A Springettsbury Township food manufacturer has a deal with Giant Food Stores that will more than triple the number of Giant supermarkets carrying its line of Afro-Caribbean foods.
By the end of December, products from Neilly's Foods will be in 234 Giant stores, up from 65 stores currently.
Neilly's, which is owned by the husband-and-wife team of Albert and Julie Ndjee, makes a line of frozen entrees, including Chicken Jambalaya and Jerk Chicken with Rice and Beans. The company also makes a line of frozen side dishes that includes empanadas and sweet plantains. The entrees retail for $5.49. The sides sell for $4.49.
The growth of Neilly's retail business marks a major step forward for the company, which the Njdees launched in 2010. Until this year, most of Neilly's business came from selling Afro-Caribbean dishes in bulk to Whole Foods, which the retailer sells at its in-store hot bars in about 90 of its stores.
The company also has two sauces it sells at retail under the Ultimate Seasonings brand. The deal with Giant pushes Neilly's further into the retail business.
The Ndjees, who live in York Township, approached Giant about carrying their frozen entrees and sides. Giant started carrying them this summer. Sales have been so strong, Giant opted expand greatly the number of supermarkets where Neilly's is sold.
"They have a very unique product line," said Christopher Brand, a Giant spokesman.
Three Giant stores in York County - in West York Borough, West Manchester Township and Springettsbury Township - will carry Neilly's products by the end of the year, Brand said.
The frozen entrees, and some of the bulk prepared foods, are produced at Winter Gardens Quality Foods in New Oxford.
Neilly's, which is named after one of the Ndjee's two daughters, is riding a wave of interest among consumers in ethnic foods.
Americans will spend an estimated $11.2 billion on ethnic foods this year, according to Mintel Group, which tracks food industry trends. Mintel forecasts the number will grow to $12.5 billion in 2018.
Americans are becoming more adventurous in their eating habits as they see foods from other countries highlighted on TV food shows, said Jeremy Diamond, a director at Diamond Marketing Group, a Pikesville, Md., food industry consulting firm.
"They're looking for something different, something exciting," he said.
Ethnic foods are also gaining increased attention from food manufacturers and supermarket chains which see a business niche in appealing to the growing number of immigrants to the U.S, who hunger for a taste of their home country, Diamond said.
Neilly's has seen a "steady" sales growth in the company's four years, said Julie Ndjee, vice president of sales. The company is privately held. Both she and her husband, Neilly's president, declined to give specific sales figures.
The Ndjees, who are both from Cameroon, took an usual route to the food business.
Albert Ndjee, 45, was a lawyer in his native Cameroon and worked for the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, Md., outside Baltimore.
Julie Ndjee, who is in her 40s, was working as an applications developer for Micros Systems, a Columbia, Md., maker of cash registers and inventory management systems for the retail, restaurant and hospitality industries. The couple's two daughters, now teenagers, were small then. Ndjee, like a lot of working moms, was looking for healthy, nutritious meals that were easy to prepare. The Ndjees thought there could be a business opportunity here.
"I love food and I love to cook," Julie Ndjee said. "But I also love convenience."
That the Ndjees have landed a major deal with Giant doesn't surprise Aeman Bashir, project manager at YorKitchen at York's Central Market. The Ndjees have been part of YorKitchen, the past several years. They have used the commercial kitchen to develop products and to fine-tune their recipes.
The couple also does its homework, Bashir said. The Ndjees have traveled to Costa Rica to find suppliers for plantains.
And they've tested their products before consumers in the Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia areas to get feedback, Bashir said.
"They're very passionate about what they're doing," Bashir said of the Ndjees. "They've kept their nose to the grindstone. They're not afraid to put in the necessary footwork to make it happen. They just keep pushing."