For this Sit Down post, I had the pleasure of speaking with Maynard Okereke, from Chicken Salt. I have been lucky enough to meet Maynard, one of the founders, and try Chicken Salt a few times. It is GREAT! I was very excited to have the opportunity to pick Maynard’s brain and learn more about how he got started with the food industry!

To learn more about Chicken Salt and their variety of flavored all vegan spices, you can go to their page by clicking the picture above!

Did you have a “Eureka” moment or a life-changing epiphany that lead you to where you are now? What were you doing before Jada Spice/Chicken Salt?

Absolutely! I feel ideas lend themselves well to paradigm shifts. For me, it was about my transition into Veganism. Being a completely new space, I faced a couple of challenges and had to rethink my approach to everyday meals. Growing up in Australia, Chicken Salt was my solution to bland taste, but I was now unable to rely on this Australian best seller (Australian Chicken Salt is not Vegan). With my new lifestyle, I knew that Chicken Salt will have to be replaced with not only a Vegan alternative but also a healthier option. After much research, I realized there was a need for healthy, vegan all-purpose seasonings. And at this point, we finally know why the chicken crossed the road!

What advice would you give to someone going into the food and beverage industry for the first time?
Be patient….and just when you feel you’ve waited and exerted stamina long enough… patient even more.  It’s a very tough industry, with not a lot of immediate advancements.  The competition is incredible and you’re competing with mega brands worth billions that have strong foot holds in the market.  It takes time to make your brand recognizable and to set yourself apart from all the other food/beverage companies.  Take your time and figure out a process that’s going to make you distinct.  Not only must you know your market, but you must also know your product. Keep in mind that the food/ beverage industries change and grow, so your product must be able to adapt. This doesn’t mean completely abandoning your product, but if well-established companies changed one small word on a can of peas that has been the same for 30 years, ask yourself why. Just understand it is a journey; your product may be successful for the next 10 years but lose momentum on the 11th. Do your best to understand that your goals are to make a successful product and maintain it.

Which is most important to your organization—mission, core values or vision?

We believe vision encompasses both mission and core values.  Without a strong vision, you have nothing to set a mission for; and without a vision, how can you develop core values for your organization?  We think the first step is having that foresight to see what’s possible, what’s needed, and what opportunities are out there, and then it’s easy to set your baselines and criteria for how you want to approach it.

What inspires you and your team to keep coming back for more?
Last year, we attended our first Vegan festival in Chicago – the Chicago Vegan Mania Festival.  Our goal from day one has been to make a positive impact on the growing Vegan movement, so we figured what better way than to connect with our target market directly.  The response we received at this festival was AMAZING and surpassed any of our expectations! We realized there was a definite void for good, healthy seasonings in the Vegan community, and seeing the excitement and joy in people’s faces after tasting our product was incredibly motivating.  It’s such a positive and growing community and everyone we cross paths with has been encouraging and supportive of our mission.  We now attend at least one new Vegan festival every month and having people recognize our brand or get excited when they see us has definitely inspired us to keep moving.  We also can’t forget about the recipes! Our fans have shared absolutely delicious and creative meals prepped with all of our flavors. We believe that “nothing tastes better than healthy,” and we are trying our best to inspire others to also believe in this wonderful idea. 

Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you in the food world? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

Mentors are absolutely invaluable! Nothing beats experience, which is something that can’t be bought or calculated. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have Matt Gee on our team. He’s been with us from the moment we were creating drafts for our first product label! I can confidently say that he’s offered invaluable feedback in almost every stage of our company. From label design to key contacts, he’s always available to answer any question. When we were looking to partner with another company about a year ago, he was someone who really gave us an insight as to the changes that inevitably take place in partnerships. Since he knows the dynamics of JADA Spices very well, he was able to thoroughly outline how each role would be impacted. We were clearly able to see if we would’ve been comfortable with the new changes. Matt Gee has proven to have our best interests in mind, and we sincerely are beyond grateful for his guidance.

What’s keeping you up at night about your business these days?

Finding unique ways to grow within our food category tends to be pretty stressful for us.  The spices and seasoning category is heavily dominated by a few major companies and private labeled brands as well.  We’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to get into a few retail chains with more on the horizon, but how do we ensure our product moves off the shelf?  With Chicken Salt not recognized within the U.S. market, how do we build that brand recognition and elevate to the level of the major players in the industry?

The food industry moves at an incredibly, incredibly slower pace than other industries (cosmetics or health for example).  Reaching out to buyers and distributors is a very tedious process.  We have to make so many cold calls and try to get through so much yellow tape just to be reasonably considered; and once under consideration, it may be another year before you can even be reviewed.  The overall process seems to be pretty archaic, inconsistent, and perhaps a little hard to understand. We sometimes wish we could just get one face-to-face meeting because we know any questions or concerns can easily be answered and a decision made, saving everyone valuable time.

What’s an amazing resource for food makers you’ve found and love recently (printer, label supplier, type of ingredient, type of equipment, food blog, industry group, etc.?)

Influencers play a major role. The great disadvantage of food products is that people need to know how they taste. If they cannot taste it in person, it is very difficult to sell. You can sell the healthiest food alternative, and consumers will still be hesitant to buy. On the other hand, the great advantage of food products is that a sincere recommendation goes a long way because people tend to be extra critical of consumable goods. Imagine if an influencer who promotes an active lifestyle and healthy eating promotes a particular product; his/her followers will now see this particular product or brand as much more credible.  For the technical tasks, is a simple and amazing tool, especially for small, growing startup companies.  There are so many small tasks and busy work items you have to complete from graphics, logos, presentations, sales sheets, etc. A lot of times it can be costly to have to go through a marketing or design company.  We’ve been able to use Fiverr for a number of small tasks or things that we just want to test out to see if they work.  The rates are fantastic and sometimes you come to the right person that’s able to help set you apart for well under an expected budget.

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