MìLà’s Journey From Restaurant Success To CPG Triumph

Food & Drink

In a culinary landscape marked by innovation and a blending of cultures, MìLà, a modern Chinese food company, stands out as a beacon of success. From its humble beginnings as a restaurant in 2018 to its triumphant foray into the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) realm, MìLà’s unique approach, guided by quality, accessibility, and a third-culture perspective, has captured the hearts and palates of a diverse and expanding audience. I sat down with Jen Liao, Co-Founder and President of MìLà to learn more about how these former restaurant owners pivoted during COVID to turn one of their favorite dishes into a frozen food success story.

Dave Knox – I’m fascinated by the origin story of MìLà. Can you provide some insights into what the brand represents and the inspiration behind its launch?

Jen Liao – MìLà is a contemporary Chinese food company that kicked off its journey in 2020 with a focus on frozen soup dumplings. Our roots trace back to October 2018 when we initially established ourselves as a fast-casual restaurant. At that time, we specialized in serving unique Chinese street food, with our standout product being the sheng jian bao – a pan-fried soup bao, a close relative of the popular soup dumpling in China. The inspiration for our venture was simple – a desire to bring this delectable dish to the States and savor our favorite food in person. This led to the inception of the restaurant concept.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, we faced a temporary closure for a few weeks. During this hiatus, we seized the opportunity to experiment with frozen soup dumplings. We packaged them in Ziploc bags within brown paper bags, leveraging a Google form and tapping into local networks on platforms like WeChat and Facebook. This experiment marked the inception of our foray into frozen soup dumplings, with the response from the community driving us to explore this avenue further.

Knox – Transitioning from a restaurant brand to a direct-to-consumer model isn’t a straightforward path. How did you navigate the complexities of shifting from serving your amazing product in a restaurant to managing the supply chain and adhering to different regulations for a direct-to-consumer approach?

Liao – Indeed, it was a significant shift. To facilitate this transition, we made the unconventional decision to establish our own manufacturing facility, adding a layer of vertical integration to our operations. This move allowed us to continue producing our own soup dumplings on a larger scale, a process that officially began in July 2021. As part of our growth strategy, we are currently in the process of moving into a new, even larger facility to enhance our manufacturing capacity.

On the supply chain and logistics front, it has been an ongoing and evolving project. Initially, we focused on local deliveries in the Seattle area, near Bellevue where our restaurant was located. In the early stages, we handled deliveries ourselves using Taskrabbit. As demand grew, we engaged last-mile logistics partners to extend our delivery reach within the State of Washington. Gradually, we expanded beyond Washington, covering the entire Pacific Northwest and eventually reaching customers across the United States.

Dealing with the challenge of shipping frozen products directly to consumers presented another layer of complexity. We undertook the task of building a network of frozen warehouse partners to ensure the safe and reliable delivery of our products to customers’ doorsteps. This aspect of our e-commerce strategy, involving frozen products, is somewhat unusual, and it required substantial effort. Building and refining this network took approximately one to two years, and we continue to work tirelessly to guarantee the integrity of our products during transportation, ensuring they arrive frozen and in optimal condition.

Knox – You embarked on this journey in 2018, introduced the frozen product in 2020, but MìLà became the global face of your brand just a year ago. What prompted the decision to rebrand?

Liao – When we started, our focus was on a local audience with a restaurant concept centered around Chinese street food. Our initial name, Xiao Chi Jie, literally translated to “street food alley,” reflecting this localized approach and catering primarily to a Chinese audience familiar with the concept.

As we expanded nationally and broadened our product offerings, it became evident that a more inclusive and versatile name was needed. The name MìLà, meaning honey and spice, perfectly encapsulates our vision. “Mì” represents honey, and “Là” signifies pepper or spice. Interestingly, this name was initially considered for a daughter, but as fate had it, we had a son and chose a different name for him. However, the resonance of MìLà with its connotations of embracing duality – being both Chinese and American, not either/or – made it the ideal name for our company. It captures the essence of our journey as third-culture individuals navigating our space in the Chinese American community, owning our heritage, and simultaneously creating something new and innovative.

Knox – The term “third culture kid” is integral to your identity and brand. How has this concept influenced the decisions you’ve made, especially in the context of expanding nationwide?

Liao – Being a third culture kids means that our first cultural influence is from our parents’ foreign country, which, in our case, is China. The second culture is the one we are immersed in, the United States. The third culture emerges as a fusion of both, shaping our unique lived experiences. As third culture kids, our goal is authenticity – staying true to who we are and expressing our personal experiences.

While we can’t claim to speak for the entire Chinese population or culture, we can authentically represent our own experiences, preferences, and the foods we enjoy. Our approach to food acknowledges the rich heritage, culture, and history rooted in the meals we had at home, reflecting our parents’ cooking and homestyle dishes. However, it also embraces the evolution we’ve witnessed, having grown up with various cuisines and flavors. This blending of traditions and innovations is reflected in the food we create – a cuisine crafted not only for our own enjoyment but also reflective of our unique perspective.

