When Alex Zhou arrived in Manhattan, Kansas for college in 2007, he was in for a surprise.
Zhou discovered that the "Little Apple" bared little resemblance to its larger New York sibling.
Far from his hometown of Dalian, China, Zhou found it difficult to find the flavors of home. The nearest Asian grocery stores were two hours away in Kansas City, Missouri.
Zhou moved to Los Angeles after graduating college in 2013. As he roamed the aisles of 99 Ranch, H Mart and the like, he had an idea —to start an online Asian market with one simple goal: “I didn’t have like (a) super big vision," he tells TODAY.com. He just hoped to help "students like me studying abroad in another country (who) do not have the snacks and products they grew up with."
Building a business from scratch
Zhou wanted to sell snacks first.
An industrial engineer by training, Zhou found himself standing outside Asian grocery stores, counting customers and the number of bags they left with. Some days, he’d find his way to the back of these stores, writing down vendor information printed on delivery trucks, hoping to convert those vendors into his suppliers.
“E-commerce was nothing new during that time, but it was pretty new for Asian retailers. So, I would visit them every day, every week, until they agreed to open an account and sell to me,” Zhou says. With a few vendors and a 2,000 square foot warehouse, Yami, an e-commerce platform for Asian snacks, was born.
In Yami’s infancy, Zhou was the CEO, customer service representative, purchase manager and inventory clerk.
He soon transformed Yami’s handful of Kansas customers into $1.7 million in revenue the first year, and double that in the second. In 2017, Yami reached $100 million in revenue, a nearly 60-fold increase from its humble beginnings.
Today, Yami has 500 employees across China, Japan and the United States, and it is eyeing expansions into Canada and beyond. The platform is the premiere one-stop shop for Asian products, selling nearly 300,000 South Korean, Chinese and Japanese products, ranging from snacks to diapers.
Sharing culture through food
Zhou is one of the many Asian American entrepreneurs who have built success by sharing their culture through food.
Jing Gao founded the Chinese chili oil and sauce brand Fly By Jing in 2018 to reconnect with her roots. Born in Sichuan, which is known as China’s flavor capital, Gao frequently moved with her family before eventually settling in Canada.
“I think the whole time I was really not sure where I quite belonged, but kind of code switched as best as I could and adopted a Western name Jenny, which I went by for 30 years of my life,” Gao tells TODAY.com. But when a tech job brought her back to Asia, Gao began to reconnect with her heritage.
Gao rediscovered her culture by cooking, especially Sichuan food. Cooking “started out as a quest to reconnected with my roots using food as a common language to get to know my family, but the more I dug into this 5,000-year culinary heritage, the more I realized how incredibility complex and sophisticated it was,” Gao says.
Indeed, China has eight major regional cuisines and each has a distinct flavor profile. Recognizing a dearth of authentic Chinese food choices in the United States, Gao realized “how underrepresented and undervalued (Chinese food) was in the West” and made it her mission to “shine a light on Chinese cuisine and culture.”
“For centuries, Chinese food has had a bad rap. It’s been looked down upon, viewed as dirty, cheap, unhealthy, and not worth paying for. … so, I was like, okay, I need to rewrite this narrative.” Gao says.
Changing the narrative
For Gao, rewriting the narrative begins with disrupting the “hierarchy of taste.”
The “global hierarchy of taste,” author Krishnendu Ray explains in his book “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” describes why cuisines vary drastically in price. Ray believes that American diners are willing to pay more for escargot than kung pao chicken because people determine the value of food based on socioeconomic status of the immigrants who share it.
Gao agrees with this concept: “For example, Italian food was looked down upon … now you can go to Italian restaurants and pay $50 for a plate of pasta.”
However, Gao says this hierarchy exists in boardrooms, too.
“Ever since (Fly by Jing) first started, a lot of people were resistant to the brand. Some investors told me that there was no opportunity for a Chinese food brand to do well in this country, like Chinese food is niche,” Gao says. She adds that "literally hundreds" of initial potential investors had passed on her idea.
But the responses for Gao’s Kickstarter campaign was the opposite. Gao lived in Shanghai at the time and recorded a video sharing her mission to change people’s perception of Chinese food. The video went viral, making Jing’s campaign the highest funded craft food on Kickstarter, raising more than $120,000 from nearly 1,700 investors.
With this seed funding, Gao began manufacturing her signature chili oil sauce with 18 all natural ingredients sourced in Sichuan, China. Her family was one of her first taste testers. “My family was like, 'Oh, this is different, like is good, is different. We never had this.' And that’s because every family in China has their own type of sauces that they make.” Gao says. And along the way, she changed her name from Jenny back to her birth name, Jing.
With Fly By Jing, Gao hopes to drive home a single point with her condiments: “We are just one of the many versions (of chili sauce), we just want to open people’s eyes to the fact that there’s so many singular, unique voices out there that all deserve to be heard,” Gao says. Gao’s hope is being realized as U.S. consumers increasingly enjoy Asian products.
Riding this wave, Zhou contributes Yami’s success in part to “good timing.” According to the Institute of International Education — an organization that conducts annual census of international students in the U.S. — students from East Asia make up about 40% of international students every year. In the 2020/2021 academic year, there were more than 370,000 students from East Asia studying in the U.S. In addition, the 2021 U.S. census estimates around 2.5 million foreign-born Chinese migrants are living in the U.S.
This population growth is part of the demand to recognize and celebrate Asian cultures, as seen in the rising popularity of Asia’s cultural exports: Korean entertainment, Japanese anime, and Sichuan cuisine, among others.
Further, Zhou has watched his customers expand way beyond international students from Asia looking for a taste of home.
“A lot of non-Asians that have interest in Asian culture also like Asian products. I think that all contributes to the growth of the company,” Zhou says.
Evolving culture through taste
The non-Asian customers surprised Zhou initially.
“At the beginning, we had a really bad English website, but still, a lot of customers placed orders,” Zhou says. “Then we started (looking at) all the data and we noticed the volume was actually getting bigger and bigger.”
The growing non-Asian customer base prompted Yami to revamp its website. Now, Yami has a website and an app in both Chinese and English to make products accessible to various customers.
Yami’s mission includes serving as a cultural touchstone for non-Asians. “For Asian customers, this is a bridge to your home, so you can easily access the brands and the products you grew up with. But for the non-Asians, this is a bridge to another culture. By tasting and experiencing all these Asian products, Asian brands, you ... experience another culture,” Zhou says.
And food, according to both Zhou and Gao, is an effective vehicle for cultural understanding.
“It’s disarming. Sharing a meal is how you get to know people get how you do business in a lot of cultures. I think flavor is universal language. It was the language I was able to speak with my family in China after I had been in the West for like most of my life,” Gao says. “When I was traveling and seeing people’s faces light up when they tried these flavors for the first time, that just is the proof of the power of food in cultures and languages.”
Throughout human history, food has allowed us to celebrate and share culture, entrepreneurs like Zhou and Gao help continue this important legacy.
“So many more founders of color, Asian AAPI cofounders are representing their cultures through their products, and we are really proud to have like, been sort of a big piece of that rising tide and supporting one another to create more opportunities for each other,” says Gao.