CEO Connect: David Habib spills his saucey secrets

David 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.

Bridgette Bello, chief executive officer and publisher for Tampa Bay Business and Wealth, interviewed Habib in front of a live audience, at The Motor Enclave, in Tampa. 

What has it been like to be Mr. January 2024? 

This has been very surreal, all the way around. Wes, who’s part of the magazine, actually won our sauce at a CrossFit competition and looked at the back of the jar and realized that it was made in Clearwater.

When you’re talking about the power of the magazine, and the overall power of your network, it all started for us with Wes taking a big chance on us. But, more so, this has opened up a lot of opportunities for us already, Bridgette. Another previous cover, Bay Food Brokerage, is one of our future partners now. We’ve had a lot of great national press with Forbes and with other organizations, but this has been special and it’s even more special that it’s here, at home. 

You talked a little bit about the Bay Food Brokerage partnership that’s come out of this.  For those of you who remember Cammie and Chris Chatterton, who were on a previous cover, they reached out and said, we should be doing business with him. Can you introduce us? And of course, I said, yes. That just makes me so happy. It’s cool to see two hometown companies come together. 

It’s awesome.

For those of you who don’t know how magazine deadlines work, we did your interview last year. You’ve had some cool things happen since then, and that’s often my favorite part of the fireside chat. Talk about what has happened for you and break some news with us. 

We have grown a lot on the retail side. We started out of a storage unit, off of Nursery Road and U.S. 19. So, for anyone in the audience who is thinking about starting something or has started something, there’s no shame in starting small and working very hard. Today, we ship to 24,000 stores, we export to eight countries and we’re expanding very rapidly with Kroger, who’s now our number one retailer. That’s exciting news for us in 2024. 

Kroger seems to be coming out of the woodwork. My husband said, ‘Did you know Kroger delivers groceries?’ And I was like, do we even have a Kroger? Are they amping things up?

They actually have a large warehouse here, in Tampa, so you can order online, just like Amazon, Publix and Instacart, and all the other amazing things that all surfaced after COVID-19. You can get groceries delivered from just about any major retailer now. 

You told me that January was going to be your best month ever in the history of the company.

Yes.

I’m sure you’re going to say it’s because we put you on the cover.

It is.

What do you attribute that number one month to, since you started, in 2017?

I think one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that, no matter how talented the conductor is, there’s no music without the orchestra – and it’s all our team. It takes a village. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of talented people, and we have a hardworking team. We have a great warehouse team that’s adjacent to our office and, ultimately, the orchestra of Yo Mama’s Foods wouldn’t be possible without them. 

You guys do some weird tastings. They had apples and ketchup that they forced the people in the office to taste today. I really can’t think of something that sounds much worse than that.

Our digital media specialist finds all these TikTok trends and she makes us taste some pretty interesting things. The ranch Rice Krispies were much better. 

You mentioned something in your story and I want to say it exactly the same way,  because you say it a lot. “Start small, think big and scale quickly.” Tell us about the nuts and bolts of going from mom’s kitchen table to being the number one seller on Amazon? 

I would say that the number one lesson I learned is that it’s a huge, strategic advantage to not know everything upfront. If I knew everything I knew today about packaged foods, I likely would have never had the courage to finally start. I had zero previous food experience within the packaged foods industry. I came from the consulting world. I was eating store-bought pasta sauce and getting some bad heartburn. My mother was always a very good cook who made great sauces, and dressings, when I was growing up – that’s really how the idea started. I saw a big void in the marketplace. Though there were a lot of sauces everything just looked the same. They were all loaded with excess sodium and sugars and gums and preservatives and things that my mom didn’t cook with. 

That was the idea: how do we clean up the sauces and dressings? How do we create something that’s cleaner, that saves customers time where they don’t have to slow cook a really good sauce for eight hours? 

I moved back home, in January 2017. We launched the business on Mother’s Day of that year, even though I had no idea what I was doing. I think that’s really the entire beauty of the journey through the school of hard knocks. We set our intention, very early on, that we wanted to build a global business and that we wanted to do it in Clearwater. 

This is my favorite part – learning that your preservative is wine. 

All of the alcohol cooks off during the cooking process. It breaks down the acidity of the tomatoes and it gives us a three-year shelf life with the Food and Drug Administration. We don’t have to load it with 1,100 milligrams of sodium – we have 120 milligrams of sodium in our sauce. It’s not rocket science; it is just taking what we eat and understanding that there’s, ultimately, a better, fresher way to do it just like mom would. Finding that co-packer who would allow us to do that was really key. 

