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January 8, 2024 19 mins
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(00:02):
iHeartMedia Presents CEOs you should know.I am John Dinkle, former president publisher
of the Baltimore Business Journal and nowfounder and CEO of Dingle Business Development.
This is Iheartradios CEOs you should Know, sponsored by Strategic Factory, and I'm
here today with Asha Abalaisha, founderand CEO of Basedon Dixie Foods. Welcome,
Asha, and thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. So,

(00:24):
I thought it'd be good to getstarted by getting to know you and
the organization a little bit. Sofor those who may not be familiar,
could you tell us some about MasonDixie Foods. Yeah. So, we
are a natural frozen food company andour mission really is to make people feel
good about the food they crave.I started the company actually as a restaurant
concept because I saw an opportunity tobetter what comfort food had become. You

(00:49):
know, it's chemically laid in andmade with replacements and not anything that was
naturally occurring in my pantry or atmy local grocery store. So I wanted
to make sure that people had thebest comfort food that they wanted right.
Things that were made about preservatives andyou know, fake meat and you know
hormone filled food. Yeah, andthat really kind of drove the mission to

(01:11):
making it available nationally. That's great. And your corporate offices are based in
Baltimore, correct, we are.We're proudly based in Baltimore. Writer calls
from Canon Yard. Yeah, allright, And so where's the manufacturing done?
We do all of our manufacturing inthe Midwest. It's just a very
good central point in frozen food todistribute nationally from excellent. And how many

(01:37):
employees do you have now? Wehave about twenty one employees today and we
rely on a pretty large network ofincredible partners and suppliers and vendors that really
help us scale obviously as a fastgrowing business, really hard to keep up
time. What are some of themost kind of popular products that you offer

(01:57):
to consumers through Mason Dixie fo Yeah, we've had our flagship item, our
frozen biscuits and market since twenty fifteen. It become a cult favorite because we're
the only frozen biscuit that uses realbutter and only five limited ingredients. So
that's been a great jettison to ourlast launch in our new product lines into

(02:21):
frozen breakfast sandwiches. So our frozenbiscuit sandwiches, and now our chicken and
waffle sandwich have been taking the countryby store. Yeah, and so I
just have to digress where it's likeit here. So like the biscuits too,
are these your cheddar biscuits? Arethose original? Then the buttermilk biscuits,
Right, We've got buttermilk and cheddarbiscuits and today and all of the

(02:45):
breakfast sandwiches are based on those samesimple principles too. And in fact,
we're the only manufacturer. Now thatsounds scary and crazy, but we're the
only manufacturer that uses egg in oureggs patty, and that's you know,
sad, but most of it's proteinsubstitutes and all kinds of crazy binders just
to make the incredible edible egg.So we do that in all natural sausage.

(03:07):
We work with family owned and operatedfarms and protein providers, so,
you know, really proud to havethis commitment to simplicity and natural foods.
Yeah, and I imagine with that, you know, the natural food aspect,
And that's that's how you're standing outbecause there are a lot of options
out there obviously for consumers to buyprepared foods. That has that been the

(03:30):
main reason that you used to standout what you really kind of promote your
products. Yeah, I think forsome reason, you know, through the
course of history, frozen food becamereally industrialized lateen with you know, chemical
substitutes, et cetera. And thecrazy thing is, right, it was
our grandparents that really started eating frozenfood and they are the biggest consumer of
it and they're eating all this poison. So yeah, you know, we

(03:52):
really wanted to change that. Wewanted to make sure that you know,
our loved ones, whether it's youryou know, grandparents or your kids,
are growing up on the food asyou had made the way that you had
them. Yeah. Yeah, soAusta. So from a marketing standpoint,
what's been your most successful kind oftactic to get the consumer's attention and get
them off of those maybe maybe youknow, kind of bigger name brands.

