2024 Leadership award winner for Vision

Diego Silva

Avatar Natural Foods

Growing up under the care of his grandmother in a tough neighborhood in Brazil, Diego Silva learned to “never focus on your problems, to focus on solutions.” He has followed that mantra to build a highly successful specialty food manufacturing and distribution company soon to have 200,000 square feet of production space in Nevada and Northern California.

Silva moved to the U.S. at the age of 17, working for his uncle as a bakery helper in New Jersey. He then became a pastry chef at some of New York City’s leading bakeries, including Payard. After a failed venture as a restaurateur at the tender age of 22, he ditched the East Coast for the lights and opportunity of Las Vegas.

“I started a small facility making pita bread for Las Vegas restaurants and small Mediterranean markets,” recalled Silva, 39. The 2008 recession shut down many of his customers and Vegas Pita lost 40 percent of its business. Silva started buying restaurant equipment, refurbishing it, and selling it to other restaurants. In 2010, he started to keep the equipment and make cakes along with the pita. The products were picked up by four Whole Foods stores in Nevada, followed by other markets in Southern California.

In 2011, Silva acquired Yaya’s Kitchen, which created prepared foods for Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf locations in Las Vegas. The business continued to grow, adding national Whole Foods, Costco, Sprouts, and Bristol Farms, among other specialty and natural retailers. The reason: High-quality healthy foods at reasonable prices. “We created a niche,” Silva said.

“We need to change how people eat in the U.S. Our food system is designed to kill because of corporate greed. We have obese seven-year-olds and people getting Alzheimer’s at age 60. We need to offer healthier alternatives and force the large corporations to compete on our level, to rethink their model.

“We need to force everybody to raise their standards.”

Avatar Natural Foods has three brands: Eat Pita, Yaya’s Kitchen, and Tuscany Cookies. It also sells croissants, cakes, and other non-branded bakery items. The company is currently developing a frozen bowl line which will consist of a grain, protein, and vegetables, to retail at $3.50 for a 10-ounce portion. Avatar has grown 8,245 percent since 2008. It has been recognized as one of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. on the Inc. 5000 for 2021, 2022, and 2023.

The Yaya’s Kitchen line demonstrates Silva’s ability to adapt. The company had been providing Whole Foods and others with ready-made salads for their salad bars. When these were shut down during the pandemic, the company quickly gravitated to grab-and-go packs, including Peruvian Potato Salad, Shaved Brussels Sprouts, and Kale Salad and Mexican Pasta Salad, layered so the ingredients stand out. There are currently 21 ready-made salads in the line.

In 2019, the company consolidated operations in a 75,000-square-foot facility in Henderson, Nevada, and has 200-plus team members there. It will open a 120,000-square-foot production facility in Gridley, California, in 2024. Co-packing and private labels are an important part of the business alongside the branded items.

Silva credits a willingness to try new things as essential to his success. “We have brought more than 800 products to market over the past 15 years and 80 to 90 percent have failed,” he said. “Ideas come into my head and I have to try them.” A recent venture is selling cookies priced by the pound.

Silva predicts astronomic growth over the next eight years, to become a $1.5 to $2 billion company. An impressive goal for a hardscrabble kid from the streets of Brazil.