David Habib is what most would call an “old soul.” Ambitious from an early age, he’s also a little shy.
He’s a bit of a contradiction, he admits. Both forward-seeking and intentional about being in the present. At only 31 years old, he admits he’s been married to his business up until now, and, while perhaps ready to move into the next phase of his life, he’s got work to do first.
Habib established Yo Mama’s Foods in 2017. The company, based in Clearwater, started out making pasta sauces and expanded into barbecue sauces and salad dressings. The company now ships to 24,000 stores nationwide, has 24 full-time employees and has sold tens of millions of jars to customers around the world.
It’s not surprising he found his way into the food business; it was an important part of his upbringing.
“Growing up, family dinner was a non-negotiable aspect of our day,” says Habib.
The Habib home was the gathering place for family and friends. Mom, and dad too, had the ability to gather all different kinds of people around a table to enjoy her homemade cooking.
“Food, to me, wasn’t only about eating; it became almost a language,” Habib says. “I was so interested in the connection and the ability of food to really bring people around the table.”
These days, the love of food that was instilled in Habib is now enjoyed around tables all over the world.
Habib was working in corporate America, when he really began to wonder what it was he wanted to do with his life. And corporate America just wasn’t it.
“It all came back to that table,” he says.
Habib’s parents were both born in Cairo, Egypt and were next-door neighbors growing up. Both came from large families and without a lot of material belongings. Habib describes his mother as a pioneer for leaving Egypt. She had dreams of living in France to become a doctor and, when she left home, she set a precedent that inspired international mobility in her family.
With mom living in France, Habib’s dad ended up immigrating to the United States, where he also pursued a medical profession. He lived in Cleveland and later moved to Clearwater to work for BayCare.
But the two childhood friends stayed connected and in 1988, his parents married and settled in Clearwater, having their first child, Michelle. In 1992, they welcomed their son David, in Phoenix, while his mother was redoing her residency in the states.
In 1994, the Habib family moved back to Clearwater and settled once again. Habib’s parents still live in the Clearwater home he grew up in.
“I saw how hard both of my parents worked; they are very much the American dream,” Habib says. “My mother still declares, to this day, that education is everything. And that’s what she told my sister and I – her legacy to us is that she gave us good schooling.”
Growing up, Habib attended local catholic schools, like Saint Cecelia and Clearwater Central Catholic, and he played team sports, finding along the way that he preferred solo sports, like tennis and swimming.
Much like his “pioneering” mother, Habib caught the travel bug and used opportunities to study abroad in places like South America, France, China and Uganda, which is where Habib launched his first business venture. It was called Molly’s Beads and he worked with a local woman who would make beautiful, hand-crafted jewelry out of trash.
He toyed with the idea of following in his parent’s medical field footsteps, thinking of being a dentist at one point.
“I did a medical mission trip and they made me extract eight teeth. That was the end of any thought that I had about medicine,” Habib says with a laugh.
Habib graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in business and entrepreneurship and, later, a master’s in international business.
He did a few things professionally, even earning his real estate license, while he was in high school, working for Martha Thorn of the Thorn Collection.
Later, he worked for Deloitte Consulting, in Washington D.C.
“I was eating out a lot, which was giving me wicked heartburn, and I just wasn’t feeling well. I missed gathering around the table. I missed the identity around food. I missed the ability to eat and feel good afterward, and not really question what I was eating. And that was the start of how the business idea came up,” Habib recalls.
At this point, he had traveled and could have started a business anywhere. But he came home to mom and dad and, in the kitchen that was so important to him as a child, is where he would build his business only using what mama had in her pantry.
Before Habib even had a product to launch, he started to work on the branding, partnering with a fellow UF alum to create a design for his logo.
The foundation of his business was, “If mom doesn’t have an ingredient in her pantry, then we don’t use it,” he says. “How can we make something that’s as fresh, and as good, as what mom makes without all of the added sugar and junk?”
He officially launched the business, appropriately, on Mother’s Day, in 2017. But his sights were set high, from day one.
“Early on, I had the intention that we would build an international food brand,” Habib says, adding that he had to think ahead on packaging providers. It was school of the hard knocks, he admits.
“I got ripped off by just about everyone in the first couple of years. I’m this fresh kid, who’s 24 years old, coming in with his mom’s recipe of sauce,” Habib says. “People don’t actually understand the food business. I didn’t. And I would say, fortunately, I didn’t know everything I do today because I wouldn’t have had the courage to, ultimately, do it.”
Yo Mama’s first big “win” was landing on Amazon, in October 2017, and then in Locale Market, which was in Sundial, at the time.
“We were knocking on Amazon’s door for a while and didn’t have any success. And then I found a third party seller. His name is Eric Martindale and we still work with Eric today. He was one of the largest packaged foods sellers on Amazon. I kept messaging him and I told him about our business. He’s like, no, sorry, I have enough sauces. But finally, he took a chance on us,” Habib says.
