Born and raised in the state of Georgia, Korean American entrepreneur, Chris Young, is the creator behind a fast-growing caffeinated chocolate bars startup Pocket Latte. His business mission has remained crystal clear since day one: providing people with clean energy from 100% arabica coffee through one of the most beloved snack formats in the U.S.
But the past experience of attending candy trade shows has always haunted him: “We frequently got asked questions like ‘where do you import this from’ or ‘what part of China this is from’,” Young recalled how multiple racist and xenophobic encounters made him feel alienated and livid.
Young’s case is not unique, and the similar fear runs deep especially among food and beverage founders of Asian descent, who, for a long time, are left with only a handful of seemingly feasible choices: either making region-inspired products that will likely end up being tucked away in the ethnic grocery aisle with historically low foot traffic and circulation, or appealing to the majority of white audiences by appearing and tasting more mainstream. Many have chosen the latter for a thicker chance of economic success.
The reason being is “factoring in heritage branding has the added risk of further alienating that audience,” according to Trina Chan, cofounder and CEO of vegan nootropic gummy company No. 8 — a moniker rooted in Chinese culture that symbolizes harmony and balance with its two halves held in perfect symmetry.
Brands that place Asian culture and tradition front and center could still run the risk of being perceived as “niche” and less qualified investment targets, Eric Wu, cofounder of personalized nutrition brand Gainful, believes, which will likely not be the case in the future. “’Ethnic’ is no longer synonymous with ‘niche’,” he said, “and it’s only a matter of time before institutional investors, retailers, and tastemakers catch on.”
Growing Receptiveness & Long-Winded Journey To CPG Equity
Generally speaking, public interest and receptiveness towards the collective, yet diverse cultures across Asia, have grown significantly over the past decade propelled by an increasing number of immigrants, the viral K-pop, and the ubiquitous influence of Asian-inspired blockbusters and TV shows: ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’ ‘Bling Empire’ to name a few, further emboldening more AAPI entrepreneurs in the consumer sector to come out of the woods and channel the hype through building their own brands.
Sandro Roco, founder and CEO of a thriving seltzer brand Sanzo made with traditional Asian fruit flavors such as calamansi and lychee, said he’s always wanted to create a beverage that represents a bridging of cultures between East and West. When designing Sanzo, the brand took inspiration from a mix of a Filipino jeepney, Momofuku, and its own perspective on customer acquisition, rather than delivering the same aesthetic of, for example, a Brooklyn coffee shop.
“Fortunately, I think the tide is shifting,” Roco said, “especially with so many of us having been born and raised in the U.S., and feeling more empowered to claim our identity.” Funds dedicated to supporting Asian entrepreneurs have also sprung up with Gold House Ventures recently launching with a $30 million fund to help boost AAPI leadership in the corporate world, citing how professionals from the community are the least likely demographic to be promoted into management.
However, coming to terms with Asian roots is easier said than done: CPG builders with less privileged background also find themselves constantly fighting against the model minority myth as Asian Americans, making it more difficult to raise money; meanwhile, suspicions among consumers and grocery buyers — oftentimes the gatekeeper between brands and retailers — are still prevalent due to stigma against ingredients like MSG (GRAS in moderation by the FDA), concerns over the actual addressable market size, and most notably, the general lack of understanding about nuances between regional dishes.
“Chinese cuisine is often thought of as being very singular despite the vastness of the country. There’s so much more to Chinese food than General Tso’s Chicken” said Jing Gao, founder of high-end, all natural Sichuan chili crisp brand Fly By Jing that recently branched out with a new line of frozen soup dumplings.
As Chinese food starts to diversify in the public eye from the country’s 34 divisions, 23 of which are provinces, rhetorics that compare the phenomenon to China’s growing clout are also mounting simultaneously. Years before the start of US-China trade war and the global pandemic that later instigated a slew of anti-Asian hate crimes, food writer Calvin Trillin published a “casually racist” poem in the New Yorker titled ‘Have They Run Out Of Provinces Yet?’, in which he confessed his overwhelmed feeling by the onslaught of Chinese food varieties, and how “as each brand-new province appears, it brings tension, increasing our fears.” Internet rants over Trillin’s narrative and the New Yorker’s editorial decision ensued.
