always like cat and mouse game to have of of trying to fake it till you make

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  15:00  

Damn right playing playing good job.

Aalap Shah  15:03  

That’s a skill that all entrepreneurs generally can master at some point. Yeah. If you have to think about asking all those questions, and when you think about everything that you’re saying, like there’s a ton more resources. Now there’s process for all this stuff, how much of that human connection like at shows at fancy foods, all these places that you go to? Does that make an impact in the end relationship with that store or buyer? Or how do you think it plays out?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  15:28  

It’s imperative, I think, I think the era of DTC CPG brands distorted the view of what’s feasible, because it’s really easy to get to these amazing top lines, you know, breadth and scope of the brands. And then frequently, these DTC brands go to try to execute and retail and they think it’s a take it or leave a business. And it’s not, it’s about people, it’s about relationships, it’s about food and mouth, it’s about pricing, it’s about competition, it’s just very different. And so I do caution brands frequently. And folks that I mentor, like that get started on the DTC router are lucky enough to have a thriving DTC business and want to get into retail, those are two different channels, they are almost two different they are they are two different businesses. And you have to be prepared to make big strides and sacrifices on getting in front of people. I mean, you know, I was lucky, we had the restaurant and we would go to, you know, every foodie event possible so people could taste the food, they may not have tasted frozen biscuits, but that lasting memory of that fried chicken biscuit or this collard greens or whatever, right? That that impression of, okay, they make good food. So if they ended up at a Whole Foods and saw our product and made the connection of oh, hey, that’s where I got the chicken biscuit from, I bet you those biscuits or bomb that was that was that interaction? Or, you know, folks are always like, Well, how do you do demos, I did that I went to every weekend, as many demos as I could, we did in the middle of COVID, an entire southern tour of like six different states. And we, we couldn’t demo everywhere because of the COVID restrictions, but we hand out coupons, he handed out food. We talked to people, you know, we told him our story. It’s absolutely critical that entrepreneurs get in front of their customer and their consumers are two different things customer to your earlier point being these trade shows, right, these networking events, there’s no better time to meet your buyers and ask these types of questions. Those good because good dumb questions, right? Like, you’re in a room full of 1000s of other people asking the same dumb question. And you can start to learn from the more successful ones, right? The folks that have lines of people wrapped around them, or the Whole Foods executive committee meeting in their booth, they’ve done something right. So go to that brand and ask them, How do they do it? You know, what, what are they talking about? Why? Why did they get all the lines? Like, if there is a benefit there, we’re very lucky, right? That we have a not so fragmented industry that’s really collegial, and willing to share information I came from automotive and tech, nobody was sharing anything with you, like nothing, right? So. So this is unique, right? And we’re all fighting for the same cause. And it’s against a bigger enemy, that, you know, all of us combined, still don’t even make a dent. And so what the bigger enemy, you know. So, you know, it’s a blessing to be in this industry to be around so many people that want to lift you. So you know, take the shot?

Aalap Shah  18:28  

Absolutely. And I actually think it’s really interesting you say that, because one of the things that you’ve done incredibly, incredibly well. And I feel like the sun mash is just create a disruptive category. How do you go about thinking about it in that way? You know, when I when I first met you, a lot of our conversations were around simple ingredients, quality taste, and then really taking a piece of this humongous industry. How did you go about that? How do you think about your brand? And how do you think about your story? And how do you think about your positioning to capture a slice of that market?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  19:03  

