I run an 8-figure biscuit business that started as a side gig. Here's how I caught the attention of major distributors like Whole Foods and Costco.
- Ayeshah Abuelhiga, 36, started selling biscuits in 2014 as a side hustle while consulting full time.
- A customer asked if she would consider selling frozen dough so they could bake the biscuits at home.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ayeshah Abuelhiga, the 36-year-old founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in a low-income family in Baltimore.
My immigrant parents had a soul-food takeout restaurant. My passion for comfort food came from seeing people from all walks of life enjoying their food.
As a first-generation Asian American, I was the first member of my family to attend college. I worked four restaurant jobs to put myself through George Washington University.
I graduated from college and got jobs at big tech and auto companies
I worked for Audi and the consultancy Leidos after graduating in 2007. I climbed the corporate ladder for seven years and reached upper-level management. Looking around, I realized it would take another 20 years to get the only C-suite role I wanted at the company — CEO. This long ascent no longer felt fulfilling.
My focus shifted to my lifelong dream of opening a soul-food restaurant. My corporate job became a means of supporting this dream, rather than my world.
I wanted to make homestyle biscuits with clean ingredients
Fast food dominated the comfort-food market in 2014. I saw an opportunity to make comfort food with clean and fresh ingredients.
I founded Mason Dixie in 2014 to create this better-for-you comfort food. At first, we just sold biscuits.
I organized a pop-up restaurant in Washington, DC
I used Facebook and Twitter to advertise the event in August 2014, and the story got into The Washington Post's weekend section. A lot of people showed up.
Our pop-up success led to a food stall at a Washington market. Our space was only 80 square feet. We would sell out of biscuits before noon daily because we couldn't prep and transport enough food from our kitchen space.
I was also working for a consulting firm at the time. I would head straight to our commercial kitchen at night to help prep biscuits for the restaurant. I'd also work weekends at the restaurant and run the books late at night. I spent every minute outside my 9-to-5 supporting the business. I even helped package biscuits in a suit and heels.
After a few months of running the pop-up restaurant, customers asked whether I would sell the dough so they could bake it at home instead of waiting in line
I wanted to test their idea. I froze some of the biscuit pucks my pastry chef, whom I hired in early 2014, had made and baked them the next day from frozen. They were great.
I ran to Bed Bath & Beyond, bought a $100 vacuum sealer, and started freezing sheets of biscuits. I was packaging up frozen biscuits until 1 a.m. The day after, I drove a big ice chest filled with frozen biscuits to the stall before work. Two hours later, I got a call from my chef asking whether we had more frozen biscuits at the off-site kitchen because we had sold out. It was 9 a.m.
2 months into selling 'at-home' biscuits, we got secret-shopped by the regional marketing director for Whole Foods
The director's son was a fan and brought her to the stall. She wanted to put the biscuits on display as they were, but I was mortified at how amateurish the product looked. I asked her to give us a few months to work on the packaging.
We launched in November 2015 in Whole Foods. We started with one store in Alexandria, Virginia, and our biscuits outsold butter and milk that day. Within a couple of weeks, Whole Foods was stocking us in 25 stores in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Whole Foods was a good cash cushion as I was trying to open a 2nd site
The goal was to open a second location to sell our biscuits, but Whole Foods showed us the value of selling consumer packaged goods.
I knew I needed more help navigating the CPG side, so I brought on my business partner Ross Perkins, who was working for a Big Five consulting firm.
He suggested securing another retailer besides Whole Foods and began doing cold reach-outs to buyers on LinkedIn. He landed appointments with Kroger and Publix buyers in 2016.
Whenever we traveled to meet buyers, we would have to book Airbnbs because we needed ovens to bake fresh biscuits for each meeting. We knew that fresh, good-smelling food would win over the buyers.
We went from being supplied in 60 stores in the Washington area in 2017 to 1,200 stores by late 2018 after winning over the grocery-store buyers from Kroger and Publix.
Perkins and I were the only salespeople in the company for years, and we found a great comanufacturer at a trade show in 2017 to help us scale our production. I quit my job in 2018 to focus on building the business.
Having a CPG operation meant we could keep making sales even while restaurants were shutting down earlier in the pandemic
We'd been experimenting with physical restaurants, but earlier in the pandemic, the demand for our frozen biscuits increased by 400%.
We decided to close our in-person Washington restaurant in 2020 and focus on our CPG products. That year, we made $4.3 million in biscuit sales.
Leapfrogging off the success of our biscuits, we launched sausage breakfast sandwiches in May 2021.
About that time, we went to a small-business summit to advertise our new product. The summit was like a food-and-beverage speed-dating event for corporate businesses sourcing products. We spoke with a Marriott Hotel representative at the event for 15 minutes and walked away with another meeting. Six months later, we signed a deal with Marriott that put our sandwiches in the breakfast bars of their hotels nationwide.
From 2014 to 2020, we had three employees. In 2020, this number jumped to seven. Now we have 28 employees in-house. We outsource mass production of our frozen-food products to seven facilities.
The company turned over eight figures last year, and Target, Publix, Safeway, and Costco all stock our frozen biscuits. Our goal is to become a billion-dollar brand.
Correction: October 20, 2021 — An earlier version of this story misstated that Mason Dixie's products were stocked by Aldi.
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