What inspired you to launch Egunsi?
As a young adult, I spent hours in the kitchen helping my mother prepare meals for our family, but I had never really done any cooking on my own. It wasn’t until I went away to college at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and began meeting new people that I realized how much of my culture I was able to share through food. I started hosting dinner parties in my dorm, where, with my mom’s coaching, I was able to prepare and share authentic West African recipes with my friends.
When I moved to New York City to start my career, I returned to hosting supper clubs as a way to meet people and share my passion for cooking and my culture. Over time, the parties led to requests for batches of soup and invitations to cater events, and while I had never cooked for more than a handful of people, I jumped at the chance to share my passion. This led me to launch Egunsi Foods’ personal chef and catering services, which enabled me to test recipes and gauge the public’s interest in West African food.
After years of market testing and product development, Egunsi Foods launched its first packaged soups in 2017.
Your early career was spent in fashion merchandising and forecasting. How did you then transition to food entrepreneurship?
It wasn’t until my last week of college that I was introduced to the idea that I didn’t have to spend my entire career doing the same thing. One of my professors brought in a guest speaker who talked about taking multiple paths and setting a career timeline. I’ve never forgotten what she said, and it definitely helped me feel confident in my decision to launch Egunsi.
From a practical sense, fashion merchandising helped to prepare me for many things, including working within a budget and forecasting market trends, which have been really useful in my work with Egunsi.
How did the Cornell Food Venture Center (CFVC) help with your journey to entrepreneurship?
I was 30 days away from launching my first product at Whole Foods’ Harlem location when I realized that I had been so focused on creating an all-natural product, that I hadn’t yet considered how my formulation would impact the products’ shelf life. I learned about the CFVC and started working with Bruno Xavier, senior extension associate in the Department of Food Science.
The first tests showed that our products only had a shelf life of about five days. With Bruno’s help, I was able to increase our shelf life while maintaining my commitment to an all-natural, preservative-free product. Now, our soups and sauces can last for at least 100 days in the refrigerator. This assistance helped build a foundation for my company’s success in the marketplace, and it gave me a sense of security, knowing that the CFVC is a resource I can turn to for troubleshooting.
I’m really proud of how well Egunsi products have performed, and I’m ready to keep growing my business. Having also been recently been introduced to the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech, I am looking forward to seeing how we can collaborate in the future. Having access to their expertise will be a huge help in making strategic decisions.
What are Egunsi’s core values?
Egunsi is committed to authenticity and to the people who help make our business possible. My philosophy is that as Egunsi Foods grows, so do the small farmers and suppliers we source from. I work with local farmers in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts to source local produce, but this is also particularly important for our small partners in West Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. They provide our raw materials grown in West Africa and often don't have the ability to export their raw materials otherwise.
Egunsi creates opportunities for these producers to not only export their goods and provide for their families, but as demands for Egunsi products grow, we can help them build wealth for generations to come. Success for one means success for all.
What advice would you give to aspiring food entrepreneurs?
While it can be a difficult industry to break into, because of the amount of capital needed to scale up, navigate regulations and gain market exposure, don’t be afraid to follow your dreams. Find your niche. Is there demand? And if not, are you able to generate enough demand to succeed?
Food entrepreneurs need to be forward-thinking visionaries, so it is important to do your research, test the market and build the brand you want to see. There are so many wonderful places to turn for help, including the CFVC, where people are excited by new products and have the expertise and resources to point you in the right direction.
Egunsi products are available online at www.egunsifoods.com, Amazon, Fresh Direct and Fresh Direct Express, LocalRoots, 6AM Health, Shopmove and Our Harvest. You can also find them in stores at Whole Foods in Harlem, and at Park Slope Food Coop and Buy Better Foods in Brooklyn.
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