Oh, that’s a really good question. Because I don’t Yeah, I think entrepreneurs are always victim and the living in the moment you don’t really think about the impact. You don’t get to be retrospective sometimes. But I think, I think number one, I never necessarily out the gate was like, I’m gonna make the Apple you know, Mac, like I never really thought about it that way. Right? I I’m a huge believer in incremental change, right. I think change happens slowly. And then small chunks. So I always just thought, Okay, I hate that our food, you know, industry both away from home and grocery, it’s filled with crap. I do I hate it. Now that well, if I can impact that even by 1% 2% 10%, then that is big. So what am I going to do to get started so there’s those little biscuits I never really thought would ever amount to what they did, but in my mind, I was like, Alright, if I only sold to the whole foods in Alexandria, Virginia, I at least I’m gonna impact 1000s of people by making sure they don’t buy that little weird, puffy creature, you know, that shall not be named. And that those biscuits that are made out of oil and aluminum, I least change the lives of those people. And when you have that kind of mindset, every every small win is a big win. Because you’re just proud that you’ve got that far. I think a lot of times these entrepreneurs today, especially in CPG, they get so wrapped up in trying to land Kroger, I gotta, I gotta get Safeway I got, you don’t have to get any of those. There are brands that have succeeded by never leaving their home state. Like you, you don’t need to do all this, you need to be where you’re supposed to be, you need to be where your customer is, you need to be where you can afford to succeed. And over time, when you have enough concentration of success, then you can jump to the next place. We were really lucky, we were in a sleeping category, it was actually quite small. And you know, because it was so small, actually, while I had an easy time getting on shelf or easier time getting on shelf, because the lack of competition, we had a harder time raising capital because it was too small a category for investors to really care about. So there’s pluses and minuses, right? So we were lucky, we started in a slow, small category without any innovation. So we were white horse. And you know, we could pour our heart and soul into it and still win. Because every year we were growing little by little, because there was a huge focus on our team’s part on the quality, the quality of the product that’s never changed. So when you make something tasty and good, it may take a long time for people to try it. But when they do, they make a switch and they don’t go back. And that was really what we saw. And then because of our success, and mind you people keep I love how quick our memory fades. But like you know, Cliff Bar or Kind Bar, Giovanni, right? People think their overnight success, and these companies are over 20 years old. Right? So for us, we were in market for over five years, before we were approached by Whole Foods to expand into the frozen breakfast category. Wow. And only that, that I realized that we were even meant to be there, right? Like I always had this like delusion of this dreams of grandeur, right like that we would all of our menu items at the restaurant would eventually catapult into the freezer. Like that was my ultimate dream, when I realized the consumer product thing was going to be a thing. And so to get that opportunity from Whole Foods to launch into the frozen breakfasts, that meant that we were doing something well, right. Like it was a good indication that we were succeeding and there was a believer in them in our customer that we could succeed in a different space. So you know, it wasn’t overnight. And it was a hard five years and a very sleepy slow category that got us into a megalith category like frozen breakfast. So you know, while while sometimes it seems bigger, it’s just because we’ve had the the amazing opportunity to kind of prove ourselves for a very long time and show up in the industry for such a long time. That it seems as though we just you know, are rainmakers. Yeah, but we’re not.

Aalap Shah  23:05

I couldn’t agree more it always I feel like consistency and persistence, doesn’t get enough credit. It’s always about the kind of where are you today? And what have you done for me today kind of kind of conversations that happen. I know I got to first meet you kind of at that intersection is probably like three years ago, during around the pandemic or right before the pandemic. How do you think about DTC in relation to your retail business? And does one get more weight than the other? And I know there’s like immense challenges when it comes to the frozen category for DTC. So if I had to kind of sum up my question is how do you think about DTC today as compared to five years ago? And how does that complement your retail business?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  23:47  

Well, I think there’s a ton of opportunity still for the distribution and drop shipping industry to be disrupted by you know, somebody who could make a more one cheaper to environmentally friendly ecommerce drop shipping option. I mean, that’s, it’s one of those areas that keeps me awake a lot at night because we over index on digital card sales, even in retail, because our customers used to shopping online, they’re just quick with it, right? Like their discovery, their search, their attribute search, they’re just better online shoppers, and thus we come up right like we get better food that way. The challenge has been, you know, honing in on our own DTC process. You know, I grew up very poor and I’m very conscious about access to food, especially quality food, what I hate about etc, especially with highly perishable product is that it inherently ruins the democratization of food because it only can be to those that are willing to pay for the convenience of door to door sale, and for us and frozen with overnight frozen guarantees, because otherwise there’s food safety risks that we’re just not willing to take on. You know, you’re in Asking the customer to spend 10x what they would have they gone and been able to find us at the grocery store. So we’ve really made it a big part of our mission to return back to the basics of where people are continuing to purchase most of their goods and honing in on that retail footprint first, in hopes that in the time that we continue to succeed, but the DTC industry really kind of opens up more doors for us to be able to provide that equitable share and deed it’s and that’s why I brought up you know, our digital sales and retail, we’re a leader in that arena, I think we’re an Instacart, top 10 brand last year, just because the amount of consumer discovery and trial that was taking place through a digital shopping experience. So I think there’s a lot of amazing things that retailers are doing to enhance that. And that’s really where we’re trying to stay focused so that we can bring that equity and access and affordability.

