Marin County resident Annie Chun, founder and CEO of Annie Chun’s Inc., the top-selling producer of all-natural, gourmet Asian foods, has taken her family’s recipes and used them to build a culinary empire with annual sales now exceeding $5 million.
It’s hard to believe that Chun started out peddling bottles of her homemade Asian sauces from a booth at the Marin County Farmers’ Market in San Rafael. But then, you hear Chun’s own story, one of similarly humble beginnings, and suddenly it all makes sense.
Chun was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States with her family in 1976. Her family settled in the Bay Area and eventually opened a small Korean restaurant on Clement Street called “Korean Roof,” where Chun worked.
“I did a little of everything [at the restaurant],” she jokes. “I was a dishwasher, I did the shopping, I bussed tables, I helped out in the kitchen, I waited on customers. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting the experience I would need later on to run my own business.”
It was while working at the restaurant that Chun says she first recognized the demand for simple but high-quality Asian dishes. The recipes her family served at Korean Roof, recipes that packed the restaurant’s dining room and consistently earned high ratings, were the same ones Chun had grown up eating.
“A light bulb went off,” she says. “I thought, ‘If I can come up with a way to make Asian cooking not so intimidating for Americans to do at home, I can turn that into something.’”
That was all the motivation that Chun needed. In 1992, with an initial investment of only $500, a good portion of which she used to rent a booth space, Chun set up shop at the popular weekend farmers’ market held in the parking lot of the Marin County Civic Center.
“I wasn’t sophisticated enough to think about whether there was competition or any of that,” she explains. “I just jumped right in because I thought it was a great chance to start my own business. If I had really sat down and thought about the details, I probably would have talked myself out of giving it a try.”
Not only did Chun sell every one of the 108 hand-made and hand-labeled jars of sauce she took to the market that first day, she did it in less than three hours.
“I was bombarded by shoppers,” she jokes. “That’s when I really knew I was on to something.”
Over the course of the next year, Chun expanded her operation to include four other farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. She personally manned a booth at each of these markets herself, an experience that Chun credits with her decision to start, as she puts it, “a real company.”
“I got to connect with the customers to find out what they like, and they got to actually meet the person whose name is on the label,” she explains. “They were very kind and very supportive. They really encouraged me.”
Chun married in 1993 and, together with her husband, the couple borrowed $10,000 from family members to grow the business. The next year, Annie Chun’s All Natural Sauces began distributing to gourmet grocery stores. Annie Chun products can now be found in 3,000 stores nationwide.
Two years after that, the company added to its growing list of products a line of Asian-style noodles, which could be combined with Annie Chun sauces and fresh vegetables to create a quick, well-balanced meal.
“I use my mother and my sister as guinea pigs,” Chun jokes. “Whenever I develop a new recipe or a new product, I go to them and ask, ‘So, what do you think”’ If they like it, I move ahead. If not, it’s back to the drawing board.”
Twelve years later, the company’s culinary repertoire also includes Chun’s award-winning three-step meal kits and a line of gourmet soup broths. The most recent additions are her Noodle Express meals, a line of noodle-and-sauce combinations, and FreshPak Noodle Bowls, a line of noodles in Asian-style broths. Chun’s noodle bowls outsold the nearest competing product by over 25 percent in 2005.
Asian food, Chun concedes, is hardly exotic nowadays. What sets her products apart from the competition, she says, is her insistence on all-natural ingredients and the company’s unique green bent. Every one of Chun’s products is totally free of trans fats, MSG and preservatives. And the microwavable containers in her Noodle Express meals and FreshPak Noodle Bowls are made of biodegradable cornstarch, which earned the company an award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004.
But the most important difference, according to Chun, is the taste.
“As far as shelf-stable food or instant food goes, it’s premium,” she says. “That’s because we use the best noodles possible and the best vegetables possible. You can taste the difference, and we’re not willing to compromise on our standards.”
Chun says she is “very involved” in every phase of production. Her current line of products, too large and in-demand to make by hand anymore, is all made at production facilities in California, most of them local. Ninety percent of the ingredients are also produced in-state.
“I could be making everything overseas for cheaper, but I don’t want to lose the personal touch,” she explains. “It’s difficult to control the quality of the product when you do that, and quality is what we’re known for.”
The new line of rice dishes is produced overseas, however. Last December, San Rafael-based Annie Chun Inc. and its small staff of nine employees and four sales team members, merged with CJ Group, the largest food manufacturer in Korea.
CJ has a state-of-the-art facility in Korea, which has developed technology that makes it possible to steam rice in the individual container in which it will be sold to consumers, making Annie Chun Inc. the first to offer microwavable short-grain sticky rice.
“I’m very excited about the merger,” Chun says. “It was a very good fit and I believe we’re going to be able to develop more innovative products with [CJ Group’s] help.”
ASIANWEEK’S TASTE TEST
Catherine Chen, Copy Editor
“The miso had too much dark soy in it. The udon noodles had a soft consistency. They tasted like the semi-fresh ones I buy at 99 Ranch, however, they were a little on the chewy side. What little tofu there was tasted like rotten bean curd. Dried tofu is not the way to go. Overall, if you’re looking for a quick meal and are not picky about taste, then go for this miso soup.”
Hot & Sour Soup:Carla Williams-Namboodiri, Former Assistant Managing Editor
“The hot spices were non-existent, even if we were talking about mild flavorings. The sour was too sour. The noodles came off like spaghetti. However, it was the disappointing bok choy and shiitake mushrooms that were mostly missing in action. This soup didn’t win over any taste buds and certainly can’t be the best of brand.”
Noodle Express Singapore Curry:Angela Pang, Community Editor
“A bitter smell greets you as you open the microwave lid. A faint scent of curry spices can be found. It’s a lot more edible than the Hot & Sour Soup and did taste like curry, with a spicy after-taste on the tongue. While it didn’t look so appetizing, it tasted OK and for someone looking for a quick fix, it’s fine.”
Carla Williams-Namboodiri, Former Assistant Managing Editor
“Big thumbs up for this one. Add a little broccoli and roasted pork to jazz it up, and it’s a great meal for one if you have to work late or the husband is away on work assignment.”
Udon Soup with Mushroom and Bok Choy:Henry Nguyen, Former Classified Advertising
“The soup base wasn’t too salty, which I liked. I also liked the fact that the udon noodles were sealed in its own separate package. As for the preserved vegetables and toppings, I didn’t really care for them. All and all, it was OK as a quick snack.”
Korean Kim chi Soup:Pearl Song, Former Circulation Staff
“The kim chi tasted surprisingly authentic and homemade. I would like to see and taste some more dehydrated carrot and scallion ingredients.”
Spicy Szechuan:Pearl Song, Former Circulation Staff
“The taste was fairly good, but chopped green and red bell peppers were nowhere to be seen, despite the photo on the cover.”
Kung Pao Noodle Bowl:Leanna Yip, Art Director
“The noodles had a nice texture, but my overall impression is one of indifference. It didn’t taste bad, it just wasn’t interesting. The toppings are so small they get easily lost in the shuffle, and certainly are not as vibrant as pictured on the packaging. Only the peanuts are of note, and there are a few too many of them. This dish is ideal only if you’re hungry and in a rush.”