Industry Buzz

United Tastes of America: AAPI Brands Updating the Chain Grocery Store “Ethnic Aisle” 

We are on a mission to change the way we see “American” food by bringing awareness to the makers who are sharing their culture through the products they sell.

United Tastes of America: AAPI Brands Updating the Chain Grocery Store “Ethnic Aisle” 

There are so many exciting CPG products that are deliciousiously and thoughtfully introducing new flavors to the American palate. Foodboro has previously featured some of our favorite brands offering traditional flavors through innovative products that take care to amplify the stories of the cultures that are often under-or-mis-represented in the food world. Founders of these brands are building their own recipes for success by creating the products they want to see in the grocery aisles. 

To do a deeper dive into the impacts and challenges of creating brands that celebrate multiculturalism and history, we spoke with two founders bringing AAPI flavors to market: Michael Pan on his company Pan’s Mushrooms and Kim Pham on her family brand Omsom. We chatted with them about the evolution of the grocery store aisles, connecting the brand to history through storytelling, and the long-term impacts they each hope to make. 

Get CPG trends, news and deep-dives delivered straight to your inbox when you sign up for the FREE Foodboro newsletter!

Michael Pan, founder of Pan’s Mushroom Jerky,  first tried mushroom jerky on his first trip to Malaysia, the homeland of his father. He was fed a lot. When his cousin, a vegetarian Buddhist, put out a bowl that resembled meat, Michael payed attention. He learned that this amazing culture had been using ingredients creatively to replace meant in many different ways, including the mushroom jerky that he mistook for meat. 

Kim Phâm is one half of the founding team behind Omsom, a line of Southeast and East Asian inspired sauce starters. The other half of the team: her sister Vanessa. After years working in startups and consulting, Kim and Vanessa joined forces to create their dream company, one that would honor their Vietnamese culture and celebrate their mother’s love of cooking Viet dinners from scratch every night for her family. 

When did you know you could build a business around your family’s recipes?

Kim: As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of refugees, food is not just a love language for us, it’s a way for us to re-engage with our identities as WOC and “third culture.” My sister and co-founder Vanessa and I have long wanted to start a business together - we’re best friends. Growing up, we never felt represented by the “ethnic” aisle in mainstream grocery stores (why they still exist is beyond me!?) - so we set out to build a company that reclaims the complexity, integrity, and nuances of Asian cuisines and communities.

Michael: I immediately knew we had something special, this was even before the plant-based movement. I worked with my family for a number of years on the recipes. In 2016 the market was ripe for a product like ours, the jerky options were growing and snacking on the go was becoming more important. I was seeing mushrooms leaping out of the produce aisle because of all their nutritional benefits. It wasn’t until 2018 that I went full time. 

What challenges have you faced in growing your brand?

Kim: The current Asian CPG category which is dominated by stereotypical tropes— think bamboo fonts, panda bears, and dragons —are a reflection of an outdated, reductionist view of Asian cuisines and cultures that are anything but monolithic. That’s a huge challenge for us to overcome. On-screen and on-shelf, Omsom’s brand signifies an intention to make you think about what a next-gen Asian brand can look like –– one that isn't rooted in nostalgia or Orientalist stereotypes, but instead feels active, exploratory, and adventurous. It is rowdy and rambunctious without asking for permission. 

Michael: We’re bringing new concepts to the industry, so I think it’s more of a challenge to foresee how items will be received in the market, it takes more research on both retailer partners and consumers. Many brands together have brought attention to more ethnic brands in general. We’re seeing more dramatic shifts in terms of consumers being more excited about these products. We’re living through that evolution. On the plus side of it, we’re not alone, there are a lot of brands working at it too. One thing I’m happy to see is the increase in DEI programs that retailers have. I haven’t been in this industry for long, but I’ve seen a lot more resources put into DEI programs in retailers and this gives us an opportunity to be heard and to present, whereas otherwise we might not be seen. Retailers are seeing the value we can bring. We can see the shift that consumers are wanting more diverse products and brands. 

What role does storytelling in your advertising, marketing, and overall brand appeal?

