Mason Dixie Foods

Ayeshah Abuelhiga

“I grew up in what is now known as Charles Village in Baltimore City. My dad, who passed away a couple of years ago, is Palestinian Israeli and my mom is Korean.

They both immigrated to the United States and they fell in love. It was a big deal because they are from very different cultures, but the city is funny that way, you run into all sorts of people, and they found love here.

Neither of them had a college education so they had to figure out what they could do to make a living.

My mom's father was a real estate entrepreneur in Korea. When he came to the U.S., he connected with a network of Korean entrepreneurs to open a business. He used to own a corner store and a dry-cleaning business, and my mom helped at both stores.

My parents decided to open a business too. They owned a corner store and carryout business in Baltimore where they sold everything from gumballs to chitlins.

Due to demand, my mom became a master fryer. Even though she's Korean, she could throw down on some soul food, so I grew up eating soul food, which is comfort food.

I learned that everyone loves comfort food because I’d see people from all walks of life come into my parents’ store for it.

Like many immigrant families, my parents worked with other family members to pool their money to start the business. There were some issues with that arrangement, which caused them to lose the business. As a result, we had to move into section eight (government subsidized) housing in the county.

My parents often emphasized the importance of me going to school, so I always thought I’d get a college education and become a CEO of some other person's company. I never thought it would be my own.

I went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and earned a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs and Geography. I then worked in the tech and automotive industry for fifteen years before I left because I was hitting a glass floor, not a ceiling, because for women and people of color, there is no such thing as a ceiling when no one lets you reach that high.

I was tired, disheartened by my experience in the corporate world and wanted to be my own boss.

I looked to food as an opportunity for business because of my parent’s carry out store. When I was in college, I remember there was nowhere to go for good, homestyle comfort food in D.C., so I decided to change that.

I started Mason Dixie Foods in 2014 as a Southern restaurant concept. I centered it around biscuits because, at the time, I was going up against fast casual food restaurants like Five Guys, Sweet Green and Cava, but I knew there wasn't anything in the fried chicken, Southern Comfort food space.

I started ordering all the biscuits I could find from food distributors and everything was made out of processed ingredients, so I had to start from scratch on a formula and came up with the biscuit we have today, which has only seven, all-natural ingredients and it was a hit.

I went on Kickstarter for funding and quickly gained 350 backers who loved the concept because they all had a story and emotional tie to the food.

Now that I had funding, I used it to do a pop-up shop in D.C. We set up in the back of a gelato factory and had lines wrapped around four city blocks and ran out of food twice.

We doubled up on food and did another pop-up the next day, and we still ran out of food. People were talking about it, which got us into The Washington Post and then a small eight by ten stall at Union Market, a food hall in D.C.

We had so many people come to the stall every weekend that we'd sell out by 11:00a.m. We had some regulars come through one Sunday, who asked if we could sell them the dough to bake the biscuits at home.

We thought that was a great idea, so we tested it out and then started vacuum sealing, freezing and selling the dough out of a cooler.

One day we were secretly shopped by Whole Foods and they wanted the biscuits in their stores. So, not even a year after starting the business, we launched our first products in Whole Foods and we outsold butter and milk that day.

We opened a restaurant in D.C. that did very well until the financial impact of the pandemic forced us to close the restaurant, which was tough.

My business partner and I decided to focus our efforts on the frozen food business, which was expanding faster than we could keep up with.

We needed a home for the business and though the D.C. market worked for our restaurant, we discovered it wouldn’t work for our frozen food business.

My business partner said, “What about Baltimore?” I already had it in mind but didn’t want to say it because he lives in D.C., but I knew it made sense.

The people are real in Baltimore. Many started from nothing and worked hard to create something. It's a very proud city, where people really get behind a brand. I mean, look at what's happened for Natty Boh Beer and Under Armour.

We’ve gotten so much support since we developed our headquarters in Baltimore. Baltimore Magazine did a story on us last winter, and my high school highlighted me and the business. It feels so good to know I’m making my city proud.

Baltimore is a great place to have a business because real estate is affordable and steady. If you're a small business and you're looking to grow, you need a stable environment where you know what your rent is going to be and what the labor market looks like.

There are also tons of hungry people in Baltimore who want to work. They show up and they work hard.

It’s important to uplift the voices of underrepresented people in the business community here because I'm a walking advertisement for what that can yield.

Without access, you don't get knowledge and without knowledge, you cannot succeed.  People need to see representations of themselves in business roles to believe they can fill them too.

You’ve got to see somebody else who grew up poor come up, and we have to do a better job of talking about it and highlighting these stories.

As more people get access and knowledge, my hope is that Baltimore’s economy becomes more diverse than just real estate investments around the water.

My hope is that we really start to elevate a diverse business community. I think we have it but there’s just not enough visibility being brought towards it to make it attractive and harness its power.”

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