How does a DJ whose band used to sell pop ditties to reality TV franchises also find himself to be a steadily-growing purveyor of kimchi, the tasty Korean pickled cabbage dish?
Craving something fresh and familiar
Mama O’s Premium Kimchi started around three years ago in 2009 when Oh (pictured), who now lives in New York, decided that he needed access to kimchi on a regular basis, and he wanted kimchi as good as that of his mother’s (who lived back in his hometown of Maryland).
“All I was finding in New York was stuff that was gross and commercially-made. It was all over-processed, too sweet, and full of MSG."
Initially, Oh satiated his cravings simply by riding the Chinatown bus lines between the two states and bringing vats of the stinky yet tasty dish back to New York with him.
“It was me and two coolers of kimchi riding the bus,” says Oh. “Back then I was so poor, I couldn’t afford a cab. So I'd wheel those coolers home from the bus station on my skateboard.”
He quickly realized that he'd rather learn how to make kimchi himself, so he spent time in the kitchen with his mother learning how to make the perfect batch.
"The art is figuring out how to maximize flavor out [of] what you have, “ says Oh. “Kimchi is like wine. It ferments, so it takes time to develop. It doesn’t taste the same as when you make it as when you eat it. You want it to be that perfect mix of sour, crunchy, fresh and tart."
Cooking up something for the community
Oh shared his personal batches with friends, and it started to build something of an underground following.
“Since this was all kind of accidental, looking back I guess you could say this was me doing market research.”
It was when he brought a jar to his butcher, Jeffrey Ruhalter of Jeffrey’s Meat Market, that Oh realized he might be seriously onto something. Ruhalter sampled the goods, and came back to Oh immediately to put in an order. He wanted to start carrying Oh’s kimchi.
Once the order was made, Oh had to mobilize in order to make his personal hobby a product for public consumption. He quickly had to choose a name and conceptualize packaging.
"I chose Mama O’s to pay homage to my mom," he says. "You can’t go wrong with maternal figures."
Oh got a graphic designer friend to create and design the label. He then went to great lengths to determine the best way to package his product. Plastic was only initially ideal because it was more cost effective, but once Mama O’s kicked off and started bringing in more orders, Oh switched to a sleeker and more upscale looking glass container.
“I knew if I was going to start this business, that I was going to enter the market introducing kimchi as a gourmet food option. If I was going to purport to have this gourmet product then I needed the right packaging and design,” says Oh.
Crafting a competitive gourmet American product vs. a niche ethnic product
Mama O’s wasn’t the first kimchi company to hit the market. There are fewer than a handful of competitors in the New York area. Mama O’s aim then was to improve on the elements his competitors lacked.
“The truth is, there was a lack of a premium kimchi,” says Oh. “The others were more factory-made. Also, no one was making kimchi that was bite size like my mom’s. I hand-cut each piece to be bite size where you could eat it right out of the jar. I also use cilantro. That’s my mom’s unique, non-Korean touch.”
And unlike his competitors, the Korean demographic was not his target market.
“My goal was simply the American market. It’s not about competing with big brands, the cut rate, the McDonald’s. I’m not inventing something. I’m late getting into the game, so I just had to do something different. I just like kimchi. I want to be the best. I want everyone to like kimchi and think Mama O’s is the best.”
Creating a buzz and a cult-like following
Truth be told, not everyone craves pickled cabbage. Oh understands that he’s got a very specific audience to entertain, but there is opportunity to introduce kimchi to the open-minded and curious. One solution has been coordinating an array of kimchi events. Oh does a kimchi tasting where he pairs his grub with say, a flight of Belgian beers from a bar he partners with. He also participates in New York’s annual Pickle Day.
Additionally, Oh is responsible for Kimchipalooza, a festival where a host of activities—from kimchi-making demos to a homemade kimchee-making contest, where his very own Mama Oh judges—are organized to spice things up for a spicy-food loving community. Last year The Beatards performed "The Kimchi Song" at the Korea Day festival in New York.
Expanding the community with real estate and a distributor
After two years of DIYing it, Mama O’s picked up a distributor. They’re currently in 30 stores and two restaurants. Food-trend wise, kimchi often appears as a quirky ingredient in non-Korean dishes. The kimchi burger and kimchi hot dog are foodie favorites. Because kimchi is a superfood, Mama O’s sells well in health food stores, too. Whole Foods is a 2012 goal for Oh. He also plans to add two more distributors in an attempt to go national with Los Angeles, his next target.
"I'd like to take sales beyond retail and add a wholesale element," says Oh.
What’s really taken Mama O’s to the next level was Oh’s big decision to stop renting communal kitchen space and actually buy a space of his own. Rather than open up a Mama O’s spot, he saw a unique opportunity in buying a deli and using the deli’s kitchen.
“It was an interesting move for me,” says Oh. “I started a whole other business and learned how to run that business in order to be able to make my kimchi in my own space. So far it’s going really well.”
With no overhead and his own kitchen, Oh is able to utilize his three employees to help him with both businesses. He's also managed so produce some big successes with his music as well. Oh and The Beatards recently mixed their beats for episodes of "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and "The Real World. After all, quips Oh: “Kimchi and DJing are just cutting and mixing!"
Photo credit: Devvon Simpson