It’s no secret that Koreans love kimchi. There’s something about the spicy, tangy crunch of fermented cabbage that Koreans can’t resist. Granny Choe’s Kimchi Company is a California-based, award-winning online kimchi business that has honed in on the booming popularity of kimchi. Curious about this unique and popular business, Korean Beacon reached out to Oghee “Granny” Choe, the authentic halmoni (grandmother) behind the business, and Connie Choe-Harikul, the co-founder and granddaughter of Oghee.
Tell us the story of how Granny Choe’s business came to be.
Connie: A few years ago, my mom had the idea of selling her kimchi online… and, as it turns out, it was just wacky enough to work. She was still working full time as an R.N. and caring for my dad who had had a stroke a few years prior. She would make Granny Choe’s business calls during breaks at her real job. I was taking care of my 5-month-old daughter and doing freelance work and dealing with that identity crisis that a lot of new mothers go through… and working on the Granny Choe’s website. It gave us a sense of ownership and an outlet to be creative, which we loved and needed.
What goals or expectations did you have for Granny Choe’s when you first got started? Have your goals been realized or exceeded?
Connie: We knew our kimchi was great and wanted to A) have it be an award-winning product so that others would know it was great and B) sell our product in Whole Foods Markets because it is vegan, probiotic and all-natural. We met both of those goals within the first two years. In retrospect, things took of pretty quickly for us. But in the beginning (and heck, sometimes even now), it’s a lot of labor for few results… and a lot of uncertainty. We hope that comes as an encouragement to future entrepreneurs- doubt is a normal part of the process- press onward!
Granny Choe’s Kimchi Trio Set
The LA Weekly review mentioned that Granny Choe grew up making kimchi the old fashioned way with earthenware pottery. What are your current kimchi production methods like?
Oghee: We started out having our kimchi made at a little shop in LA’s Koreatown, and when we outgrew that space, we started renting time at a vegetarian co-op kitchen. Our kimchi is mostly still prepared and packed by hand, but we do rely on a few machines like a blender (for the garlic and ginger) and a digital scale (if our fill weights aren’t right, the jars could overflow during fermentation). We make it in modern homemade style, but on a larger scale.
What is your customer base generally like? Are your loyal consumers Korean or of another ethnicity?
Oghee: We were surprised, but most of our customers are non-Korean!
Connie: We’re always interested in hearing how they fell in love with kimchi. Some are former servicemen (and women) who developed a kimchi addiction while stationed in Korea. Some enjoyed Korean food at friends’ houses while growing up. Some are just learning about kimchi now that it’s making its way into the mainstream.
Food critic Ruth Reichl predicted that “Kimchi may push Sriracha off its perch” this year. With the recent push to globalize Korean food, how and why do you think kimchi, and Korean food in general, is growing in popularity in American diets?
Connie: This may be hard for Korean-Americans to believe, but we still have plenty of people ask us, “What is kimchi?” Korean food is growing in popularity thanks to Korean American foodie stars like Marja Vongerichten (Kimchi Chronicles), Debbie Lee (The Next Food Network Star), and Roy Choi (Kogi BBQ). Honestly, I think part of its allure is that it’s notoriously stinky and hot. And it’s an easy way to spice up an otherwise plain meal.
Your website lists a few creative kimchi recipes such as pancakes, salsa, and potstickers, whereas the news section mentions wild dishes such as the kimchi donut and kimchi grilled cheese sandwich. What are some of the most creative ways you have seen kimchi being used as an ingredient?
Connie: I’ve heard about molecular gastronomists incorporating kimchi into dishes like kimchi cracklings (Ideas in Food) and Rina Oh‘s albacore tuna carpaccio with kimchi gelee over wasabi shaved ice. Fun stuff! And on the less wild, but so delicious side, I love kimchi-topped kalbi sausages from Seoul Sausage Co.
Some say that you shouldn’t mix business with family. How do you make your grandmother-granddaughter business relationship work?
Oghee: It’s not hard to be considerate. You just have to take a little time to think about how you’d like people to act towards you, and treat other people that way—then it’s easy to work with most people. And it’s hard to work with friends or family when you’re fighting over money. It would be nice if our business could support us someday, but we’re really not focused on getting rich.
For more information on Granny Choe’s Kimchi Co, visit their site at http://www.grannychoe.com.
[Photos: Granny Choe Kimchi Co website]