The fact is Chinese food market alone is not saturated just yet: what Trillin and millions of Americans are still missing today are the salty and dietetic nourishing dishes from my hometown province of Anhui, distinguished for its stewed bamboo shoots of Wenzheng Mountain and fried hairy tofu, although it’s the least known among eight major cuisines across China after Sichuan, Hunan, Fujian, Cantonese, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, and Shandong styles.
CPG founders of other Asian nationalities face similar dilemma where they are encouraged to divert their products from being region specific. Jake Deleon, founder of Fila Manila that offers a line of sauces and spreads inspired by the Philippines’ iconic flavors, noted how some investors recently called out his branding for being “too Asian,” suggesting that mindset, which is supposed to help many AAPI founded products to target broader audiences, has in fact pulled the opportunity for them to represent individual Asian ethnicities.
“My hope is that,” Deleon told me, “[consumers] start to embrace the differences of all 50-plus Asian cultures,” adding, as of March 2022, Fila Manila has become the number-one Filipino sauce brand in the U.S. in less than a year since launch, according to SPINS data.
The point being is consumer education takes time, and there’s only limited space in the grocery aisle for ethnic items, and there are even fewer resources available in the investment community for brands led by underrepresented founders.
“It was easy to get discouraged as an AAPI founder from a lack of interest or support from large retailers and investors,” said Gao. “I launched Fly By Jing as a DTC online brand out of necessity because we were bootstrapped and it was a low barrier to entry channel, and had to slowly build up our brand awareness through organic word-of-mouth and the quality and integrity of our products.
“Our success to-date has allowed me to prove that great flavors are universal, and that there is a place for nuanced complexity in marginalized cuisines and cultures,” she added. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go until we see equity in the CPG food space.”
Elevating Consumer Experience Through Inclusion
Yet, for most Asian-inspired food and beverage brands, breaking into the mainstream scene still remains challenging: the unspoken truth in the CPG industry is, once pigeonholed into the ethnic aisle, these products would never be able to get out and scale. And truly successful products, if success is strictly defined by an exit, are even rarer.
That’s because most grocery buyers have their focus, Ganesh Nair, founder of Karma Nuts, explained to me. “Compared to product-market fit, incremental revenues, and margin expectations, inclusiveness is understandably a ‘nice to have’,” he said. Brands like Omsom oftentimes need to fight extra hard to prove their market validation.
Born from “om sòm,” which means rowdy or rambunctious in Vietnamese, the latest cooking sauce darling known for being a “loud and proud” Asian brand has long championed against the ethnic aisle, according to Kim Pham who cofounded Omsom, alongside her sister Vanessa.
“As we expand from DTC into retail, we are acknowledging the reality that Omsom will inevitably end up in this aisle, and there’s this interesting tension between the world that we’re building towards and the world that we currently live in,” Pham wrote me via email. “These are large institutions whose minds we are trying to change, and know that change takes time.”
The shifts are already underway with, not only Asian-focused grocery and online stores such as H Mart, Weee! and Umamicart quarterbacking a burgeoning number of young brands like Chinese-inspired hot oatmeal Yishi and Vietnamese specialty products Nguyen Coffee Supply and Copper Cow, mass U.S. retailers also more proactively piling up trendy products capitalizing on Asian culture, and health and wellness.
“We have found the biggest advocates as well as success from those buyers that recognize the rise in the boba/milk tea culture and see it as a hot product,” said Olivia Chen, Taiwanese American cofounder of Twrl Milk Tea made with climate-friendly pea milk and nitro infusion. Chen stressed how the relatively fresh category is also providing a more inclusive shopping experience for traditional tea and coffee drinkers.
Perhaps, identifying the increasing consumer demand is the first, yet the most pivotal step towards more desegregated grocery aisles; but achieving true inclusivity for brands created by AAPI and all underrepresented founders takes a collective effort by every part of the CPG industry.
As of the writing of this article, Fly By Jing has broken out of the ethnic aisle and into the mainstream hot sauce section of Target and Whole Foods, Gao told me — “a landmark move” by these retailers.