Kim: We exist to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes in Asian flavors and stories. We relish in the opportunity to tell that story across platforms in a way that feels exciting and accessible - while also being proud and loud about our mission. We don’t pull our punches - from shouting from the rooftops about stereotypes and tropes that plague the Asian American community (MSG being “bad” for you, the fetishization of Asian women, pigeonholing Asian food as only being “cheap”) to living our values as a small, queer, WOC-run business. No diluted flavors and no cultural compromise - Omsom is here to give it to you straight and invite you along the way. We believe deeply in the need for more Asian American perspectives and in the power of cultural resonance -- so we invest here to build a brand that will stand the test of time.

Michael: We have an intereseting problem. We hit a number of check boxes as we are a healthy snack option, a sustainble product, plant-based, and of course, the story behind the recipe and my story as a first general American. All of these topics are important to our mission and what we are doing. We want to highlight all the things our product brings, how do we make sure we continue to highlight where our product is rooted in. We know it’s important. 

We lean heavily our our origin story and the culture that has been doing this for a long time, it’s important to give that hat tip, to give credit where it’s due. Chinese cultures has used mushrooms for ages. In food and medicine. I grew up with that. It’s important for me to communicate that in a concise way amongst all of the benefits we can speak to. Our challenge, and maybe it’s a lucky one to have, is to figure out where that fits into our overall story when we have so many great aspects of our product to highlight.  

What do imagine for the grocery store of the future? 

Kim: The mainstream grocery store is largely centered around a diet rooted in 20th century white Americana -- in particular, we examine the “ethnic” aisle. The continued existence of this aisle is a reflection of viewing BIPOC communities as “other” and separate from the mainstream. The DNA of this country is changing before our eyes (⅓ of the US is now comprised of immigrants and their children) and Americans across the board are increasingly excited about food from communities of colour - so this aisle still confounds me (also who gets to determine what is considered “ethnic”...).

I am hopeful for a future where this aisle no longer exists and instead, products are classified by functional category. A future where gochujang sits next to mayonnaise and achaar, and rice noodles sits next to pasta and sweet potato noodles. Re-imagining this modern, more equitable grocery store creates room for more widespread discovery and adoption - in a fair way for both culturally voracious consumers and change-making POC makers + artisans. 

Michael: When I started out, there wasn’t much emphasis on international snacks, in CPG generally. It was there, but it was confined to the “ethnic aisle” and in the past 2-3 years, it’s been amazing to see, and I give credit to a lot of brands out there pushing the envelope, like Snack Futures and other AAPI brands like Chilli Crisp by Fly by Jing and Sanzos.  It’s really amazing to see to me that it’s becoming more open and people are looking to taking it out of that ethnic aisle. 

For our product, in some stores it was always in the section that was free of everything- gluten free/healthy/plant based sections. Those are great but I think they’ve evolved quickly because of how consumers shop. If you’re already looking for those items, wonderful, there’s a spot for that. But we want to be introduced to more people who might be considering reducing meat consumption. We’ve always pushed to have our product in the jerky aisle, and it just becomes more and more clear that we should be along with the meat products.  We do also cross into the functional snacks, the better for you- chickpea snacks, etc. It’s been helpful for us to be in that set. It’s a small example- there are tons of jerky shops around the country. Probably ten yeras ago I never thought they’d want a vegan, plant based option. Today they want that. They’ve seen that we’re a gateway to meat-eaters who want mushrooms in general.

What impact do you hope to have?

Kim: I truly believe that the country’s culture is evolving in front of our eyes - into one where communities of color are not flattened, reduced, or silenced - but proudly celebrated and reclaiming our own narratives for ourselves, on our own terms. Omsom is me and Vanessa’s way of living that mission for ourselves - to build a proud and loud Asian American brand that can make our community feel seen, but that can also show non-Asian Americans how it looks to do this category right.

Michael: I hope that our product is around for a long time. The benefits we bring are valuable to consumers, whether that’s adding mushrooms to your diet, reducing meat consumption, or offering more sustainable options. I want that to have an impact on the world in general. A big part of that is highlighting the many unique and amazing foods that exist in cultures around the world, so that they can be embraced. That these foods are normal in those places, and trying is a great way to open up to new things and learn about people in other cultures. Our hope is that it opens a door to learn about others and that we can play a small part in that.