Aalap Shah  25:53  

I love hearing that because, you know, it really, it really helps alleviate that pressure that that manufacturers and brands have to be DTC and show that to potential investors and in capital raises and all that, all that stuff that happens. And instead in thinking about how we actually expand access, or use other tools to be digital, but also really support our retail and omni-channel partners, right? Like I think it’s really inspiring to hear about your approach, and the reasons why and but also as to how you’re using these other tools. And I know all these retailers have incredible, incredible programs and platforms, whether it’s direct or to Instacart. So that’s cool. Thinking about like innovation, you know, since since you first started with just biscuits, and now into other products, how do you keep yourself from being distracted? When you think about innovation? Well,

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  26:46  

I think one I’ve recently become a pied piper for this year at Mason Dixie. But one we’ve abolished the term innovation. Because it’s, it’s because the industry abuses that term of flavor extension is not an innovation, the same of something else. But with a different brand on it or one ingredient change is not an innovation, I think it really comes down to like we’ve even innovated our process, right? We’ve we’ve, we’ve changed how we go to market, we’ve changed how we plan our new product development pipeline. And for us, it’s really we reframed everything is new product, right? Because it also, we also felt like the word innovation didn’t give the whole team the credit of how hard it is to launch a new product. Right? It’s not just the r&d team that gets credit for making it. It’s not the just the inside team that finds the whitespace for it to grow. It’s not just the sales team who got it in, right, like everyone down to fulfillment down to customer service answering questions from the email newsletter that goes out, right. Like there’s a whole effort to that. And so for us, you know, really getting everybody on the on the same page that like we’re launching products, that’s our job, right? Whether they’re new, whether they’re extension, whether they are truly breakthrough, it helps everyone just kind of stop obsessing over that, to your point, right? That exhaustive, like, how do you sleep at night? How are you thinking about new stuff, like, I’m not Steve Jobs, I’m not going to pretend I ever have been or what we make very common-person food, right? But we make it the right way. And in this industry, it gets crowded by things that people deem as innovative. Making things with powders and substitutes, enhance substitutes isn’t natural, in my opinion. And it also doesn’t make it innovative. So for us, we’ve really gotten back to basics, and really just enforce that we make incredible product, right? Whether it’s new, whether it’s an extension of something else that was working, or whether it’s just a better version of something that already exists, right?

Aalap Shah  28:56 

I really love that ethos. And it reminds me of something else, too. I mean, you’re, you’re one of the most foremost and fearless leaders. And I think it’s just incredibly inspiring to see how much you’ve infused kind of equality and diversity. And then just this out-of-the-box thinking and when you’re talking about the culture for like new products and new product development, how have you created that culture within your organization, because that requires a lot of openness. Like, I’m imagining that you have plenty of access to, you know, any sort of industry folks that you want to, but the way that you’re running your business and the way that you think about new products is inherently different than 99.9% of companies out there, like how have you created and sustained that culture within your organization?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  29:40 

I think when you’re able to have a uniform definition of success of why you’re around, right, our mission is to make people feel good about feel great about the food they crave, right? If the products we make are doing that, then we’ve done our job if you get fixated on the grass is always greener or” Keeping up with the Joneses,” which is really easy to do in this industry, right? Especially if you’re entering into much larger categories than ours, like beverage, for example, or snacks, it’s so easy to try to benchmark yourself against somebody else. But we’re kind of lucky because we don’t, we don’t get that luxury. There’s no one that’s done what we’ve done naturally, or as an emerging brand to the same success that maybe an Annie’s Organic has, or Vitamin Water. So because we don’t have this, like, you know, neighbor with the big house and the green grass, we all tend to just focus on what we do best and how we all succeed, and what what makes our products great. And that, to me creates a uniform transmission of like, accepting that this word innovation that’s been abused by big CPG. By the industry itself. That’s not the focus, the focus is does food taste great? Would you eat it? Would you give it to your kids? Right? And if it landed on a shelf? Do you think that people would be excited to try it? Right?

