[Photo credit on all images: Marianne Lee]
The first time Providence resident Minnie Luong scratch-made kimchi – a fermented staple in Korean cuisine – it didn’t go so smoothly and tasted quite terrible. In fact, she didn’t touch it again for six years and thought she may have been done with it for good. Fortunately for us, she decided to give it another shot, inspired by a jar her father gifted her. Now Minnie makes hundreds of batches of kimchi for her customers, local New England restaurants and retail partners for her business Chi Kitchen. And whenever her customers go through the trials and tribulations of making their own kimchi, Minnie always insists they keep on trying until that get that perfect batch. We sat down with Minnie to chat about the important role food plays in her family, the unique umami flavor of her product, and how she moved across the country to go after her dream of being a Kimchi Maker.
R.K: What made you start your brand? How did you first get the idea?
M.L: It’s been a long process. I have a background in food and worked as a private chef in Los Angeles. I always wanted to start my own food company, and I had worked as a chef for a tech company that was really into good, local food. I started making kimchi at work to ward off sickness for my coworkers.
But really, my love of food dates back to my family background. I grew up in Rhode Island in a really food-centric family and there wasn’t a lot of Asian ingredients available at the time. My dad is a gardener and fisherman, and we’d have to drive up to Boston once a week to get stuff because there weren’t a lot of ingredients available. Kimchi was one of those foods I ate growing up, so that was the beginning of my love of food – the satisfaction of making something that you can enjoy with your family. You kind of go down the rabbit hole with fermented foods, and fast-forward years later I moved back to the East Coast because I knew I wanted to start my own thing and it would be great to do here in Rhode Island.
I didn’t set out to start a kimchi company, but I wanted to do some sort of Asian food product. My husband as first was against it because it’s so “niche” and not a lot of people knew what it was, but in my gut it was my goal to be a healthy, Asian food brand. The way a lot of people equate healthy foods is that it doesn’t taste very good, so I wanted to introduce wonderful, bold umami flavors using good ingredients and our kitchen philosophy.
R.K: Tell us about the name, Chi Kitchen?
M.L: The name Chi Kitchen is a play on the word kimchi, but also means “energy” and we really believe in the energy we put into it. Luckily, we’ve had so much awesome support from everyone – from the farmers, the customers, and the people who make our kimchi!
R.K: When did you officially launch?
M.L: We’re relatively new. Our first sale was Thanksgiving weekend of 2015 so we’re a little over a year and a half old and a lot has happened since then. We started at an incubator kitchen at Hope & Main, then started selling at Pawtucket Winter Farmer’s Market, and then got into Dave’s Marketplace in Rhode Island and 12 Whole Foods in the area. We also built out our own kitchen where we have an awesome space dedicated to kimchi making, and we even have a “Fermentation Room.”
A number of restaurants carry our kimchi and it’s exciting to see it on menus in Boston! We’ve been really grateful for all the traction. I’m always thinking, “What’s next?”
R.K? How do you source your ingredients?
M.L: We only make two types of kimchi right now (Nape Kimchi and Vegan Kimchi), and we’re going to develop more products but I wanted to focus on being really great at kimchi. We’re taking our time and being deliberate. When it’s in season, we source our napa cabbage from a farm in Westport Massachusetts and when it’s not in season we source from a food distributor.
What’s been great with working with the farm is as we grow and become more successful, we can purchase more from them. Last year we planted 1,500 pounds of cabbage, and this year at least 5,000 pounds of napa cabbage. We’re going to test out harvesting some in August, and see how that turns out, but typically it’s a fall harvest. We’re really lucky to have a relationship with the farm; they’re so smart, young and capable. We’re trying to figure out how to work together so it’s viable for both of us!
R.K: What would you say to someone who has never tried your product? What makes your kimchi unique?
M.L: There are so many different recipes on the market. What we wanted to do was to have a Korean style kimchi both balanced in flavor and texture with a lot of umami. The way we do that with our traditional napa kimchi is we use Vietnamese first-pressed fish sauce which is higher quality. For our vegan kimchi, we use non-GMO miso. You’re getting layers of fermentation throughout which is where you get that umami taste. We designed our kimchi so it’d be a very healthy, satisfying snack you could eat right out of the jar but also it’s very juicy so we want people to use the juices in cooking. It’s really a kimchi for foodies!
R.K: What did you have to learn the hard way? Any challenges along the way?
M.L: Luckily, we’ve had only two batches of kimchi that were not up to my standards. I didn’t want to eat the money, but I also didn’t want to put out something that didn’t represent our brand, and the quality and care we put into every single step of making it. It was because we used a cabbage that wasn’t the quality we typically use – it was too leafy green. For next year, I’ll take a break during the in-between season so we can put out a product we’re proud of.