Be the first to know all the hottest trends in Food & Beverage when you sign up for our weekly newsletter!

There are so many exciting CPG products that are deliciousiously and thoughtfully introducing new flavors to the American palate. Foodboro has previously featured some of our favorite brands offering traditional flavors through innovative products that take care to amplify the stories of the cultures that are often under-or-mis-represented in the food world. Founders of these brands are building their own recipes for success by creating the products they want to see in the grocery aisles. 

To do a deeper dive into the impacts and challenges of creating brands that celebrate multiculturalism and history, we spoke with two founders bringing AAPI flavors to market: Michael Pan on his company Pan’s Mushrooms and Kim Pham on her family brand Omsom. We chatted with them about the evolution of the grocery store aisles, connecting the brand to history through storytelling, and the long-term impacts they each hope to make. 

Get CPG trends, news and deep-dives delivered straight to your inbox when you sign up for the FREE Foodboro newsletter!

Michael Pan, founder of Pan’s Mushroom Jerky,  first tried mushroom jerky on his first trip to Malaysia, the homeland of his father. He was fed a lot. When his cousin, a vegetarian Buddhist, put out a bowl that resembled meat, Michael payed attention. He learned that this amazing culture had been using ingredients creatively to replace meant in many different ways, including the mushroom jerky that he mistook for meat. 

Kim Phâm is one half of the founding team behind Omsom, a line of Southeast and East Asian inspired sauce starters. The other half of the team: her sister Vanessa. After years working in startups and consulting, Kim and Vanessa joined forces to create their dream company, one that would honor their Vietnamese culture and celebrate their mother’s love of cooking Viet dinners from scratch every night for her family. 

When did you know you could build a business around your family’s recipes?

Kim: As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of refugees, food is not just a love language for us, it’s a way for us to re-engage with our identities as WOC and “third culture.” My sister and co-founder Vanessa and I have long wanted to start a business together - we’re best friends. Growing up, we never felt represented by the “ethnic” aisle in mainstream grocery stores (why they still exist is beyond me!?) - so we set out to build a company that reclaims the complexity, integrity, and nuances of Asian cuisines and communities.

Michael: I immediately knew we had something special, this was even before the plant-based movement. I worked with my family for a number of years on the recipes. In 2016 the market was ripe for a product like ours, the jerky options were growing and snacking on the go was becoming more important. I was seeing mushrooms leaping out of the produce aisle because of all their nutritional benefits. It wasn’t until 2018 that I went full time. 

What challenges have you faced in growing your brand?

Kim: The current Asian CPG category which is dominated by stereotypical tropes— think bamboo fonts, panda bears, and dragons —are a reflection of an outdated, reductionist view of Asian cuisines and cultures that are anything but monolithic. That’s a huge challenge for us to overcome. On-screen and on-shelf, Omsom’s brand signifies an intention to make you think about what a next-gen Asian brand can look like –– one that isn't rooted in nostalgia or Orientalist stereotypes, but instead feels active, exploratory, and adventurous. It is rowdy and rambunctious without asking for permission. 

Michael: We’re bringing new concepts to the industry, so I think it’s more of a challenge to foresee how items will be received in the market, it takes more research on both retailer partners and consumers. Many brands together have brought attention to more ethnic brands in general. We’re seeing more dramatic shifts in terms of consumers being more excited about these products. We’re living through that evolution. On the plus side of it, we’re not alone, there are a lot of brands working at it too. One thing I’m happy to see is the increase in DEI programs that retailers have. I haven’t been in this industry for long, but I’ve seen a lot more resources put into DEI programs in retailers and this gives us an opportunity to be heard and to present, whereas otherwise we might not be seen. Retailers are seeing the value we can bring. We can see the shift that consumers are wanting more diverse products and brands. 

What role does storytelling in your advertising, marketing, and overall brand appeal?