(04:15):
Taste the best one, right,That's that's the number one. I mean,
if food doesn't taste good, youknow, you won't you won't get
a repeat customer. So we've beenreally lucky. You know, we started
the concept of Mason Dixie as aas a restaurant first, and so taste
culinary has always been at the forefrontand then i'd say, you know,

(04:38):
word of mouth, right, Imean, once folks try it, we've
had incredible loyalty and you know,people spreading the word about our brand over
the course of the year. Soyeah, that's great. That's great.
And with already being in wow,six thousand stores across the country, which
is phenomenal, how are you planningto kind of continue to scale the business
and where do you see the mostwith opportunity. Yeah, we've we've had

(05:01):
incredible growth and not just grow throughretail, but we've also started the jettison
into the club arena. So we'vehad a great partnership with Costco and also
really proud of our food service business. So you can find us in over
three thousand Marriotte hotels nationwide on thecomplementary breakfast car. Yeah oh wow,

(05:21):
okay, awesome. Yeah, soI think you know, for us,
the growth is unlimited. You know, anywhere where you have coffee and breakfast,
we want to be there. Yeah, that's great, and that seems
like a wide open market in asense with coming in with the like a
natural food product like that, becausethat's i mean, that's what everybody really
wants to eat. You know,it's just a matter of what's in front

(05:44):
of them or what's what they canget access to and what they know about,
right, totally. Yeah, sotalk about that pertect. So where
can you get Mason Dixie Foods?Like, what's the ratio of I know
you use an online business. Obviouslyyou have retail sales. Let's talk about
that a little bit. Yeah,I mean most of our business is based
in retail sales. So you canfind us nationally at Whole Foods market sproout,

(06:08):
multiple regions of Costco and as Imentioned, if you're staying and you're
a loyal Bondvoy member, you couldfind us at any select brand hotel.
So looking to continue to grow inthe retail arena, for sure, that's
great. But what about like thecommercial or you know, kind of wholesale
business end. Is that an aspectof what you're doing now or is that
something you plan in the future,Like talk a little bit about that.

(06:30):
Who's someone who's not in the foodservice business and probably I learned about that.
Could you talk about that a littlebit? Yeah? Yeah, So
you know, the Marriyout business isa very large wholesale business account. So
for us, it's pretty critical rights. Most comfort food and most prepared food
is typically consumed you know at arestaurant or you know in hospitality markets or

(06:53):
inconvenience arena. So we really wantto be there. We really want to
grow where the consumers thinking about breakfast. So for us in twenty twenty four,
we're really looking forward to growing intothe convenience channel and anywhere we're grabbing
go breakfast is pertinent because we're youknow, really tired of seeing people eat
all these chemically laden, preserved foodsfirst thing in this morning. Yeah.

(07:14):
I want to be a solution forthat. Yeah, that's great, Thank
you. I appreciate you sharing that. And just to change the subject a
little bit, could you tell usa little b about your your personal background
and how you you got to thispoint in your career. Yeah, so,
as you know, right, Igrew up here in Baltimore and my
parents had a little corner store deliconcept when I was really little up in

(07:35):
Charles Village, So I always grewup around food. Both my parents are
immigrants to this country and the personthey told me it's never open a business
or a restaurant, and so ofcourse being a first generation at all.
But I had a really awesome careerfifteen years in tech, automotive, software

(07:56):
and business management. I just wasreally unfulfilled. You know, the kitchen
is where I grew up and Ireally wanted to get back to it.
So I decided to take a leapof faith and put all my chips on
myself, and I started the businessin twenty fourteen, as I mentioned,
as a restaurant concept, and youknow, never in a million years that
I think I'd be running a consumerproduct business. But you know, just
a less than a year in we'reasked to really launch into that arena by

(08:22):
a whole foods market. So itwas very exciting for us to be able
to land in this new world.And here we are, you know,
almost nine years later, in anational favorite natural comfort food. Yeah.
Love it, love it. Yeah. Congratulations. That's that's super exciting,
and especially since you chose Baltimore asyour home, that's it makes it even
more exciting. So thank you forthat. I guess switch gears a little

(08:48):
bit. I always like talk aboutleadership on the show, and so how
would you describe your leadership style?You know, I, when I set
up to start my own business,I made a commitment to myself to do
every thing that I didn't like thatI experienced in the corporate world. So,
you know, as a woman intech and automotive, it was a
tough place to be. So Icommitted to making sure that I've always surrounded

(09:11):
by diverse opinions, that people's opinionswere heard. We're a very transparent business.
I hate micromanagement. Like all thethings that I didn't like experiencing,
I really wanted to make sure weintegrated here in our office environment. And
beyond that, I also thought,you know, corporate America loves to use
the word family, and you know, like as if there's a camaraderie there

