Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

Founder Friday Feature:
Eric Wu of Sobo Foods

With Sobo Foods, co-founders Eric Wu and Adam Yee are reimagining the flavors of their childhoods for a plant-based future.

Sobo Foods co-founders Eric Wu and Adam Yee are no strangers to the world of CPG. Eric explains, “I started my first company, Gainful, which does personalized sports nutrition, in 2017…and that’s originally how I got plugged into startups and CPG. It’s a company that is still doing well and we were recently able to get into every Target store nationwide. I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day, but I’m a board member and advisor.” His co-founder, Adam Yee, is a food scientist with decades of experience. Eric says, “Adam was the co-founder of a company called Better Meat Co., which makes amazing plant-based meats. At Better Meat Co., Adam was responsible for creating delicious products that have gone on to see great success in grocery stores and continue to be widely distributed to this day.”

With their backgrounds, Eric explains, “It made a lot of sense for us to team up. We have known each other for years, and we are both passionate about food sustainability. We noticed there were a lot of amazing companies tackling big problems around food sustainability…but they were in categories that Adam and I, as two Asian American guys, didn’t feel were our heart home. We were seeing a lot of time and effort being piled into burgers, nuggets, and sausages by amazing founders, but all we could think about when we walked down the frozen aisle was, ‘Why isn’t anyone creating a modern CPG brand that champions the foods and flavors that we grew up loving?’ The dumplings, noodle bowls, steamed buns, and empanadas — all of these first and second-generation comfort food classics that deserve to be made healthier and better for the planet.” And so, starting with the frozen dumpling, Adam and Eric decided to do it themselves. “Our mission is to reimagine the flavors of our childhoods using 100% plant-based, veggie-packed recipes that our families would be proud of.” 

Sobo’s debut flavors

Adam and Eric launched Sobo Foods with three plant-based dumpling flavors. “Our first is a Chinese-inspired, plant-based pork and chive dumpling. The second is a Japanese curry potato dumpling. Japanese curry is the most popular dish in Japan and it’s also something that I grew up eating. The last flavor is our take on sundubu jjigae – a classic Korean kimchi and tofu stew. Growing up in the melting-pot suburbs of California, [Adam] had a Taekwondo instructor who would take his class out to eat at a Korean restaurant. That was the first time that Adam was introduced to Korean flavors, and he’s been in love with sundubu jjigae ever since. We’re not necessarily trying to be 100% “authentic”. We’re just creating things that we love to eat and that remind us of home.”

Why frozen?

“A lot of people are bewildered when they hear that I went from a supplement company which is high margins, shelf-stable, ambient two-year shelf life, and DTC friendly, to frozen dumplings, which, if you leave them out for an hour they’re ruined.”

So why frozen? Eric explains, “One, we’re masochistic. We love doing things the hard way…We are also frozen food lovers. Frozen reduces food waste considerably because buying fresh often produces the most food waste. We also love that the frozen aisle has become a place where people can explore global flavors…Frozen exploded overnight during the pandemic and people who had never considered buying frozen ethnic foods before were now buying them in droves. We think [the frozen aisle] is a great place to introduce people to the flavors of Asian Americana, which are very often found in the freezer aisle, but before Sobo, they were super unhealthy. We’re giving people clean ingredient dumplings packed with veggies, nine times the protein, and seven times the fiber compared to their average frozen dumpling.”

How Sobo is breaking into retail 

“There are multiple ways to approach growth, but our [retail] philosophy is do it in your backyard, be super present, and become the undisputed leader in your category for a small number of stores before you try to bite off more than you can chew.”

“We knew we had to get into X number of stores for a distributor to take us seriously, so I would drive around with dumplings in a cooler in the back of my dad’s Volvo and drop into local independent natural grocery stores. We are only in around two dozen stores in the Bay Area, and they are the stores that I can go to on any given day and shake someone’s hand and say ‘Hey, how are we doing here? When can I come in and do some sampling?’ Being present and part of the community has been critical to our strategy.”

Being present, of course, is not enough on its own; you need to have an excellent product, too. Eric says, “Thankfully, the product Adam created speaks for itself and [Sobo]was flying in the small grocery stores that took a chance on us. One of the store owners hounded a distributor on our behalf and said, ‘This product is really good…I can’t keep it on the shelf. You have to pick it up.’ We had tried to get in touch with the distributor beforehand, but they didn’t have a reason to take a chance on us until their customers, who are the store owners and buyers, reached out and said, ‘You have to pay attention to this guy.”

“Our strategy has been to show people that we’re willing to grind until we have velocities that are mind-blowing, and that’s what we’ve been hearing. We have people calling us and saying, ‘This is moving faster than anything we’ve ever sold frozen at our store.’ We love to hear that because it gives us a platform to talk to distributors and brokers, and show them that we’re the real deal and we’re here to build sustainably.”

The future of Sobo Foods 

Eric is excited by the prospect of expanding Sobo across the country and is eager to see what innovation Adam will come up with next. Most of all, he explains, “We’re excited to rewrite the narrative on Asian American food in the US. Chinese food has been seen as something that has to be unhealthy, cheap, and convenient.  When we started building Sobo, we thought we were getting into it because we’re passionate about food sustainability. And if we can build a $100 million business, the amount of industrial animal agriculture that we can displace in peoples’ diets is a dream. But after we started building this business, we’ve been inspired by the fact that we get to tell stories about our immigrant families. We get to talk about what it’s like being first-generation kids growing up in America and having one foot in one culture and the other foot in another. We get to show people that Asian American food deserves to be healthy and nutritious. It deserves to be thoughtful and modern, and it deserves to be made with ingredients that represent our values.”

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