Kim: We exist to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes in Asian flavors and stories. We relish in the opportunity to tell that story across platforms in a way that feels exciting and accessible - while also being proud and loud about our mission. We don’t pull our punches - from shouting from the rooftops about stereotypes and tropes that plague the Asian American community (MSG being “bad” for you, the fetishization of Asian women, pigeonholing Asian food as only being “cheap”) to living our values as a small, queer, WOC-run business. No diluted flavors and no cultural compromise - Omsom is here to give it to you straight and invite you along the way. We believe deeply in the need for more Asian American perspectives and in the power of cultural resonance -- so we invest here to build a brand that will stand the test of time.

Michael: We have an intereseting problem. We hit a number of check boxes as we are a healthy snack option, a sustainble product, plant-based, and of course, the story behind the recipe and my story as a first general American. All of these topics are important to our mission and what we are doing. We want to highlight all the things our product brings, how do we make sure we continue to highlight where our product is rooted in. We know it’s important. 

We lean heavily our our origin story and the culture that has been doing this for a long time, it’s important to give that hat tip, to give credit where it’s due. Chinese cultures has used mushrooms for ages. In food and medicine. I grew up with that. It’s important for me to communicate that in a concise way amongst all of the benefits we can speak to. Our challenge, and maybe it’s a lucky one to have, is to figure out where that fits into our overall story when we have so many great aspects of our product to highlight.  

What do imagine for the grocery store of the future? 

Kim: The mainstream grocery store is largely centered around a diet rooted in 20th century white Americana -- in particular, we examine the “ethnic” aisle. The continued existence of this aisle is a reflection of viewing BIPOC communities as “other” and separate from the mainstream. The DNA of this country is changing before our eyes (⅓ of the US is now comprised of immigrants and their children) and Americans across the board are increasingly excited about food from communities of colour - so this aisle still confounds me (also who gets to determine what is considered “ethnic”...).

I am hopeful for a future where this aisle no longer exists and instead, products are classified by functional category. A future where gochujang sits next to mayonnaise and achaar, and rice noodles sits next to pasta and sweet potato noodles. Re-imagining this modern, more equitable grocery store creates room for more widespread discovery and adoption - in a fair way for both culturally voracious consumers and change-making POC makers + artisans. 

Michael: When I started out, there wasn’t much emphasis on international snacks, in CPG generally. It was there, but it was confined to the “ethnic aisle” and in the past 2-3 years, it’s been amazing to see, and I give credit to a lot of brands out there pushing the envelope, like Snack Futures and other AAPI brands like Chilli Crisp by Fly by Jing and Sanzos.  It’s really amazing to see to me that it’s becoming more open and people are looking to taking it out of that ethnic aisle. 

For our product, in some stores it was always in the section that was free of everything- gluten free/healthy/plant based sections. Those are great but I think they’ve evolved quickly because of how consumers shop. If you’re already looking for those items, wonderful, there’s a spot for that. But we want to be introduced to more people who might be considering reducing meat consumption. We’ve always pushed to have our product in the jerky aisle, and it just becomes more and more clear that we should be along with the meat products.  We do also cross into the functional snacks, the better for you- chickpea snacks, etc. It’s been helpful for us to be in that set. It’s a small example- there are tons of jerky shops around the country. Probably ten yeras ago I never thought they’d want a vegan, plant based option. Today they want that. They’ve seen that we’re a gateway to meat-eaters who want mushrooms in general.

What impact do you hope to have?

Kim: I truly believe that the country’s culture is evolving in front of our eyes - into one where communities of color are not flattened, reduced, or silenced - but proudly celebrated and reclaiming our own narratives for ourselves, on our own terms. Omsom is me and Vanessa’s way of living that mission for ourselves - to build a proud and loud Asian American brand that can make our community feel seen, but that can also show non-Asian Americans how it looks to do this category right.

Michael: I hope that our product is around for a long time. The benefits we bring are valuable to consumers, whether that’s adding mushrooms to your diet, reducing meat consumption, or offering more sustainable options. I want that to have an impact on the world in general. A big part of that is highlighting the many unique and amazing foods that exist in cultures around the world, so that they can be embraced. That these foods are normal in those places, and trying is a great way to open up to new things and learn about people in other cultures. Our hope is that it opens a door to learn about others and that we can play a small part in that.

