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Helping Asian Americans Cook the Foods They Crave Most

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Every week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute elects a Startup of the Week, inviting the founders of these startups to share a blog post with the community. These posts can be inspirational, educational, or entertaining. 

This blog post is a fireside chat with the two co-founders of Rooted Fare, NYU Steinhardt Food Studies alum Ashley Xie and Hedy Yu. 

Ashley and Hedy sit at an outdoor table facing each other. Three of their sauces sit on the table alongside a vase with flowers and a pot of tea.

Steinhardt Food Studies alum Ashley Xie (left) and Hedy Yu (right) interviewing each other for this piece.

Hi there! We’re Ashley and Hedy, second-generation Asian Americans, childhood friends, and co-founders of Rooted Fare. We help Asian Americans cook the foods they crave most by creating exciting, ready-to-use Asian sauces. We do this by partnering and profit-sharing with immigrant chefs with deep knowledge of those flavors.

We thought it would be fun to interview each other and talk about our startup’s beginnings, our vision for the future, and everything in between. If you’re curious about any of those topics, read on!

Ashley: We’re so excited to be the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute's Startup of the Week. I'll let Hedy introduce herself first.

Hedy: Hi everybody, my name is Hedy and I am the other co-founder and Brand Marketing Manager for Rooted Fare.

Ashley: And my name is Ashley. I'm a Steinhardt alum and I received my MA in Food Studies in 2020. We can first start off by introducing our sauces, and then get started with questions that we have prepared for each other. 

We’re currently partnered with Wenling, an immigrant chef from Sichuan, China, who now owns Cup Noodles Shop in Southern California. 

First off, we have a Roasted Peanut Dan Dan Sauce. This is a delicious, savory sauce that you can dip vegetables or add to noodles, and it’s made with freshly roasted peanuts, garlic, and ginger. 

The other is Dry Chili Sichuan Dressing. It's spicy, garlicky, tangy, and sweet all at the same time. So, yeah, your taste buds will thank you. 

And last but not least is a Black Sesame Crunchy Butter, which is actually what we’re eating today. This is made with black sesame and freshly roasted and grounded peanuts and also has a crunch factor in there. So it's a bit different than your regular peanut butter. 

Hedy, do you want to start off with some questions? 

Hedy: Yes, I would love to, and thank you for introducing the sauces. If you're curious, you can go on our website so you can get yourself a jar to try. But since Ashley was the one who founded Rooted Fare, I want to ask: how did Rooted Fare come about? 

Ashley: I've always had a super deep appreciation of food because I grew up in my mom’s restaurant kitchen, who’s an immigrant chef. When she came to the US, she originally started as a waitress, just like many other immigrants because of language barriers or lack of access to employment opportunities. My mom eventually worked her way up and opened her own restaurant in San Gabriel Valley, CA (and if you don't know, it's like the place to get Asian food). So good. I made the best memories there since all my aunts and uncles worked there and food became an integral part of my life. 

Growing up, I saw both joys and challenges of being an immigrant chef and having their own restaurants. I knew how to speak English, so I was always the one that was translating to the health department, or it sucked to see that my aunt could only market herself to other Asian immigrants and eventually closed her doors. Now she sells frozen dumplings as the breadwinner. And I just saw this problem where immigrant chefs wanted to have more opportunities to, you know, make some extra money and live their best lives and just do what other bigger player restaurant chefs are doing and creating their own products, so why not immigrant chefs too? 

Hedy: Yeah, it's amazing. Thank you, Ashley. I've heard your “why” many times, but every time it really hits home, especially as someone who’s grown up with you. And I think the mission is so important to Rooted Fare. So it's really great to keep that kind of at the forefront.

Ashley: Yeah, and that leads to my next question, why did you join Rooted Fare? What brought you to join me?

Hedy: I mean, I actually saw your featured article on LinkedIn, it was on the Unicorn Project, and Rooted Fare and Ashley were featured. And I actually hadn't spoken to Ashley in maybe five to six years, even though, you know, we grew up in the same town and went to Chinese school together. And I thought it was just going to be an amazing opportunity to reconnect with you. So I reached out, congratulated you, and we got onto a call together. And I wasn't expecting that by the end of it, we would be working on Rooted Fare together and doing the NYU Stern Berkley Center's Entrepreneurs Challenge. 