We use fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh onion and fresh garlic. There’s no added sugar. However, by the time it made it to the retail shelf it was $18.99. It doesn’t matter how good the sauce is, no one’s going to buy it for $19. That was another really important lesson that we had to learn – the distribution model. We had to understand all the different pieces it takes to produce the sauce to, ultimately, sell it to a distributor. 

When we became the number one bestseller on Amazon, in October of 2017, we were operating out of that storage unit. I had 10 high school students who would come after school, to package our orders, and we used to use my car lights for evening electricity because the storage unit didn’t have lights. Again, we didn’t know what we were getting into, but we learned to say yes to things and figure it out. 

I tried to tee you up for this a little bit earlier and you didn’t answer me, but you have a big acquisition that’s coming up that’s going to be breaking news. Can you share that with us here tonight? 

We are looking for additional warehouse space here and have partnered with the city of Clearwater. We bought an abandoned warehouse in the North Greenwood area of Clearwater, in 2019, and have fixed it up and turned it into a really great headquarters. We’ve been working on a three-year project with the city to expand in the North Greenwood area and to create additional jobs. And we’re certainly excited to be here and to keep on growing. 

Tell us about a time that you failed big, but that you also failed forward. What did you learn from it and what you can share with the other business owners and CEOs? 

The first thing that came to my head is when we had a truckload stolen last year – that was a big failure. We didn’t have the controls to, necessarily, spot a fraudulent customer. We worked with the bankers at Hancock Whitney, but it was a little bit too late after all the money had transferred. Ultimately, I fail every single day and I encourage our team to also fail because if you don’t fail, you don’t try something new. 

There’s a certain misconception around the pursuit of perfection. I think Mark Twain said it really well when he said continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. And I think that that’s so relevant – a lot of business owners tend to be perfectionists and our team can’t, necessarily, understand what’s in our heads, even though we think that they do. Being able to communicate that failure and to try new things is okay. I think how you innovate and create something different is how you get successful.♦

ABOUT ‘CEO CONNECT’

TBBW’s “CEO Connect” series is an exclusive, invitation-only, event that brings together the Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle. Keyrenter, Shelby Construction and Shumaker were presenting sponsors. The host sponsor was the Motor Enclave, in Tampa.  

TBBW’s video partner is Empowering Creative.

The evening begins with a cocktail reception for about 120 guests, followed by an interview with that month’s cover CEO.

Partnering with TBBW provides an opportunity to network with the area’s business elite, generate new business opportunities and increase brand awareness.

For information about event sponsorship opportunities, email Jason Baker at
[email protected].

You May Also Like

Scenes from TBBW’s CEO Connect with Cliff Scott (PHOTOS)

Tampa Bay Business and Wealth held its November CEO Connect with Cliff Scott, chief executive officer of Career Match Solutions, at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. Presenting sponsors for

CEO Connect: Trevor Burgess unmasked (sort of)

Trevor Burgess was the founder and chief executive officer for C1 Bank, which went public on the New York Stock Exchange, in 2014, the same year he was named the

Steve Frey: Lessons in business and being a dad

Steve Frey launched Oasis Corporate Housing during the financial collapse of 2008.  By 2018, the company had $62 million in revenue and, by 2022, revenue jumped to $120 million. He

Scenes from TBBW’s CEO Connect with Trevor Burgess (PHOTOS and VIDEO)

Tampa Bay Business and Wealth held its September CEO Connect with Trevor Burgess, chief executive officer of Neptune Flood Insurance, at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. Presenting sponsors

Other Posts

Clearwater’s Yo Mama’s sauce named to 2024 SELF list of Pantry Awards

A Clearwater-made marinara sauce will “make your guests say ‘yes,’” according to a new list released by SELF magazine. SELF’s 2024 Pantry Awards named Yo Mama’s Foods’ marinara sauce as

Trader Joe’s announces store in Palm Harbor

Trader Joe’s is planning to open another Tampa Bay location, this time in Palm Harbor. The store is planned for 33591 U.S. Highway 19 North. The grocery chain also has

Waterfront site in Clearwater Beach acquired for condo development

A waterfront site, on Clearwater Beach, has been acquired by BH3 Management and U.S. Development with plans for a condominium project. The three-acre site, at 551 Gulf Boulevard, was purchased

Serena by the Sea lists its largest unit for nearly $3 million (PHOTOS)

Serena by the Sea, a waterfront condominium project by Valor Capital, which is still completing construction, has listed its largest unit for sale. The unit, listed for $2,999,000, has an