Be the first to know all the hottest trends in Food & Beverage when you sign up for our weekly newsletter!

There are so many exciting CPG products that are deliciousiously and thoughtfully introducing new flavors to the American palate. Foodboro has previously featured some of our favorite brands offering traditional flavors through innovative products that take care to amplify the stories of the cultures that are often under-or-mis-represented in the food world. Founders of these brands are building their own recipes for success by creating the products they want to see in the grocery aisles. 

To do a deeper dive into the impacts and challenges of creating brands that celebrate multiculturalism and history, we spoke with two founders bringing AAPI flavors to market: Michael Pan on his company Pan’s Mushrooms and Kim Pham on her family brand Omsom. We chatted with them about the evolution of the grocery store aisles, connecting the brand to history through storytelling, and the long-term impacts they each hope to make. 

Get CPG trends, news and deep-dives delivered straight to your inbox when you sign up for the FREE Foodboro newsletter!

Michael Pan, founder of Pan’s Mushroom Jerky,  first tried mushroom jerky on his first trip to Malaysia, the homeland of his father. He was fed a lot. When his cousin, a vegetarian Buddhist, put out a bowl that resembled meat, Michael payed attention. He learned that this amazing culture had been using ingredients creatively to replace meant in many different ways, including the mushroom jerky that he mistook for meat. 

Kim Phâm is one half of the founding team behind Omsom, a line of Southeast and East Asian inspired sauce starters. The other half of the team: her sister Vanessa. After years working in startups and consulting, Kim and Vanessa joined forces to create their dream company, one that would honor their Vietnamese culture and celebrate their mother’s love of cooking Viet dinners from scratch every night for her family. 

When did you know you could build a business around your family’s recipes?

Kim: As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of refugees, food is not just a love language for us, it’s a way for us to re-engage with our identities as WOC and “third culture.” My sister and co-founder Vanessa and I have long wanted to start a business together - we’re best friends. Growing up, we never felt represented by the “ethnic” aisle in mainstream grocery stores (why they still exist is beyond me!?) - so we set out to build a company that reclaims the complexity, integrity, and nuances of Asian cuisines and communities.

Michael: I immediately knew we had something special, this was even before the plant-based movement. I worked with my family for a number of years on the recipes. In 2016 the market was ripe for a product like ours, the jerky options were growing and snacking on the go was becoming more important. I was seeing mushrooms leaping out of the produce aisle because of all their nutritional benefits. It wasn’t until 2018 that I went full time. 

What challenges have you faced in growing your brand?

Kim: The current Asian CPG category which is dominated by stereotypical tropes— think bamboo fonts, panda bears, and dragons —are a reflection of an outdated, reductionist view of Asian cuisines and cultures that are anything but monolithic. That’s a huge challenge for us to overcome. On-screen and on-shelf, Omsom’s brand signifies an intention to make you think about what a next-gen Asian brand can look like –– one that isn't rooted in nostalgia or Orientalist stereotypes, but instead feels active, exploratory, and adventurous. It is rowdy and rambunctious without asking for permission. 

Michael: We’re bringing new concepts to the industry, so I think it’s more of a challenge to foresee how items will be received in the market, it takes more research on both retailer partners and consumers. Many brands together have brought attention to more ethnic brands in general. We’re seeing more dramatic shifts in terms of consumers being more excited about these products. We’re living through that evolution. On the plus side of it, we’re not alone, there are a lot of brands working at it too. One thing I’m happy to see is the increase in DEI programs that retailers have. I haven’t been in this industry for long, but I’ve seen a lot more resources put into DEI programs in retailers and this gives us an opportunity to be heard and to present, whereas otherwise we might not be seen. Retailers are seeing the value we can bring. We can see the shift that consumers are wanting more diverse products and brands. 

What role does storytelling in your advertising, marketing, and overall brand appeal?