Aalap Shah  30:59  

And I love that. That’s it? I love it, because it’s just a great. No, I think it’s incredible, because it’s a great recipe for success. And I know there’s a pun in there. But really, if you follow those four or five principles, you have, you have your your recipe, right, and you can see the success. I was curious about this, like, have you seen your status from kind of like being an emerging brand, and like this really, you know, this incredible, emerging brand to now seeing and seeing that success in store change anything for you, in terms of conversations around capital, or talent or recruitment? You know, I can imagine when you’re like a startup, right, and you are blazing trails, are you feeling that you’re getting treated any differently nine years later, in terms of your company or your success?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  31:47 

You know, I’d say the biggest thing that shifts is just, you know, with time comes maturity, right? There’s just a different level of business maturity, and risk mitigation that you get, because you’ve been around so long. So there’s less of this, are they going to be around next year, right? Like that scary talk that you get, as a startup, emerging brands starts to fizzle a little bit, eight years on a shelf is no joke. So like, at some point, everyone realizes that you’re here, you’re in here, right? Now, you could be in here for a million dollars, and you could be in here for $100 million. But you’re here, right? I think, you know, what has not changed is that I don’t think my view of us as an emerging brand has changed at all. In fact, more than any more than ever, probably, I feel like we are an emerging brand. Because the ecosystem that we compete in, in frozen food, and that sub-level of frozen breakfast, we haven’t even begun to make a dent, it’s an $8 billion category for us. And that’s a giant marketplace. And it’s highly competitive. People have options, not just in grocery, they, you know, we’re experiencing the best, you know, Renaissance for food ever, you know, I could, you know, order Greek grape leaves made by someone’s grandma online right now, or I could, you know, also get incredible doll from the local Indian giant, I can get whatever I want, and 25 minutes or less. So it’s really put a lot of pressure on the consumer product space, to be competitive, not just in their category, not just in their customer constituency, not just in their locale, but also across industry segments, and anywhere that food is consumed. And then you just brought up DTC is an entirely different marketplace on top. So you think about that, you know, we’re, we as emerging brands, doesn’t matter if you’re a $5,000 emerging brand, or you’re a $5 million emerging brand, or a $50 million brand, we’re still nowhere near the size that our competitive landscape is, unless we’re going to be emerging brands for a long time. I was I was talking to Humby at Chobani a few months ago, and and even even how they run themselves, even though they’re a multibillion-dollar brand, they still feel like an emerging brand, because they’re still fighting this fight. Right? The same fight, we are just on obviously, they voted, they garnered the ability to gain much stronger foothold and market share in their category than we have, but still not given to them. Right. And their mission is still the same. And so that’s where it’s like, I still think that we’re gonna be we’re gonna be an emerging here for a very long time. And I’m fine, I’d actually prefer that. It’s, you know, I think we have a lot of a lot to grow into still and that that’s the opportunity, right, that the sell, that’s the that’s the fire that makes this exciting.

Aalap Shah  34:41 

I couldn’t agree more. I love hearing that perspective. And I 100% agree, and it ties back to something else you said too, right? Is that where you are today, people just think you’re done or you’re you’re you’ve made it overnight, but there’s still so much more room to grow and, and and get to your potential. And that that leads me to kind of thinking about culture, talk to me about how you built your culture inside from a talent or a leadership perspective and how that fuels that fire.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  35:08  