Yeah, that was really exciting. But truly, I think what made it super easy for me to make that decision was like, first of all, I knew you in the past, and you were someone who I really looked up to. And the opportunity to work on something with someone that you actually trust doesn't come by very often. 

And the other thing was that I am someone who really struggles to cook Chinese food. My mom is this amazing chef. And she learned everything just from trial and error. And so I really resonate with the mission to help Asian Americans cook the foods that they most identify with in an accessible way, which is something that maybe other groups in America can do. Like, if you go to the international aisles, they’re really tiny, really sparse, and usually don't really have a lot of products. But if you go into the sauce aisle, you know, there's half of the aisle that’s just for amazing Italian sauces. And that's like, so what is it? 

Ashley: Unfair?

Hedy: I guess? Yeah. Italian sauces are amazing, and they're deserving of that much space. But I believe that Asian sauces should have that kind of attention as well. 

Ashley: And celebration. I agree. Yeah. And it's been so amazing that I was able to recruit you like? I was like, literally, “Hedy, do you want to join the team?”

Hedy: Yeah, that was not at all what I was expecting. 

Ashley: And then you said, “Let me think about it.” And then, a couple months later, I asked, “Hey, do you want to be my co-founder?”

Hedy: And I was like, “Are you sure?”

Ashley: Yeah, I was like, "I'm sure."

Hedy: The next question that I prepared for you is: what is it about right now, 2021, that makes it such a good time to launch Rooted Fare?

Ashley: I think it has always been a need to launch something like Rooted Fare and to have a support system for immigrant chefs and open opportunities for them. 

But I think what's happened in the past year is going to launch us even further. One: because of the pandemic, people are eating home a lot more, and people are definitely changing the way they purchase items like going from in-store to online and we are DTC so we have our website that we're trying to get customers to come to, so in that respect, we're in the right place, right time. 

And then on the other end, for the restaurant industry, like, yes, it's a huge change in the way that we're going to be eating out these days. And who gets to be in the restaurant space are the bigger and more well-known chefs and restaurateurs. Unfortunately, it’s more probable for immigrants to close their restaurants. 

And for my aunt who's partnering with us right now, she has told us that she hasn’t been profitable, like, all of this year. And she has a family to support. She's the breadwinner; she has a son, grandson. 

And so I think there's gonna be a huge need for immigrant chefs and resources to support them. 

And lastly, just given all the recent events with the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, I think there's this huge shift in how we are being vocal about the change we want to see. And so I think there's gonna be some strong support in what we're trying to do and how relatable it is to people within our community in finally getting to see this kind of product in the market, right? I know this is something that you care deeply about, too.

Hedy: Yeah definitely and I think that it’s really exciting to see so many Asian American brands that are starting to bubble up and take positions of advocacy rather than assimilation, which I think brands in the past have had to do to survive, not because that’s what they were about. 

And I think Asian Americans, for me personally, it’s been very difficult to find my place in America. It sometimes feels like belonging is conditional. So creating this brand that truly is true to our experience is really powerful. It’s amazing that we get to be part of that little bubbling of Asian American brands.

Ashley: And for one of our last questions, what’s next? What are we up to?

Hedy: So what’s next for Rooted Fare, we’re going to do a lot more testing, testing, and testing for sure. We feel really lucky we have such great resources from the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute. We’ve done the Startup Bootcamp, the J-Term Startup Sprint, and we’re going to be starting Summer Launchpad soon. So they’ve been really advocating for testing our hypotheses and that’s been very helpful to us up until this point and we’re going to continue to do that. 

We’re going to continue to talk to our customers to see what they love about us and what we can do better and to deliver on our impact on immigrant chefs and that community and also for our Asian Americans consumers.

Ashley: To round it out, thank you so much for tuning in and checking us out. Definitely hit up our website to try some of our sauces. Or hit us up on Instagram @Rooted.Fare. Thank you!

Article courtesy of the NYU Entrepreneurship Institute – you can also access the original piece on their site.

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