Kim: We exist to reclaim and celebrate the multitudes in Asian flavors and stories. We relish in the opportunity to tell that story across platforms in a way that feels exciting and accessible - while also being proud and loud about our mission. We don’t pull our punches - from shouting from the rooftops about stereotypes and tropes that plague the Asian American community (MSG being “bad” for you, the fetishization of Asian women, pigeonholing Asian food as only being “cheap”) to living our values as a small, queer, WOC-run business. No diluted flavors and no cultural compromise - Omsom is here to give it to you straight and invite you along the way. We believe deeply in the need for more Asian American perspectives and in the power of cultural resonance -- so we invest here to build a brand that will stand the test of time.

Michael: We have an intereseting problem. We hit a number of check boxes as we are a healthy snack option, a sustainble product, plant-based, and of course, the story behind the recipe and my story as a first general American. All of these topics are important to our mission and what we are doing. We want to highlight all the things our product brings, how do we make sure we continue to highlight where our product is rooted in. We know it’s important. 

We lean heavily our our origin story and the culture that has been doing this for a long time, it’s important to give that hat tip, to give credit where it’s due. Chinese cultures has used mushrooms for ages. In food and medicine. I grew up with that. It’s important for me to communicate that in a concise way amongst all of the benefits we can speak to. Our challenge, and maybe it’s a lucky one to have, is to figure out where that fits into our overall story when we have so many great aspects of our product to highlight.  

What do imagine for the grocery store of the future? 

Kim: The mainstream grocery store is largely centered around a diet rooted in 20th century white Americana -- in particular, we examine the “ethnic” aisle. The continued existence of this aisle is a reflection of viewing BIPOC communities as “other” and separate from the mainstream. The DNA of this country is changing before our eyes (⅓ of the US is now comprised of immigrants and their children) and Americans across the board are increasingly excited about food from communities of colour - so this aisle still confounds me (also who gets to determine what is considered “ethnic”...).

I am hopeful for a future where this aisle no longer exists and instead, products are classified by functional category. A future where gochujang sits next to mayonnaise and achaar, and rice noodles sits next to pasta and sweet potato noodles. Re-imagining this modern, more equitable grocery store creates room for more widespread discovery and adoption - in a fair way for both culturally voracious consumers and change-making POC makers + artisans. 

Michael: When I started out, there wasn’t much emphasis on international snacks, in CPG generally. It was there, but it was confined to the “ethnic aisle” and in the past 2-3 years, it’s been amazing to see, and I give credit to a lot of brands out there pushing the envelope, like Snack Futures and other AAPI brands like Chilli Crisp by Fly by Jing and Sanzos.  It’s really amazing to see to me that it’s becoming more open and people are looking to taking it out of that ethnic aisle. 

For our product, in some stores it was always in the section that was free of everything- gluten free/healthy/plant based sections. Those are great but I think they’ve evolved quickly because of how consumers shop. If you’re already looking for those items, wonderful, there’s a spot for that. But we want to be introduced to more people who might be considering reducing meat consumption. We’ve always pushed to have our product in the jerky aisle, and it just becomes more and more clear that we should be along with the meat products.  We do also cross into the functional snacks, the better for you- chickpea snacks, etc. It’s been helpful for us to be in that set. It’s a small example- there are tons of jerky shops around the country. Probably ten yeras ago I never thought they’d want a vegan, plant based option. Today they want that. They’ve seen that we’re a gateway to meat-eaters who want mushrooms in general.

What impact do you hope to have?

Kim: I truly believe that the country’s culture is evolving in front of our eyes - into one where communities of color are not flattened, reduced, or silenced - but proudly celebrated and reclaiming our own narratives for ourselves, on our own terms. Omsom is me and Vanessa’s way of living that mission for ourselves - to build a proud and loud Asian American brand that can make our community feel seen, but that can also show non-Asian Americans how it looks to do this category right.

Michael: I hope that our product is around for a long time. The benefits we bring are valuable to consumers, whether that’s adding mushrooms to your diet, reducing meat consumption, or offering more sustainable options. I want that to have an impact on the world in general. A big part of that is highlighting the many unique and amazing foods that exist in cultures around the world, so that they can be embraced. That these foods are normal in those places, and trying is a great way to open up to new things and learn about people in other cultures. Our hope is that it opens a door to learn about others and that we can play a small part in that.

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