In our product range, you’ll find offerings that honor tradition, like the soup dumpling with origins in Shanghai or Taiwanese flavors. At the same time, we respond to market demands and preferences by evolving traditional items. For instance, there’s a growing demand for vegan, gluten-free, and clean label soup dumplings. We adapt to these preferences while staying rooted in the current culinary landscape.

We also explore entirely new culinary territories, introducing limited-edition soup dumplings with innovative flavors. From a Taiwanese-inspired beef noodle soup dumpling to a Hong Kong-inspired creamy corn soup dumpling and even a pho soup dumpling, we’re pushing boundaries and imagining new possibilities within the culinary sphere. This experimentation allows us to think outside the box and redefine the boundaries of what this cuisine could look like.

Knox – The landscape of Asian foods has experienced a remarkable renaissance, with a blending of cultures evident on CPG shelves. How do you anticipate this evolving landscape in the coming years?

Liao – The dynamics of grocery store shelves are fascinating, and our journey into this space has been a learning experience. Our initial motivation was to create food that we would want to eat, and as we transitioned from e-commerce to retail, we gained insights into this environment.

What we’ve observed is that while Chinese food products exist on the shelves, they often represent the same offerings that have persisted for a long time. Strong incumbents dominate this space, but the flavors and products have not necessarily evolved over the past few decades. The preferences of the current consumer population have shifted, creating a demand for authentic, high-quality Chinese food that hasn’t been adequately represented on the shelves.

Historically, Chinese food has sometimes been perceived as lower quality or cheaper, perpetuating a cycle where hitting certain price points limited innovation. By entering the scene with a fresh perspective, we’ve had the opportunity to reset this narrative, introducing new ingredients, flavors, and approaches. The positive reception we’ve experienced indicates a latent demand for authentic Chinese food that meets contemporary expectations.

While the Chinese food market in restaurants is thriving, it hasn’t been fully reflected on grocery store shelves, leaving ample room for growth and innovation. The second-largest ethnic food industry in the restaurant space hints at a latent demand that we aim to fulfill by offering authentic, high-quality Chinese food in retail. Additionally, the space for creating third-culture culinary concepts is wide open, and we plan to continue testing different concepts to meet evolving consumer interests.

Knox – In the past year, you brought on a Chief Content Officer, Simu Liu, adding a touch of celebrity to your business. How are you leveraging this to communicate the challenges and nuances within Asian food culture?

Liao – Our collaboration with Simu Liu began last year, and it has been impactful. Together, we launched two TV streaming campaigns coinciding with our entry into retail. The objective was to narrate the story of Chinese food, Chinese American food, and delve into the meaning of culture and craftsmanship within this culinary realm. By doing so, we aimed to reach a broader audience, educate them, and redefine the narrative surrounding Chinese food.

Our approach is multi-faceted, encompassing organic social media efforts on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and YouTube shorts. This strategy has allowed us to reach a larger and diverse audience, resonating with people in different ways when someone else shares our story. Simu, known for his commitment to advancing Asian audience initiatives, provides a unique and influential perspective, serving as a powerful ally in our storytelling efforts. His involvement creates a meaningful crossroads, amplifying our message and contributing to the broader conversation around Asian food culture.

Knox – In 2020, many restaurateurs found themselves in a similar position as you did, considering whether their product could transcend the confines of their restaurant. For those hesitant to take the leap, what advice would you offer on determining if their concept can become a consumer packaged goods (CPG) product?

Liao – Reflecting on our experience, a couple of factors played in our favor. Firstly, we benefited from favorable timing, especially in terms of online advertising. During that period, ad costs were considerably lower due to many advertisers withdrawing, creating a cost-effective environment for testing new concepts. Embracing a testing mindset was crucial for us. We conducted numerous tests, launching in different regions, varying price points, altering packaging, shipping methods, and messaging. This iterative approach allowed us to gather early data and quickly identify product-market fit, a challenge that many struggle with.

Finding the right intersection of timing, product, and audience proved to be a dream scenario for us. Leveraging this, we prioritized vertical integration. Despite initial challenges, our commitment to producing the product ourselves, rather than relying on a co-packer, became a defining choice. We were adamant about the quality we wanted, having started as a restaurant, and felt that going the co-packer route wouldn’t align with our standards. While building our own production capabilities presented different challenges, including unit economics, business model adjustments, team expansion, facility setup, and equipment acquisition, it essentially meant creating a second company.

Despite the difficulties, this decision allowed us to move swiftly and maintain alignment with our company values. For restaurateurs contemplating the transition to a CPG product, embracing a testing mindset, capitalizing on timing, and carefully considering the production approach are key elements to navigate this transformative journey.

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