Yeah, I think that’s one of the hardest jobs any entrepreneur has, right? Because you hear a lot about it, especially when you’re starting up. And you’re like, man, what’s our company culture? And you’re like, also, man, I can only afford one employee. So can you really have a company culture? Yes, but it really doesn’t get to fine until you have a team. And once you start to cultivate a team, there’s principles that matter, that transcends anyone, and you can all if you can check those boxes, when you introduce new team members, and you know that you have just at least a high-level culture. But then, as your team grows, and as they have more influence over the business over the company over the day-to-day, their little attributes come into play. And they all add up to a much bigger conglomerate of what the company culture is. And I think, you know, founders have a huge role to play in that. But the best founders that I’ve had the pleasure about being around really enable their teams to contribute to that culture, too. And so it’s taken us a very long time. And when we started as a restaurant, with restaurant culture, right, which I think is actually permeated into the consumer spaces as we’ve grown to, so I’m actually really happy about that. But then there’s just the general premise of like, you get what you put out to the universe. So as I was looking for partners and team members to join the company, I really was looking out for people that I think could be a part of the community that I want it to belong to, right, you get the opportunity to build a company, you want your own job, your own destiny, why would you flood it with people that you would never want to share a meal with? You know, or, or go through tough times with? So you know, really, I’ve been really lucky because I think with that lens of who would I share a meal with? Happily? Who would I love to laugh with? And who would I be willing to trust to get through the worst of times, I think, you know, we’ve been really successful on being able to build a culture around that type of trust factor, right? That type of tenacity, that type of like, lean on me culture. And I think that’s been the secret to our success. And I also think, too, and you know, that’s just from all the work in diversity, equity inclusion that we’ve contributed to you. And I, I think the other part of that is realizing who innately has that in them. And I cannot deny that women and diverse people have a bigger propensity to participate in those types of communities than let’s just say, you know, a heteronormative, white male, right? There’s just a lot more tenaciousness, and there’s a lot more willingness to prove yourself, and a lot more willingness to get uncomfortable. Because in essence, if you spent your whole life on comfortable, there’s no difference. Right? Agree.

Aalap Shah  37:58 

On the No, and I think that really brings me to like Project Potluck, right? Like, I’ve been fortunate to be part of that community, and see it firsthand at this past Expo West. And I really agree with you to on on all of those points that that not only is their parent, like our own pressure that we put on ourselves as being a minority. It’s the pressure that our families and our parents put on us. It’s the pressures that society put us put on us. And then it’s like everything else, right? Like, one of my questions for you really is, is like, how do you? How would you advise a first-gen founder to navigate these kinds of waters? Because it’s hard to step into your own greatness sometimes when you have all these external forces pressuring you, and of course, the internal pressure to be successful?

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  38:39 

I think it all goes back to betting on yourself again, right? I think, I think you could sit there and wallow and all of the societal cultural, even even oppressive pressures, right? You sit there and wallow in it, or you can do something about it. And to me, the biggest proof point and dispelling all of those fears and hesitations and they’re half the reason why our parents say these things are why people of color are put under the microcosm of pressure. It’s just because everyone’s waiting for you to be Jesus. Right? Everybody’s waiting for you to be the next, you know, person that’s going to bust out right, like, everybody wants Tiger Woods in every culture, right? With the female tiger woods. They want the Asian Tiger Woods, they want the Black Tiger Woods, right. Everybody wants the best MJ to happen in their culture. So you also feel that pressure, but I think it should be a motivator. Right and like, I think it should be motivating to think you could be the first to do it. Right? You could be the first to make your aunties doll recipe the bomb you could be the first to create a shake-and-bake recipe for your grandma’s fried chicken. You could be the first to do that. And all at the same time. You could be the first to show a young POC person of their of your same culture, your same background that you did it and I think that to me is always in my personal Northstar. I, I tell the story a lot but when I was really little I because I grew up pretty poor, my only my only vision despite what my immigrant parents always said, Right? They’re like, you could be a lawyer, you could be a doctor, you need to be right. I feel the only doctor got the pleasure of being around was my pediatrician who I hated, right, because I was giving you shots. And he was an old Korean man. He was like a seven-year-old Korean dude. And it’s not like he wasn’t the warmest and friendliest person, he barely spoke English, I had no idea how I could ask him how he became a doctor. So like, my whole world was like, Well, what are women allowed to do? And what are women of color allowed to do? I’ve never seen women of color in any job outside of a nurse, or teacher. So I asked myself and I asked the universe, can someone just show me a CEO, a woman CEO, and I literally sadly, right in my mind, the only image I had was a white blond woman in a red power suit. Like that was my vision of what a female CEO was at the time. How sad that I didn’t envision someone who looked like me 40 years from now, like that was just weird, right? But that’s where I was like, right? I go back to that all the time. And I’m like, I want to be I want to be that. So that one day, some little girl who looks like me doesn’t have to imagine, you know, a blonde woman in a power suit, or dude, an Asian dude, right in one of these power suit plays, that they can actually envision themselves in that role. And that’s everything I do every day is to make sure that I’m as successful as I want to, I wanted to look when I was a kid, right? I wanted to be that person that I dreamt up. And I still do. So you know, I think if you frame it selfishly, which I also think is something that people of color, and immigrants need to do better at, right, they need to learn how to be more selfish about their dreams, because we’re always martyrs, for our family, for our for our culture, for, you know, heritage, you know, you have to be a little bit selfish to make it there. You have to, you got to put some things aside to prove that success so that you can go back and say, That’s why I took that risk, and prove them wrong.

