While walking through Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood in 2015, Teverow saw a man cook a whole animal on the sidewalk and had an overarching thought: I need to talk to him.
It was Pierre Thiam, one of the world's leading West African chefs.
“It was a lamb and I was humiliated for assuming it was a little pig,” Teverow told Fortune. (A pig would not have passed muster in Senegal, Thiam's birthplace, a predominantly Muslim country.)
The couple occasionally crossed paths after this first meeting and Teverow had ordered Thiam's first cookbook: “Yolélé! Recipes from the heart of Senegal. “(Yolélé is a Fulani term used throughout West Africa that is said to be shouted for joy. It roughly means," Let the good times roll! ")
A partnership, however, wasn't born until Teverow read an article on Thiam's dream: creating economic opportunity for West African farming communities by sharing their groceries with the world, including the old grain phonio pronounced as "telephone yo".
Two years after their sidewalk meeting in 2015, the two started their company, aptly named Yolélé. "At that point, I had been making a living in the specialty food industry for 16 to 17 years and was looking for a way to make this work more meaningful than making fancy foods for fancy people," says Teverow.
Their signature product – a West African grain called fonio – is now sold in Whole Foods across the country and offered in restaurants across the country. According to Teverow, online sales have increased by around 20% since April compared to the previous month. Your Amazon sales in August are more than six times what they were in all of August 2019.
From May to April, Yolélé's sales rose by over 600%. They received increasing interest, and of the 1,500 stores that will sell Yolélé by 2021, 60% are new partnerships that were formed after May, underscoring a widespread wave of interest in the black-owned grocery store.
Yolélé's characteristic grain, fonio. Courtesy of Yolele
Create a market
As he read about Thiam's ambitions, Teverow knew he could help – because he had done it before. In the 1980s, Teverow was the director of product development at Dean & DeLuca, an upscale grocery store known for its unique imports. The bulk of Teverow's work, he says, was identifying ingredients that are delicious but are not known in the U.S. to be bought in bulk.
"When quinoa hit my desk, I thought: Here's a grain. We sell a lot of grain. Absolutely. Let's do it," recalled Teverow. "I was surprised when it sold very well from the start."
But even he couldn't have predicted that quinoa would have become a virtual staple that can now be found everywhere from LA cereal bowls to Midwestern grocery stores.
The same appeal that quinoa had is present in fonio: it's healthy and novel, and gives foodies the opportunity to be more creative. Teverow said the process of getting it to market isn't that different either. In order to reach consumers, fonio had to be placed not only in ultra-modern stores but also in ultra-modern menus to raise awareness. With that in mind, the food business operator has learned an important lesson from quinoa.
"We sold small amounts of it for years until someone took quinoa and made it into a grain-based food," he said. “Instead of selling grain, they made it into pasta. That was the game changer. "
That's why Teverow and Thiam decided from the start that the strain – from curry to hearty umami flavors – is the route they need to take if Yolélé is to achieve national impact.
Creation of a global supply chain
The duo had their first big break in the fall of 2017. Whole Foods opened its first location in Harlem, and the company wanted to showcase products made by black-owned companies. The company gave Yolélé a chance, and according to Thiam, Whole Foods emerged as the champion in its category.
“They saw this had potential, and they put some other deals in New York City. And we've done great in every new business, ”he says. "Whole Foods noticed what we were doing, our history, and they insisted very early on that we should start nationally."
Thiam has always demonstrated her products in the shops herself. Fonio has a delicate, slightly nutty taste that people find unique, he says. In the summer he prepared a fonio salad with mango and parsley, herbs and lime and combined fresh summer flavors to entice food buyers to try them.
Pierre Thiam (left) and Phil Teverow. Courtesy of Yolele
While buyers were often sold outright, building a sustainable production system for Fonio farmers in West Africa was a daunting challenge. In addition to sharing the ancient grain with the world, the Senegalese Thiam wanted to make sure the products also had an impact on the places they came from. The partners are currently in the process of building a new mill in Thiam's hometown of Dakar, which will anchor their global supply chain.
Fonio grows easily in poor soils, says Thiam, but the challenge is processing: Fonio has inedible skin that needs to be removed. “To give you an example, with around 100 kilos of Fonio, it would take almost two weeks to remove the skin. Fonio is almost the size of a grain of sand, so it's a long process, ”he says. "But with the state-of-the-art mill we're going to build, it'll be three tons of Fonio an hour."
