Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Feature:
Jia Liao of Hot Pot Queen

How Jia Liao is bringing the essence of Sichuan cuisine to America with her brand Hot Pot Queen

When Jia Liao, the founder of Hot Pot Queen, meets people at events, their first question is almost always, “Who is the Hot Pot Queen?” And while some assume it is Jia, the Hot Pot Queen is actually her mother. Jia explains, “Our story dates back 42 years, and we are a two-generation women-owned family business. My mother opened a Chinese hot pot restaurant in Chongqing China, the Sichuan region, in 1982.” For those who don’t know, Hot Pot is a notoriously spicy experience, but some out-of-towners visiting her mother’s restaurant couldn’t handle the heat. To address this, Jia’s mother invented a pot called Yuanyang, which divides the hot pot broth into two parts — spicy and non-spicy — so customers could choose the broth that suits their taste buds. Jia explains, “Right now, if you go to any Chinese restaurant, you will see the Yuanyang pot, and because of this simple invention, [my mother] is named the Queen of Hot Pot by Chinese media. In a way, she has been at the forefront of pushing this regional Sichuan cuisine onto the global map.”

Jia spent every weekend at her Mother’s hot pot restaurant growing up. She explains, “I grew up among spicy foods, spicy people, and robust flavors. I always knew that one day, I would do something with this family legacy.”  So, when she moved to the States in 2021 for her children to attend school, she realized it was time to bring her flavorful heritage stateside. She said, “How do I bring the flavorful food of my childhood, the flavor of málà, to the American table?” From this question Hot Pot Queen, the brand, was officially born.

Hot Pot Queen is a line of spicy Sichuan condiments, including chili sauces and ready-to-eat spicy hot pot noodles. Jia explains, “I wanted all of our products to capture the essence of Sichuan cuisine, which is that málà profile. The magical essence of málà is found in those tiny flavor bombs known as Sichuan peppercorns, giving your tongue a tingling sensation unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Everything that we carry right now from our wild mushroom chili sauce to our crunchy garlic chili crisps and our spicy hot pot noodles, all have that combination of Sichuan peppercorn and Sichuan chilies to give you bold, lip-numbing flavor. Mark my words, málà is the next Umami.”

A ‘go big or go home’ launch

Before Jia launched Hot Pot Queen, she thought they would be an e-commerce business. She says, “80 % online, 20 % offline, but then we tried online first and it was really bad.” Once Jia realized that Hot Pot Queen would need a more physical presence to attract customers, she signed up for Expo West in 2023 to launch Hot Pot Queen to the masses. She explains, “I had the mentality of ‘Go big or Go home.’ Looking back, I spent way too much on my first Expo West venture, but people came up to me and said, ‘Your booth looks so great. I love your product ad I love your packaging.’ I probably wouldn’t spend as much as I did today, but then again, we stood out. I had buyers from World Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, and Costco stop by. It was great exposure. After Expo West, I signed on to regional distributors, and that’s when everything started to get rolling.”

Hot Pot Queen is now in over 400 stores across the US and recently launched in Australia, but of course, this didn’t happen right away. Jia explains “Expo West was in March and we didn’t get a yes from a major retailer until the end of July, and I didn’t have any product in regional chains until the end of September.”

“Our very first big yes was from the Fresh Market.  Before that, a lot of smaller independents were looking and waiting. Nobody wanted to be the first to take the risk of onboarding a new brand. So I’m grateful that Fresh Market saw something in us and gave us a chance. Because of that, I got on board with UNFI and started getting into more channels.” Jia also went to every trade show hosted by her distributor in 2023, which is where she was able to meet her distributor’s customers and pitch Hot Pot Queen.

How Hot Pot Queen differentiates itself

Chile oils, crisps, and sauces have exploded on the market over the last few years. And while this is great for consumers looking for more variety, it means that brands such as Hot Pot Queen need to work even harder to stand out on the shelf. So how does Jia do this? She explains, “First I go with texture. Almost all of the chili crisps on the market are going for crispy and crunchy, but I’m going for chunky. Instead of using mushroom powders to ‘umamify’ the product, we use real chunks of shiitake mushroom and white porcini mushroom. Second, I go all in for the Mala flavor. A lot of chili oils are made in the U.S., so I think the formulations are more mild and sweet. I wanted to use the authentic family recipe from my hometown that doesn’t shy away from spice. Finally, our product is the largest jar out of all of our competitors. Most of the chili oil and crisps on the market are in a 6-8 ounce jar. Our jar is 10.5 ounces, and when you put it on the shelf, they’re like a mommy with their kids. They’re bigger and therefore have more of a shelf presence. And our price point is the cheapest per ounce, so it’s the best bang for your buck.”

Funding the business

To fund Hot Pot Queen’s launch, Jia turned to her family business for support. She explains, “I’m quite lucky because the initial seed money is from our parent company in China. Hot Pot Queen is a sub-branch of the family business, so I’m grateful that my parents are supportive of this venture.”

Because of her mother’s venture, Jia is also able to use their family-owned factory that makes the Yuangyang Hot Pot bowls in Chongqing. She explains, “This is a huge advantage because I don’t have to go through a co-packer. I can say, ‘I’ll pay you later. I just really need the inventory now.’ We know the biggest cost is inventory, so having that little bit of wiggle room to negotiate has helped me move the business forward without having too much trouble. But it’s also not scalable. If we get into a bigger retail chain, like Whole Foods or Target, then we’re talking different ballpark, and I need to start raising money. I keep our team lean, and I want to bootstrap as long as I can, but I am keeping my eyes and ears open and learning about how people fundraise.”

What keeps Jia going

Like many founders, the early days of Hot Pot Quee were rife with mistakes and setbacks. Jia says,  “I wish I knew there was a Startup CPG group earlier. I had to Google everything, and I made so many expensive mistakes. But if I knew there was a community of people who were so willing to help, I could have spent less time, money, and energy trying to fix my mistakes. The Slack channel is a Godsend.”

Amidst the inevitable mistakes that come with founding a brand, Jia is buoyed by the “overwhelmingly positive feedback from customers.” She explains, “Retail buyers are kind of hot and cold. It’s hard to gauge how much they’re interested in until they put in an order. But with offline demos, our sample purchase rate is 70%. That always validates that what I’m doing is right. I’ve also had independent retail owners tell me, ‘People don’t make these kinds of flavors here in the US. You guys are onto something. You’re going to go places.’ No matter how difficult it can be, that keeps me going. Spicy food is in my veins and my bloodstream, so this company feels like exactly what I’m meant to be doing. My mother will say, “You’re carrying on  my legacy.’ And I say, ‘Yes, but I’m also writing my own story.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

All Comments