Another thing that happened was I had my labels printed which takes like two weeks to print them so you have to plan ahead. They were delivered to my porch, and someone stole the labels from my porch! So I had a shortage of labels and couldn’t sell kimchi for a period of time.
Overall, I didn’t realize how much you really need to sell and scale in order to make the profit. Profit margin in food is very low, so you need to scale up by a lot and if you’re in the business at some point you’ll have to make the decision of if you want to be a big food company on the shelves in hundreds of stores or if you want to be smaller. Understand how the business works when you get to that turning point, like working with distributors. But everyone’s journey is different!
The food industry is also changing so much and so quickly, so we try to keep up with the changes. I’ve read that more and more people are eating out.
The reality of having your own food company can be isolating in a way because people don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be a Kimchi Maker but there’s such a wonderful community out there and we can all relate to each other.
RK: Has there been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
M.L: Yes, absolutely! We deliberately moved to Rhode Island to start the business. For one, I knew there was this incubator kitchen Hope & Main, and they were investing millions of dollars into this state of the art kitchen so I knew there was a movement and support for something like us. I lived in Boston for 10 years but living in Providence is more affordable than other major cities, and you get that strategic geographic location. A lot of my accounts are actually in Boston because there’s such a demand for it but also in Rhode Island and I can even go to Connecticut.
People in New England area really into local food. There’s also so much amazing story-telling around kimchi, like their roommate in college made kimchi or they were in the military and got exposed to kimchi there. It’s such a delightful food!
R.K: Are you involved in any local community events?
M.L: Last year, we hosted our very first Kimjang at Nest & Song farm, and it was such a beautiful day with beer, food, kimchi-making, music, a farm tour and more. We had 75 people the first year, and we’ll expand it a bit more this year!
R.K: What would you love to see in the New England food and wellness scene that you don’t now?
M.L: I’m a mom and my kid will not eat a vegetable to save her life, but she’ll eat peanut butter and jelly and I would love to see a jelly brand low in sugar, with some probiotics or flax seeds to pump it up. Basic foods that kids will eat but healthier!
R.K: What other local food and wellness brands are you a fan of?
M.L: I love Cauldron Fermented Foods. They make a bunch of other fermented foods like Black & White Kraut that’s just sauerkraut with black pepper in it and it’s so good. Two Little Buns Bakery based out of Rhode Island makes gluten free, vegan baked goods that are both savory and sweet, and she has a great story. And Feast and Fettle is a meal delivery service; she makes really good healthy, home-cooked food and delivers them.
R.K: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
M.L: I would say my dad as he was super influential throughout the whole process. I was a refugee from Vietnam and lived in refugee camps so my dad and I came over to New England as refugees. It was really unusual too for a single father, and I was just three years old so the same age my daughter is now. The whole food thing was very real for us. I don’t know what I would have done without him taking care of me and taking major risks to come to this country: leading by example, being a hard worker, always having dinner together right at 5:30 every night. Food was really a way of transmitting our specific family culture.
That’s a big reason I wanted to be involved in food, and also my dad was the catalyst for me to get back into kimchi making because he had given me a jar of kimchi when I was visiting from California, I tasted it and it was so good. I thought “I’m going to go back and try this again.”
Our family loves food. And we all pickle too, so we’re always competing over who made the best. My dad ended up remarrying and I have two sisters now. We’re definitely the family that talks about food as we’re eating it.
R.K: What’s your favorite quote or business mantra?
M.L: On my desk I have, “Every accomplishment starts with the decision to try” and it’s right next my Vision Board.
R.K: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
M.L: I would like our brand to be in grocery stores all throughout New England, and the New York area. I would also like to see additional products that are in line with the Chi Kitchen brand of delicious, healthy Asian food products that aren’t confusing. That’s why we have simple, clean branding. I’d like to develop my team to have more kimchi-making talent, and work with local farmers to plant different types of ingredients to showcase what you can do with beautiful produce.
And I’d love to see kimchi become more of a staple food. Because it’s located a lot of times next to hummus, I like to say “Kimchi can be the new hummus” and if you think about it people weren’t always eating hummus like they do now. With Chi Kitchen, I want to bring Asian flavor profiles and all of the benefits of eating in that style and make it something that people can access every day. I don’t really focus on educating people on the health benefits of it, because I want people just to try it first, so it’s important for it to taste really good too.
R.K: Here at The W.E.L.L. Summit we like to say “Your vibe attracts your tribe.” How would you describe your vibe?
M.L: I am all about energy, and even named my company after it! I am really driven, people have told me that I’m intense, and I’m very spiritual. I believe in the law of cause and effect, and I am really an ecstatic dancer on the dance floor! As for my friends, I attract a lot of strong, smart people who are also very empathic but love to have fun and enjoy the good things in life.