America’s restaurant and food service industry had been facing obstacles long before the COVID-19 pandemic put an even heavier strain on it. A 2018 article from Restaurant Business noted that the country's restaurant industry was “saturated with chain brands and franchises,” and since the pandemic, restaurants have been reeling more than ever. Despite this, many African themed restaurants, caterers, and the like have managed to persevere in the midst of the pandemic, powered, in part, by social and racial movements that have cast a spotlight on Black-owned businesses.
For several of the past few years, African food and flavors had been predicted to be the next big food trend. In both 2017 and 2018 it was African spices like berbere and harissa that Food and Drink Resources stated it would be looking forward to seeing more of and in 2019, Whole Foods Market named West African food one of its top ten food trends for 2020. Though the global pandemic has made the restaurant dining experience something like an obstacle course, these African businesses are finding ways to master the new normal.
Society was forced to quickly pirouette from a “living to eat” frame of mind to an “eating to live” one. The year 2020 couldn’t have been worse for those aiming to open a business in the food industry, however, AYO Foods is finding success among the chaos. The brand, which debuted in June 2020, has landed its West African frozen food products like egusi melon soup and cassava leaf stew in select Whole Foods Markets and in an unplanned way, came along at the right time—when people are stuck at home and experimenting with grocery store finds. While AYO Foods founders Perteet and Fred Spencer had to forego in-store demonstrations and sampling thanks to Covid-19, business has been steady in the face of uncertainty.
“I would’ve certainly preferred not to launch a business during a pandemic because our plans leaned heavily on demoing with consumers,” said Perteet Spencer in an interview. “We knew that this is such a new platform and we wanted people to get excited about it in stores, but with Covid happening, those plans have been put on hold for now.” In that way, I would say things were unfortunate but I feel incredibly grateful that as a new business, we are able to get the momentum that we have been getting.”
Even Yolélé Foods, a brand selling West African fonio grain and created by Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam (co-founded with food industry expert Philip Teverow, has seen a resurgence in press coverage over the past few months. Notably, Yolélé’s recently launched pre-seasoned packed pilafs has been dubbed a “pandemic pantry all-star” by Epicurious. “Africa’s vibrant flavors, ingredients, and food ways deserve a spotlight and a place on tables around the world,” says the company’s website. And despite the state of the world, now is as good a time as ever to bring that vision to fruition.
“We see the pandemic as a unique opportunity to accelerate our vision,” says Co-Founder Pierre Thiam. “Our goal is to become the African pantry. We are about to launch an all-purpose fonio flour as well as a line of spices and blends. We are also planning to enter the snacks category during the first quarter of 2021, with our flavored fonio chips.”
Meanwhile, Ghanaian-fusion spice brand Essie Spice—typically sold exclusively in select Whole Foods and on the company’s website—secured a partnership with Amazon Prime back in May, surely helping the acclaimed brand make its way to even more kitchens at the height of the pandemic. Similar to Yolélé Foods, Essie Spice, with its vibrant packaging and bold flavors, are encouraging more people to experiment with African flavors at a time when many days are mundane and routine for those of us confined to our homes.
In August, the New York Times reported that at least 1,000 of New York City’s eating and drinking establishments were forced to permanently close, due to the financial burden caused by the pandemic. Despite this, Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurant, Voila Afrique pushed forward with its plans to debut in Midtown Manhattan during the summer. The restaurant was forced to briefly shutter just after its opening due to Covid-19, however, it has reopened and managed to garner a stellar review from Eater NY, who described the restaurant as “rather lavish” for a counter-service establishment and notes that it brings a “deeper taste of the cooking of these African countries.” And while the new business has already had to grapple with a reduction in work staff due to the pandemic, it has also adapted new meal options with more affordable price tags, in an attempt to mitigate blows from the country’s struggling economy.
Fine dining restaurants have faced the unique challenge of envisioning high-end menu items into take-out and budget-friendly alternatives. For instance, Texas-based restaurant brand Peli Peli South African Kitchen easily maintained sales goals thanks to indoor dining and large party catering events, before Covid hit. Since then, it has had to shift gears and fully revamp its brand while also overhauling its menu. “Our existing menu did not translate to a high quality product for delivery,” said President and Culinary Director, Ryan Stewart. “This led me to create a low-margin, high volume $10 box meal package that would be available through our online ordering and curbside pickup. Our new menu has a new line of lower priced items along with reinventing Peli Peli favorites to bring down our menu pricing.” Additionally, Peli Peli partnered with 11 Kroger supermarkets for a two-month period where their boxed meal packages were sold, thus giving the company exposure to customers who normally may not have eaten at the restaurant. Peli Peli is now exploring a frozen foods line that may debut in the near future.
Similarly, Oakland’s sole Senegalese restaurant, Bissap Baobab has also adjusted from relying on large catering and entertainment events to things that include partnering with non-profit organizations like SF New Deal who partners with local restaurants to create meals for neighbors in need while providing income for employees and World Central Kitchen who shares a similar mission. Additionally, the restaurant has scaled down its menu and put more emphasis on items that are window-sale friendly, like the Afro Wrap which is a West African take on the burrito.
Owner and Senegal-native Marco Senghor has been in the restaurant industry for nearly 25 years and is no stranger to adverse times. In 2019, he was forced to sell his original San Francisco restaurant and dance club after purchasing the building just a year earlier, in an effort to pay off mounting legal fees from an immigration lawsuit. Luckily, he was able to rebound with a new restaurant, now called Little Bissap, and he still maintains his Oakland location.
“In some miraculous way, things are turning around for me,” says Senghor. “I lost everything I built in 30 years and then with the pandemic, I felt like I lost what I had rebuilt. But working with local nonprofits puts us in contact with people who realize you are cooking with a sense of awareness and I love the connection it has created among myself and my community.” While Bissap Baobab isn’t currently the destination restaurant for tourists or home to massive dance parties where hundreds of people flocked to on any given night, Senghor is grateful to still be standing. “I don’t know if things will go back to how they were before but I just have to work smarter and think about what the future holds. Right now, I’m not here to make profit but just to survive.”
NYC-based African caterer, Dining with Grace, was just beginning to see her catering business boom. “My business had been steadily growing and getting better and better,” she states. An increasing cultural shift fostered deeper appreciation for African food and as a result, Chef Grace was in demand for corporate events and large-scale private parties. Nowadays, she finds herself using the downtime to organize and structure her brand away from standard catering to other means like meal prep, including expanded options for health-conscious clients, private chef services, and wholesale distribution. But the pivot doesn’t mean Chef Grace has lost faith in the catering industry altogether. “I’m still very hopeful about the catering industry but right now we’re just focusing on other ways we can serve,” she says.
Undoubtedly, there are a plethora of African food entrepreneurs that are finding innovative and exciting ways to incite interest in African cuisine, despite a global pandemic that cautions us to play it safe, in many regards. There’s no telling what the future holds, but it does seem like the future for the expansion of African cuisine in the United States remains bright. The ventures that survive will have proven that they have what it takes to thrive in the most difficult of circumstances and 54 Flavors is optimistic that the brands mentioned here and many more will continue to prosper.