If the mark of a successful small business is to get a quality product noticed as quicky as possible, grow fast and diversify, then Illinois-based Iya Foods has done everything right.
Building the Iya Foods brand name
What began as a startup in 2015, with a small team selling Nigerian-influenced sauces and spices, Iya Foods Founder & CEO Toyin Kolawole quickly saw the potential in selling their products online in the Amazon store.
Since then, Iya Foods has grown fast. The brand is catching on among consumers and it has diversified into a full line of gluten-free foods including sauces, baking mixes and baked goods, all inspired by Kolawole’s African roots.
“We have a full-solution, gluten-free bakery manufacturing plant that can do cookies, crackers, bars, soft cookies, hard cookies, just name it,” says Kolawole, a Nigerian-American who moved to the United States 20 years ago. “We have our own brand as well, but a big part of our business is private label and co-manufacturing for other businesses.”
Iya, pronounced “eeya”, comes from the Yoruba language meaning “Loving Mother.” Kolawole was inspired to start her growing business by her mother and many other women in her life, who ran successful businesses to support their families and communities in Nigeria.
Her business took off during the COVID-19 pandemic when people were cooking more at home. And when the demand for gluten-free products continued to grow, Kolawole recognized that gluten-free was here to stay. She further developed and expanded her product line and launched a factory that uses cassava, corn, and tapioca in baking mixes and baked products.
Kolawole attributes much of that growth to achieving brand exposure among U.S. consumers and to finding a following through online sales.
“My first thought was we needed to get in stores,” said Kolawole. “Amazon provided us with the most cost-effective, fastest way to get on ‘virtual’ shelves.”
Building the Iya Foods brand in the Amazon store allowed customers who were already looking for new gluten-free goods to discover their products. It also provided an easy way for new customers to explore their best sellers and read what other people were saying about the brand through customer reviews.
Keeping up with customer’s demands with Fulfillment by Amazon
Once Iya Foods achieved exposure, the next step was manufacturing its own products, using innovative, scalable, gluten-free ingredients such as cassava flour. Nigeria is the largest grower of cassava flour in the world, so Kolawole was well versed in its value as an ingredient.
“Cassava has become a key ingredient in the gluten-free industry but is not grown in the U.S., so we decided to create an Africa-US supply chain for cassava ,” she says. The cassava is sourced from over 10,000 community-based small farms in Nigeria, and is turned into gluten-free foods at her new 37,000-square foot facility in Illinois.
When she started Iya Foods, Kolawole’s intention was to introduce West African flavors and ingredients to American palates by incorporating them into everyday American foods. Sweet corn and coconut cornbread mix continues to be one of Iya Foods’ bestselling products and demand for these products were part of the reason Kolawole knew Fulfillment by Amazon was the right next step.
“Keeping my team really small and bootstrapping is something a lot of entrepreneurs identify with,” Kolawole says. “And now that we live in a world where customers want their items the next day, or in two days, I realized very quickly that my business couldn’t compete just doing it on our own. We didn’t have the staff.”
“So, we take advantage of Fulfillment by Amazon, where we pack our products, send it to Amazon, and customers are able to get it really, really fast, much faster than we could do on our own as a small business,” she said.
The magic behind Iya Foods’ high-quality products
Of course, gaining exposure, getting on shelves, streamlining distribution, and ramping up manufacturing doesn’t mean anything if the products aren’t top quality. This is something Kolawole takes pride in. She calls it “building quality in the R&D kitchen.’” She has a small research and development team and a lot of their learnings come from product taste testing and seeing what people like and dislike.
“There are three things we focus on when we’re doing R&D. Number one is quality. Number two is innovation. Number three is affordability,” she said. “What we do is we just create magic, specifically with cassava, potato, rice flour. And we create alternative, really delicious, really affordable, gluten-free products using these ingredients.”
When it comes to quality, Iya Foods’ relies heavily on the many free tools Amazon provides to sellers. This gives her an advantage, especially in the competitive food marketplace.
“I can look at the Amazon reviews, and I can look at competitor reviews. I can see what customers don’t like, I can see what they like,” she said. “And then I [add my products to Amazon’s store] at a slightly lower cost, and we’re able to grow market share really fast. And that’s something that has been instrumental.”
In terms of revenue, Iya Foods has grown from zero when it started in 2015 to now a multi-million-dollar Illinois business with newly expanded gluten-free manufacturing. What’s next for Iya Foods? Kolawole’s goal is to hit $100 million in five years, but she says the financial aspect is just one goal. Her focus is to continue to innovate around “good food made with good ingredients.”