Meet the Sisters Behind the Cool Asian Pantry Brand That Had a 2,000-Person Waitlist (and Sold Out Three Times!)
For years, sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham felt completely underrepresented every time they walked down a grocery aisle. Their response? Founding a food brand that’s proud, loud, and unapologetically Asian. Omsom — named after a Vietnamese word that embodies the energy they want their brand to represent — is a line of bold sauces created in collaboration with professional chefs in an attempt to reclaim authentic Asian flavors and help Americans recreate restaurant-quality dishes at home.
Launched in the midst of a global pandemic, Omsom debuted with a Southeast Asian Sampler of six pantry shortcuts that help you nail one classic Filipinx, Thai, and Vietnamese dish each. The bright and beautifully packaged starter kits were so popular that they sold out three times and at one point even had a waitlist of over 2,000 people! Since then, Omsom has added an East Asian Sampler for fans of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisines. With Vanessa’s background in consulting for Fortune 500 CPG (consumer packaged goods) brands and Kim’s expertise in community building at venture capital firms, the sisters have their sights set on making Omsom the new Asian staple in U.S. pantries.
We chatted with Vanessa and Kim about launching a food business during this strange time, the vision behind their starter packs and flavor profiles, working together as sisters, and why Asian flavors need a brand-new narrative in 2020.
What compelled you to start a food business celebrating Asian flavors?
Vanessa: We started Omsom just from the actual experience of being Asian Americans, walking down the grocery store aisle, and feeling completely underrepresented. And when we were represented, not feeling like we were represented well. It doesn’t need to be this way in 2020, and as Asian Americans, we felt like we not only had the right background but also a deep understanding of how to do this well and how to do it with respect to the community.
What has been your biggest learning so far?
Vanessa: I have found that in this journey as an entrepreneur, investing in one’s self is so critical for the health of your company. Investing in yourself as far as getting a coach, as far as making sure you rest, so you make decisions well and personally fight the fear you feel in the challenges that you have to face. And if you put the business before yourself, the business will actually suffer. It’s not indulgent to invest in one’s self, it’s actually critical to unlock positive experiences.
Kim: When we first launched, I felt like we were coming out with a bold and potentially divisive stand, this idea of a proud and loud Asian brand. It stems from Vanessa and I being first-generation Vietnamese daughters of refugees, and I remember thinking before we hit go, like, is the world ready, should we tone it down, play it safe? But… customers are ready for a brand like this, and when you stick to your guns and step into your truth both as founders and as a brand, people really resonate with that. I think that’s a big piece of magic we have been able to create, because Vanessa and I know who we are and what we are here for, and we literally want to translate that for folks.
How challenging was it navigating a new business in the midst of a global pandemic?
Vanessa: It was really scary. We weren’t sure it was the right thing to do and if anyone would even care. We definitely faced obstacles on multiple fronts, especially with the supply chain. But a solution like ours can bring people ease and convenience as well as joy and connection to home. Broadly speaking, folks are trying to elevate their cooking. They used to have a rotation like chicken, pasta, and now they want to elevate and diversify their repertoire. And in many ways, we offer that ability, that superpower.
Kim: It’s the hardest time for the whole world right now, and Vanessa and I have found conviction and resilience in our mission by this Asian American audience. We want to represent and reclaim these flavors for these communities that are now being hit with covid-related xenophobia and fear. So if anything, it feels more relevant. Folks are rediscovering the joy of cooking at home, and with restraints in place, our solution is kind of super relevant, so folks don’t have to go to different stores and find these different things, but instead sit home and receive this beautiful and intentional package straight to the door.
How are the starter kits different from condiments and seasonings found in most grocery aisles?
Vanessa: The starter kits are pantry shortcuts that pack all the sauces, aromatics, spices, and seasonings you need for an Asian dish. You can pair it with your favorite protein, and in 20-30 minutes, you have a restaurant-quality dish on your table. No shame to pad thai, but we wanted to do dishes that are less mainstream. We also decided to bring in 90 percent of our ingredients from Asia directly… We’re getting the real deal, stuff like calamansi from the Philippines, lemongrass from Vietnam, Thai dry chili from Thailand, as opposed to Chinese or Korean chili. And we work with the tastemakers on vetting out those samples too.
What’s the philosophy behind working with professional chefs on the starter kits?
Vanessa: Our tastemakers are iconic Asian chefs from each of these cuisines and backgrounds. We are technically Southeast Asian, but we are Vietnamese, and we feel that Vietnamese cuisine is very different from Thai and Filipino cuisine, and that as Vietnamese sisters, we can’t stand here and say we’re experts on Vietnamese, Thai, and Filipino food. So from day one, we decided to partner with professionals who’ve invested their whole careers in becoming experts, and they should be the ones who dictate these flavors. We also wanted to make sure they’re compensated well and get a platform for their work.
What’s it like working with together as sisters?
Vanessa: We’ve always known that we would start a company together. We are very different people, and that’s why we gravitated towards each other as founders. Because that’s where you get the most creative ideas and solutions, when you challenge each other. Kim is very creative, she goes with her gut and intuition, she’s very community-focused, and I’m strategic, data-driven, and analytical. So we’re drawn to each other. I was very risk-averse, but Kim always wanted to start a company, and being the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I felt deeply that I just wanted to make them proud. Then I was finally ready, and we spoke about it during a vacation together hiking in Bolivia.
Kim: It was such a dream for Vanessa to finally be like, “I’m ready to start a business with you.” It felt just like I have been waiting my whole life for that.
What’s next for Omsom?
Vanessa: We really want to be the new Asian CPG. There has to be a brand that steps up, and one of their main goals is cultural integrity. That’s our whole North star. We think in 2020 and beyond there’s a need for that, and we’re really open to what that looks like. We want to know what our consumer wants and what our audience needs. Down the road, our goal is to enter into retail and be in grocery stores around the country. We think that even post-covid, most food decisions will be made in the grocery store, so we’d love to be there one day. But for now, we’re focusing on the starter packs, and we’ll see where that goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.