(09:33):
that you know, just really wasnot true. And so one of the
things here that we really like todo is really do create an environment where
we're all friends first, right,we all take care of each other.
I think that's a very Baltimore thing, right. It's such charm city.
So I love that we bring itinto our into my leadership styles, and
into our culture at Mason Dixie.That's great, that's great, Thank you,

(09:54):
Thank you for sharing. And whenyou think about the past few years,
you know, the general threat ofthe pandemics behind us, obviously,
But if you're to look back overthe past three or four years, you
know, what did you learn throughmanaging and kind of leading through that time.
I think one of the biggest thingswe all learned is that nothing is

(10:15):
certain right and nothing gold can stay, so you should always be prepared for
the worst and the best. ButI think the biggest thing that I learned
is you don't really know the fullpotential of the superheroes that you employ until
you really watch them work right everyday. I am so grateful and so
impressed by my team here, thethings that they've been able to accomplish,

(10:39):
the speed at which they accomplish them, and the heart that they really gave
them. I mean, I can'ttalk enough about them. They are incredible
people, and that that awkward,horrible time really proves that I've got a
solid, incredible team here. Yeah, and it is, it is.
It makes such a difference to havethe right team, you know, and

(11:00):
you know, from a labor perspective, are you finding it difficult to hire
people? And as you're starting togrow. I love what you had to
say about you. You really don'tknow someone hiring is hiring is one of
the most difficult things I ever did. I think as uh I was wearing
the BBJ, because no matter youknow, somebody can as in interview,
they can there, they can lookgreat on paper, they can have good
references, but you just don't reallyknow until they get in there, start

(11:24):
doing the work and you know,fitting in with a culture and things like
that. So you know, talkabout that a little bit, you know,
from a labor perspective, and andyou you know, starting to really
take off and grow like crazy.You know, what do you see?
What are some challenges? I guessyou see it from the from the labor
side of things. So the interestingthing is I feel really blessed, But

(11:46):
I don't think it's ever been hardto hire the right people because one thing
that I wanted to make sure again, you know, values first when I
started the business, is that whenI when I went out to the world
industry wide, I always want tolet people know who we really are and
what we really believe in. Andas a result of talking about our commitment
to diversity, talking about our commitmentto woman owned, because we are a

(12:07):
certified woman owned business, you'd besurprised at how many amazing people come out
of the woodwork. So honestly,ninety five percent of our team were direct
reach out to me, So Inever really had to solicit them because they
all wanted to come and work fora place where they could be comfortable and
confident. And that's that's been incredible. But you know, the world's changed

(12:28):
a lot, right, I mean, the bots are ruling the airwaves and
you're standing for talent, and soI think, if anything, I think
it's really important to continue to putculture forward, values forward. And do
you think that the right people comeas a result of that. Yeah,
that's great. Great, thanks forthe insight there again and speaking of culture,
like how do you maintain that positiveculture? And you know, are

(12:50):
you in a hybrid working environment?Do you want everybody in the office the
corporate office, Like how's how's thatall working? Yeah, so that's a
great question. You know, withhow quickly we've scaled as a business,
it's been really hard to just ensurethat we're only able to hire locally.
So we do have a mixed workforceis about fifty percent remote and fifty percent

(13:11):
here at HQ. Great and youknow, and we offer that flexibility because
look, the world's changed. Peopleneed to be able to do what they
need to do from where they needto do it. But I do think
it's really important to create a reallygood headquarter culture. I think when people
look forward to coming together, itbreeds camaraderie, commitment, and a different
level cooperation. So I'm really gladwe decided to have an HQ a physical

(13:37):
office. Yeah, glad that it'sin a great location, you know,
across from two amazing teams, youknow, Bird City here we are,
and you know, I think it'sreally important to also touch base. I
think even in the remote work world, it's so easy to just forget about
those that are not physically in frontof you, right, But one thing
that I make sure that we dois we do have continuous touch bases.

