Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Fly By Jing, the modern Asian food brand whose Sichuan Chili Crisp is an internet favorite, was named with intention and brilliance. “Fly” references China’s hole-in-the-wall eateries so popular they attract diners like flies. “Jing” is a nod to founder Jing Gao’s birth name, which she recently reclaimed after living most of her life as “Jenny.” Crafted with equal intention, Fly By Jing is introducing bold, “uncensored” Chinese flavors to American diners.
Last year alone, Fly By Jing earned coverage by Forbes, Food & Wine, and The New York Times while growing revenue by 1000%. Recently, the brand announced an investment from Prelude Growth Partners ahead of an upcoming rollout in stores like Target, Whole Foods, and Sprouts. In this installment of The Quality Makers, founder Jing Gao shares her story of growing up around the world, building a brand that “tastes different,” and evolving alongside Fly By Jing.
I’d love to start by learning more about your personal story and how you came up with the concept of Fly By Jing.
JG: I was born in Chengdu, which is the flavor capital of China, but I grew up moving around to eight or nine different countries. In that process, I became really disconnected from my heritage. I found myself accidentally in Asia in my twenties for a tech job, and I began reconnecting with my identity and heritage through food. It started as a personal quest to reconnect to my roots, but eventually, the more I learned about China’s 5,000 year food heritage, the more I realized how little of it made its way to the west.
I started working in food media as a writer, shining a light on the food culture of Chinese cuisine. One thing led to another and I quit my job and opened a restaurant in Shanghai. I went to Chengdu and studied with one of the greatest living chefs in China, and I started cooking as a very personal expression of my own experience -- having been born in Chengdu, growing up all over the world, and wanting to create food and flavors that fit into the way that we eat today.
In 2018, I went to the natural products expo, Expo West, and I was really shocked to see how few multicultural options there were for natural foods. I launched a Kickstarter at the time for a Sichuan Chili Crisp, which was one of the flavor bases for a lot of my dishes. It ended up going viral and became one of the highest funded craft food projects on Kickstarter, which allowed me to produce the first big batch at scale and move my life to LA.
I know there’s a special story behind your name and the name Fly By Jing. Could you share the story of reclaiming the name Jing after going by Jenny for most of your life, plus the experience of having your name on a brand?
JG: It's funny because when I started the brand, I went by a different name, so ‘Jing’ was a concept not tied to my identity. And then, we (the company and I) went through this tremendous growth last year during COVID. I was able to find strength to stand in my truth and reclaim my name and not feel like I needed to hide who I am anymore. The company has gone through that too with our recent rebrand -- it’s really standing in its power and saying, “This is exactly who we are.”
When we did the rebrand, I wrote an essay and made a series of videos sharing my story, which felt scary and vulnerable because it’s such a personal story: of seeking belonging and eventually not feeling the need to be someone else to find that. We got so much feedback and positive support from our community. So many people expressed that they understood exactly where I was coming from, even if they hadn't gone through the experience of changing their name or weren't Chinese. Because it's just a story of seeking belonging that anyone can relate to.
The company and I are both constantly growing -- and we may not be in sync. We don’t need to be in sync. We can both be growing (maybe even in different directions), but there’s always movement.
What challenges have you faced in the process of growing Fly By Jing?
JG: There’s a lot of misinformation about Chinese food culture in the West. I’ve been able to travel and cook for thousands of people where I’ve seen that these flavors are really universal, but diners have no access to the ingredients -- they’ve never heard of a lot of them. There’s been a lack of demand, resulting from a lack of information and prejudice where people expect Chinese food to be dirty, cheap, or unhealthy. And so there’s been no incentive for manufacturers in China to go through the effort of exporting something of quality if they’re being told that no one’s willing to pay more than $2 for something.
But, once we launched our Shopify site, Fly By Jing grew organically through word of mouth and a ton of press. We’ve been very fortunate because we have a really unique product and proposition: Chinese food can be super high quality, and people seem to be ready to embrace that concept. Fast forward to last year, we ended the year at 1000% growth from our first year.
You mentioned that it seems like people are ready to embrace the concept that Chinese food and flavors can be super high quality. I’ve noticed in the past year or so, several brands like Omsom and Sanzo that are also celebrating Asian-inspired food and drink have hit the mainstream. What do you think has caused this change in perception and created momentum for products celebrating Asian cuisine and culture?
JG: The founders of those brands have actually mentioned to me that they backed my Kickstarter. They saw Fly By Jing take those steps, and what I’m super proud of is being a brand that took the charge to create space for more voices. Every step of the way we were told, “No, this can never work.” “This is too niche.” We’ve heard everything in the book. It’s not been an easy journey, but I think the fact that there are so many more brands now, it really speaks to the fact that you can create change with just a little step.
You’ve written about wanting to maintain Chinese tradition while also pushing for the culture to evolve. How do you navigate the push and pull of tradition and evolution with Fly By Jing?
JG: We don’t see ourselves as a Chinese food company with a bunch of rules. Our core products and our future products will be rooted in tradition and our heritage, which is from Chengdu, Sichuan but are modern and made for the way we eat today. You don’t have to cook Chinese food with Fly By Jing. It’s all very versatile, as we want to lower the barriers to entry. You don’t have to change anything about the way you’re currently eating: that’s why our customers feel empowered to put it on ice cream, pizza, eggs, avocado toast.
When we did our rebrand, we wanted to tell our story on the jar. The first thing you’ll see on the jars is our tagline, “not traditional, but personal.” And there’s a Venn diagram underneath that says, “This tastes different,” both for Sichuan people and everyone else. That's really to illustrate that Asian food, Chinese food, even Sichuan food, it's not a monolith, there's so many layers of depth and complexity. Hopefully it's an opportunity for people to expand their idea of what Chinese food can be.
In the short and long term future, for yourself and the brand, what are you hoping to achieve?
JG: I started this company as a solo founder, so I was the person doing everything. A big transition over the past year has been to let go of controlling every little bit and just allow things to actually grow faster once I let go. Cultivating the team around the brand -- I think that’s the secret sauce: the culture and the people. It’s really everything. So I’m excited to continue building a lasting brand, a brand that will become a heritage brand one day.
A lot of growth and success is the product, but so much of it is the people who are building it. That’s a new learning for me: how do you cultivate the best people and the best culture where everyone feels they can bring themselves, their whole selves to work. I think once you have that right, everything else falls into place. I’m excited to continue growing the team and being more accessible and in more people’s fridges!
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