Aalap Shah  42:13  

I agree. And I and I love how you you trailblazed that path, I share your story with my daughters. And today, 40 years later, right, we have the opportunity to see people be successful, and change roles and an access to resources, information that our parents just never had. Right? Like, if you watched the movie Elemental, but I really resonated with that movie. And if you haven’t seen it, I’d recommend it. But it’s just such a great story of like, people coming over being first gen starting over or starting a business expecting their kids to follow the same path. And I took my kids to watch it. And it was just so awesome to see how they were connecting the dots, right? And how their world today is. I’m not saying it’s perfect, and nothing is different. But because of things like Project Potluck, because of mentors and advisors and inspiring entrepreneurs like you, right? Like there’s, there’s hope, and for this generation is how do we get these stories in front of them consistently, that the universe is not just being x, y or z, but it can be anything and you can be who you want to be right? Like I also have so much pressure to be a very certain way. And

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  43:23  

I think that’s just because you know, our parents, doesn’t matter if you’re a person of color, if you’re emigrants. There’s a unifying force, and that generational wealth and success for our people came at a much later time in history than for our allied friends. Right? So they’re the the problem is our parents generation and their parents generation, we’re not allowed to dream as big as we can. And so that’s why they said, You should be a doctor and a lawyer. That’s all they knew, right? That’s why that you should go get college and don’t work as hard as me don’t open a store. Like I’ll never forget my parents. When I told them I was opening a restaurant, they like were so pissed, right? They were so mouth agape. In fact, even on my dad’s deathbed, he still asked me if I kept my day job like, like, it’s just so foreign to them, because in their minds, the way they had to do it back then it was so hard to make a profit, right? It was so hard to even open a store. So they’re just going back to that trauma, right? Like of all the hardship it takes to start a business. We are so blessed today, in this society in this country, to be able to come from nothing and become somebody doesn’t matter what and how you have the ability to impact and do that. It was just not something they had access to. So in many ways, like free for you and your daughter just awesome. Because in many ways, it’s second generation of wealth you’re able to spread, whether it’s information or just opportunistic wealth, right? Those girls have the ability to become whoever they want to be. And there’s no one holds barred? Because you don’t have to say, Well, I only think that young girls can be this right? Because you, you’ve seen it right? You’ve had the blessing to work around the Obama administration and see all these amazing humans of diverse backgrounds become successful and share those stories. My parents didn’t have that. Right. Our parents didn’t have that. So I think the narrative is just realizing that in this time, we have time, and we have the opportunity. So it’s time for us to seize the day.

Aalap Shah  45:28  

It’s so inspiring, you have such a good memory, by the way. But yes, I agree with all of those things like and I think about every single day with my kids and showing them those examples and, and even other entrepreneurs, right, like we’re part of this community together, using our collective power and spreading information and resources and just being around for a call. I go such a long way. And I think about all the people that have helped me and you or you and I in our journey. And then it’s been incredible to have that as we build our companies. What an inspiring conversation as always, I was so looking forward to this chat, and I appreciate you coming onto the show to talk to us.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga  46:08

No. Thank you for having me. It was an absolute privilege just to kind of talk openly and share these lived experiences together. So thank you.

Outro  46:15

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