(13:58):
We talk every week as a teamtogether and sometimes it's nonsense, right,
that's okay. Yeah, Yeah,definitely need some of that. Yeah,
you got to create basically that remotewater cooler talk somehow, yeah, right,
And so I think that's been abig part of what we try to
do to kind of bring everyone together. And then, you know, one
thing that we also do really well. Our business manager, Kim does an

(14:18):
incredible job of keeping the team,uh, motivated and close and so we
do like random surprise and delight gifts, we do like random games together.
She's found all these awesome remote thingswe can do. So I think it's
really important to build that community nomatter how far you are. Yeah,
and that's that's I would have Idefinitely would have struggled through that. I'm

(14:39):
the type of I guess manager orleader that I love to be in the
frame things and just being there whereI can help and back off when I
need to back off, let theteam you know, run their own business
units and do their thing. Atthe same time, I want the interaction
I want to want I want toI want them to know I'm here for
them and physically, you know,and mentally, And that would have been
tough, imagine it. The pastfew years have been hard on the culture

(15:03):
and making sure that you've maintained it. But it sounds like you have a
really good grasp on that and anddoing those things to keep people together,
keep them you know, collaborating andbonding and all that stuff. So that's
that's great to hear. Thank you. I mean, it's important, right
if your people are everything they are, so if you can't. If you

(15:24):
can't keep in contact with them andkeep them aware and in the know and
together, you know, you reallycan't be successful. So you know,
I've that's a lot of time inthat. I think it's really important.
Yeah, I completely agree with you. So, so what gets excited about
the future of Mason Dixie Foods?Everything, well's not to be excited about,

(15:46):
right exactly. You know, it'scrazy. I always tell people,
you know, yeah, we've beenin business almost it'll be this summer,
it'll be ten years. But Ifeel like, you know, thank you,
I still feel like we're ten months, right because there's so much we
want to accomplish. There's so manyproducts we want to launch, and there's
so many places we want to go. You know, I still feel like

(16:06):
we're in infancy. So I'm excitedabout the ability for us to conune grow
nationally. We're talking about international growthnow as well. Awesome. Yeah,
yeah, I love it. Ilove it so all right. So on
the uh converse of that, whatkeeps up at night? Oh gosh,
what dope? Everything else? Right? You know, I think the biggest
thing in the last three years havereally taught us is that you have to

(16:30):
expect the unknown, and you know, as the CEO, planning for the
unknown is challenging, right, Yeah, you know I was. I was
saying to a few folks earlier thatyou know, this is the first year
we'll probably have had in a longtime of balance and normalcy. It feels
not normal, right, So that'stoo easy. It's too easy, right

(16:52):
it is? Yeah, Like overthis holiday break, right, it was
like eerily silent, and people werelike, is it is everything okay?
Because we haven't gotten an email orwe haven't seen a fire. And I'm
like, guys, welcome to howthe world was back in nine right,
Like you know, we all forgotwhat this was like. So I think
the new challenge for everyone in thisindustry is going to be calibrating to less

(17:14):
of the chaotic you know, firemanagement and demand supply shifts and really getting
back to basics and back to normaland focused on long term business US statement.
Nobody really wants to talk about thatbig scary S word, but you
know, you know, building asustainable business is really important. So honkering
down and really focusing on that,it's going to exercise some new muscles.

(17:36):
So that's that's what we're working onthis year for ourselves. That's great.
That's great. Well, thanks forsharing. Well, so kind of wrap
things up, but you know,is there anything else you would like our
listeners to know about you and MasonDixie Foods. Yeah, you know,
we're really excited to be launching afive new items into retail next month,
so keep an eye on on ourInstagram, Facebook accounts at Mason Dixie Foods

(17:57):
to learn more about what's coming downthe pipe. And really excited to continue
growing and sharing all these awesome delightswith you guys. I love it,
I love it. And yeah,so what is the best way for our
listeners to find more information about MasonDixie. Yeah, definitely follow us on
Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, ourhandles at Mason Dixie Foods, and then

(18:17):
also check us out on our websiteand take a look at our products and
what we stand for at www dotMasondixiefoods dot com. Excellent. Well,
well, thank you so much,Asha, it was really great talking with
you. I'm excited for you.We can't wait to can't wait to watch
and see what happens with Mason DixieFoods over the next twenty four months and
twelve months for that matter. SoI really appreciate being on the show today

(18:41):
and thanks a lot and look forwardto meeting you in person sometime soon.
Thanks Hich for having me John,and you're always welcome here at HQ.
There's always delights here, so comeover and have breakfast with us. Definitely
will thank you helpuing that this hasbeen iheartmedias CEOs you you should know
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