Their goal is to create a distribution network and economic opportunities for farming communities that will hire thousands as the Fonio moves through the processing cycle, says Thiam. The traditional cleaning process requires a lot of water, a limitation in some regions where resources are scarce, but the mill, slated for completion in early 2021, doesn't need one.
“Many of these families will hire local youth in busy parts of the agricultural cycle, which could add tens of thousands of seasonal jobs. Much more jobs will be created in transport and aggregation, ”says Teverow. "There will be industrial and office work at the processing facility and then competitors will replicate our setup, which should further multiply the economic impact."
The quinoa case study also showed that popularity can have downsides too. As awareness of quinoa skyrocketed, so did its price – and concerns that global interest was hurting farmers in Peru, says Andrew Stevens, who holds a PhD in agricultural and resource economics. Consumption has decreased slightly in Peru's Puno region, where most of the country's quinoa is grown. However, according to Stevens, this is due to higher income, which leads to more purchase options. According to Stevens, the unintended consequences of creating a global supply chain are the real concern.
“We can think of high quality coffee and cocoa, things made by small landowners but marketed by large multinationals,” he says. "There is a question of who owns what and who gets the money."
Marc Bellemare and his colleagues Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez and Seth lattice published a paper on the welfare effects of rising quinoa prices and found only minor effects. While quinoa and fonio aren't parallel situations, according to Bellemare, there is one principle to keep in mind: the Cochrane agricultural treadmill. The treadmill is the idea that after the introduction of new technologies, farmers become dependent on any new innovation in order to stay competitive in the market. Bellemare says farmers in Peru saw this for themselves, as quinoa is now grown in Colorado and quinoa prices are falling back to pre-2010 levels as more quinoa flood the market.
"We spoke to some farmers in the highlands of Peru," he says. "They told us things like," I know prices are down again, but I'll just hold on to my grain because prices are going to go up again. "But those old profit levels are gone."
Create a taste
Bellemare says it's hard to determine if Fonio will be the next quinoa – but it really will depend on chefs and foodies adopting it.
“We went to restaurants with a bag of Fonio and asked to speak to the chef. After Whole Foods, restaurants were really our first customers, ”says Teverow.
The partners looked for flavor makers like Filipino chef Woldy Reyes, who runs the Brooklyn catering company Woldy Kusina, and Sabrina De Sousa and Alissa Wagner, who are behind the Dimes restaurant and market in NYC.
"Most people find it illegal to come across an ingredient they've never cooked before, but when a great chef cooks it for them and it gets excited, it gets cool," he says.
Fonio (left) with Maf sauce, grilled lamb chops and asparagus and (right) Fonio muesli with berries. Both recipes are from "The Fonio Cookbook: An Ancient Grain Rediscovered".
Adam Bartos – Lake Isle Press Courtesy of Lake Isle Press
When Thiam reached out to Mawa McQueen, a restaurant owner in Aspen, to add Fonio to her menu, the memories came back. “I'll show my brother. I said, “Oh my god. We used to hate that. "It was like a poor man's meal," says McQueen with a laugh. “But it has so many good things for your health, I said, you know what? I will present this in Aspen. "
It also helped that McQueen was fed up with quinoa. Aspen is the worst place to introduce anything ethnic, she says, but because people knew her, she could take the risk. Everything on her quinoa menu has been replaced with Fonio, which is much easier on the stomach and easier to digest, she says.
In the first week, the guests complained.
"People asked," Can I have quinoa? "I went out and said, 'You eat this," says McQueen with a laugh.
Now nobody asks about quinoa anymore. Some guests even stop by Mawa's kitchen to buy Fonio to cook for themselves. It offers a gluten-free pancake, porridge and a fonio rocket salad. The guests now only complain when the Fonio goes out.
In fact, Thiam is confident that one day Fonio will be just as popular – if not bigger – than quinoa. During Thiam's TED talk, which received over 1 million views, he asked the audience to imagine the African grain, which is just as popular as the European grain we consume today.
“Fonio advertised cereals, bread, nutritional bars, cookies, pasta and snacks – why not? It's easier to say than quinoa. "
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