At the time, low-carb diets were really popular and Yo Mama’s didn’t have any sugar in its sauces, a valuable commodity to those adhering to ketogenic diets. A little bit of search engine optimization magic later, Yo Mama’s sauces were popping up for savvy food buyers looking for alternatives to Prego and Ragu.
“We started investing in Amazon ads, and within eight or nine weeks we got their number one slot. And that gave us the ability to, then, go into retail.”
From there, he moved into Lucky’s Market, Yo Mama’s first grocery chain account. At this time, Habib was Yo Mama’s only employee.
The next big step was to get into Whole Foods, which would bring Yo Mama’s to the masses and kick the growth of the business into high gear – however, getting into Whole Foods wouldn’t come easy or cheap.
Habib finally got a meeting with Danielle Whisnant, a Whole Foods buyer, pretending that he was flying into town for a friend’s wedding and hoping he could just “stop by” with a sample. She loved the product but told him to return the following year.
“I knew that we didn’t have until next year. Retail moves super slow,” Habib explains. He wrote a handwritten note thanking her, pushing for a quicker entry into the store, fighting for that coveted shelf space next to brands like Newman’s Own and Rao’s.
His persistence worked and, ultimately, the brand launched into Whole Foods, which was quickly followed by him receiving a retail slotting bill for $150,000. Habib wasn’t ready for that and hadn’t anticipated it because, as he said, people don’t understand the food business.
In order to cover that bill, Habib had to raise the funds, in two weeks. He was able to do so with a handful of family and friends.
“They’re still owners of the company and my goal is, some day, they’re going to get a very nice return,” he says, with a confident smile, a nod and a wink toward his big plans for the future of the company.
Between the years of 2020 and 2023, Yo Mama’s foods took off.
“People were cooking from home and they were looking for premium, healthier alternatives with a fresher taste,” Habib says. “Everyone was buying sauces, and condiments, something to take their food up a notch. We happened to be in the right industry at the right time, which helped us get through 2020.”
With the move into Walmart in 2021, Yo Mama’s officially hit the big time. Sam’s Club and Kroger followed, in 2023. All told, Yo Mama’s sauces are now shipped to more than 24,000 stores in 11 different countries.
What’s next for the small-town sauce company started, on a kitchen table, by a 24-year-old kid? The company is currently working on a deal to get its sauces into a local stadium and into additional club retailers like Costco.
With explosive growth, especially as a first business from an unseasoned entrepreneur, the learning curve was long and winding.
“I fail all the time,” Habib admits. “I think I’ve failed numerous times with hiring…what I’ve learned is hire slowly and fire quickly. Really invest in finding the right cultural fit. One bad apple truly can ruin the entire patch.”
One of the times he experienced this was when he lost almost his entire staff.
“We lost our entire warehouse, all at once” he says. “But it gave me a clean slate.”
After a few weeks of finance and marketing team members driving forklifts and fulfilling orders, the company started all over again, from scratch. “We have a phenomenal team today,” Habib adds. “My job is to make them successful and to give them all the right tools. But I needed that experience under my belt to be able to build the team that we have today. So, I don’t regret it at all, because I learned a tremendous amount.”
While Habib continues to grow in ambition for his business, he sees opportunities to give back to the community via causes tied to food scarcity, working with organizations like Pinellas Hope, St Vincent De Paul and 360 Eats.
“We’re really passionate about food scarcity and about helping the homeless,” Habib says.
Habib has always had a passion for real estate, dating back to his high school years of working with Martha Thorn. He now owns a few condos and the warehouse for Yo Mama Foods, calling that one of the best decisions he ever made.
“I’ve always been a pretty frugal person but when it comes to experience, when it comes to gathering with family or friends, I think that’s something that doesn’t really have a price tag. So, it’s nice to have a beautiful meal at a nice place with friends and family, or to take and treat your friends and family on a really cool trip, that maybe would be on a boat, that they wouldn’t experience before,” he says.
Habib also collects art and owns a Picasso. He’s waiting to get it authenticated. He’s a water guy, that’s what drew him back to Tampa Bay. His stories are littered with ship references and his office looks like it could be near the Maine shoreline. He’s a genuine, thoughtful guy who knows what he likes and wants out of life. He’s going to be a real catch for the one who gets him to settle down and focus a little more on his life instead of the life of the business.
He’s still working on being fully present and, yes, he’s looking for a special lady to build a life with.
“My mind is always thinking about what’s to come instead of, ‘Hey, just relax, sit down, enjoy the view, smell some flowers.’ “And that’s honestly why I brought you here,” Habib says, referring to where we were sitting to do his interview, the Carlouel Beach and Yacht Club, on Clearwater Beach. The sleepy, old-time Florida club that opened in 1934, was always a goal. Growing up, Habib wanted to have a membership there; he wanted to be able to bring his parents and treat them. It’s a place that has profound significance to him.
“It brings me joy to be able to bring people I love here,” he says. “It’s where I bring my parents and where I can finally treat them after all they’ve sacrificed for my sister and me.”
All roads start and end with mama. ♦