Translated by Kelly Choi
Well-established in health food stores for 17 years
She disliked that Kimchi had been introduced as an unhealthy food
A Korean has been promoting Korea through Kimchi at East coast health food stores for 17 years.
Sun-ja Kim, sixty-five, started her Kimchi business 18 years ago in Vermont. She overcame difficulties with finding Kimchi ingredients, and now she supplies health food stores with Kimchi. She said she has acquired a good sense for how to market the product here.
“I struggled, but made it step by step.” said Kim, recalling when she started her business. She started to promote Kimchi in Boston, New York, and Washington through product sampling events. “I carried a big rice cooker with me, and served customers Kimchi with rice. I looked shabby, but I was confident. and I was determined to sell Kimchi to people.”
She started her Kimchi business based on her father’s advice. Although the immediate reason was her husband’s failure in business, her father’s lesson was what made her start the business to introduce Kimchi as a Korean food. “You should introduce Kimchi in the U.S. as a Korean dish,” her father urged her, because “the Japanese are trying to portray Kimchi as a Japanese food under the name Kimuchi.”
To start up the Kimchi business was not easy. The Vermont demographic is mostly white, so it was hard to get ingredients for Kimchi. “How ridiculous was it to sell Kimchi where you could not even find ingredients?” said Kim, smiling.
In the beginning, she was busy visiting Boston, three hours away, for ingredients. While commuting, she had the idea to use local vegetables to attract customers and to appeal more familiar to American households, so she started using local cabbage, leek, and garlic.
She visited local stores to peddle Kimchi to American. Seven years later, she supplied her Kimchi to the University of Vermont, Middlebury College, and Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. “I even met the university chef in person to introduce Korean food and we created a new dish.”
Since then, her Kimchi has been in local markets that sell heathy food such as Hannaford Brother’s Store, and Whole Foods stores in Boston, Florida, Colorado, New York, and New Jersey.
“I don’t want Korean food to be perceived as bad food. Then, even I could not make money, and I don’t like that. I have never received any negative feedback from health food stores, including Whole Foods, over the last 17 years.” said Kim.
She knows where her Kimchi is sold, but does not know exactly which markets are selling her product.
“The organic and healthy food sections of big markets get supplied by local wholesalers. The system is really tough.” said Kim, and added that entering the mainstream market is challenging. She emphasized the importance of building trusting relationships with local wholesalers.
“Substituting local produce for some of the ingredients of Kimchi was what brought me success. Using less sodium, and no fish sauce, MSG, or sugar, made Kimchi appeal to health-conscious Americans, so the product was able to enter health food markets.” said Kim, with pride.
“The product should be made with the care you would take making it for your family” said Kim, and, because of her age, she hopes to meet a good business partner. She suggested that if she had somebody who understood Sun-ja Kimchi well and could work together, marketing would not be a problem.