The new online grocer championing the diversity of Asian American cuisines and cultures

March 28, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.

Umamicart is a new online grocery marketplace dedicated to championing the diversity of Asian American cuisines and cultures. The platform prioritizes Asian American-led businesses, immigrant-led businesses, and the mom-and-pop suppliers and producers behind popular heritage brands.

Conceived by co-founder and CEO Andrea Xu to serve as a one-stop-shop
for home cooks, Umamicart features a curated selection of more than 500 products—spanning fresh produce, meats, sauces, condiments, pantry essentials, and more. The retailer also offers occasion-specific recipe kits for cooking activities like DIY hotpot, dumpling making, and mapo tofu.

Umamicart launched this winter with next-day delivery to zip codes in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, with plans to expand the delivery range to Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia this spring.

Fortune recently spoke with Xu to learn more about the business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, as well as plans for the new year.

Courtesy of Umamicart

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Fortune: What inspired the launch of Umamicart?

Xu: I was born in Spain to Chinese immigrant parents. Growing up, homemade food was the love language in our household and cooking a special dish for my siblings and I would oftentimes prompt my parents to share stories about their childhoods in China. Food has always been an outlet for me to celebrate, connect to and express my identity. 

A typical meal at home with my family would comprise something like sautéed Asian vegetables, steamed fish, rice, and a board of Spanish cold cuts—and I love the kind of natural and effortless blending that our meals have. Here in the U.S., where I live now, homemade Asian food is still my ultimate comfort food, but my spreads have become unique and unconventional in my own personal way. For me, I love Asian cuisines and cooking with Asian ingredients, but the selection in the so-called “ethnic” aisles at grocery store chains doesn’t cut it for me, and it’s not always easy to access these ingredients in my area. Even when I found online platforms, their selection would be very deep in one cuisine, but lack breadth in other Asian cuisines that I love. The digital experiences I came across also didn’t speak to someone who is not native to the ingredients the way my parents are. I needed a bit of context, and I wanted recommendations (my mom is used to me calling her to ask her about what ingredients go into some of my favorite dishes, but she can’t help me when it comes to making a Korean stew). I just couldn’t find a solution for someone like me who has a strong appreciation for different Asian cuisines, is discerning about these flavors but appreciates context and curation, and is also short on time.

After hearing the same complaint from so many of my friends, mostly Asian American friends, I started digging into it even further, and the same complaint came up over and over, even when I talked to complete strangers. It wasn’t just about convenience, but about not having a grocery shopping experience that is built with you as a consumer in mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about the problem and digging into it more and more, and I knew that I had found a problem that I needed to take on. 

Umamicart offers a curated and comprehensive selection of both traditional and creative Asian offerings, delivered to customers’ doorsteps.
Courtesy of Umamicart

Could you share a bit about your professional background prior to founding Umamicart?

As I mentioned, I am a third-culture kid: I was born in Spain to Chinese immigrant parents, and have spent most of my adult life in the U.S. After I moved to the U.S., I attended New York University for undergrad and then worked in principal investments at Goldman Sachs for about five years before getting my MBA at MIT Sloan. For a small period of time, I thought that I would just stick to finance; after all, my parents often refer to their hard work as a medium to allow me to have a high paid white collar job. But I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart, and once I came across the challenges we are solving at Umamicart, I knew I had to take a leap of faith.

Umamicart currently offers more than 500 items across a variety of categories including vegetables, fruits, meat and tofu, seafood, noodles, rice and grains, snacks and drinks and pantry goods
Courtesy of Umamicart

How do you choose which products are sold on Umamicart? What kind of criteria do you have in vetting products for the online marketplace?

Our product catalog is a carefully curated a selection of high quality and fairly priced items that are popular in Asian American cuisine—which is not solely Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.—but rather an eclectic mix of all of the above and more. The customer we’re serving can’t be narrowly defined within just one of the categories; they want and love all of them.

As the daughter of immigrant entrepreneurs, I grew up immersed in our family business, and experienced first-hand the passion and work ethic that it takes to build and run a small immigrant-led business.  With this personal experience in mind, Umamicart prioritizes immigrant-led businesses and the mom-and-pop suppliers that make it possible for consumers to access some of their favorite heritage brands, such as Lee Kum Kee oyster sauce and Lao Gan Ma chili oil. We also seek out new and inspiring brands from Asian American founders, such as Mother in Law’s Kimchi and Crave, that are reinterpreting traditional flavors with new and personal products. Our team vets each product and supplier to ensure we’re supporting a mix of local distributors and small business owners. We seek out up-and-coming brands by founders who share our passion to celebrate personal takes or unusual pairings of traditional Asian flavors.

For fresh products, we offer a broad selection with everything from premium and organic varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables to sushi-grade fish and seafood (we work with suppliers that serve some of the best sushi restaurants in New York City), meats, tofu, noodles, dumplings, and more. We launched with over 500 curated products, and our catalog will continue to grow and evolve. 

A curated collection of essential pantry items, from LKK premium oyster sauce to Laoganma fried chili in oil.
Courtesy of Umamicart

The pandemic has seen a surge of consumers turning toward having their groceries—either from local retailers or online marketplaces. Umamicart just launched, but what has the first few weeks been like? What kind of feedback are you getting from customers? What have been some of the unforeseen hurdles and growing pains?

The response has been incredible so far. Before we even launched, we had a waitlist of over 2,000 signups from New Yorkers eager to order for the first time. Seeing the interest early on really validated our vision and made us even more excited for our official launch. 

While Umamicart caters to shoppers of all backgrounds, many of our early customers have been Asian American and third culture kids who, like me, grew up around a lot of these flavors and were never satisfied with the so-called “ethnic aisle” at grocery store chains. They are also customers that— and I quote—“have been waiting for an online Asian grocer with a shopping experience that speaks to them.” It’s been so rewarding to receive messages and from folks who feel a connection to the way we’ve curated our catalog, and the way we have presented it to ease their shopping. An early customer shared: “I love that your selection and UI is not overwhelming, but literally has everything I love. I don’t have to checkout in three different places now” 

It’s also been great to see the response from customers who did not grow up around Asian flavors and who are interested in learning about different cuisines. We’re so grateful for the support and positive feedback that we’ve received.

Umamicart is meant to serve as a one-stop-shop for home cooks.
Courtesy of Umamicart

What has securing funding been like during what has been an economic rollercoaster of a year?

Umamicart is funded by FJ Labs, an New York City-based venture capital firm where I worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence. The Asian grocery market was definitely new to the team when I first started discussing this idea, so thorough research and specifically customer research (I did over 80 one-on-one interviews with potential customers and suppliers, plus additional larger scale surveys) played a key role in getting the team excited. From these interviews, there were clear patterns that emerged, and we were really able to see that the Asian American food market is complex and diverse; the existing solutions were not serving the entire market. With food being such a massive market that remains mostly offline, the tailwinds that the pandemic has brought to a rapid shift in consumer behavior to online grocery shopping, and strong findings from the research I mentioned, I successfully pitched the idea to our partners.

The service also sells occasion-specific recipe kits for cooking activities like DIY hotpot, dumpling making, and mapo tofu.

Where do you see Umamicart in five years?

In five years, we hope that Umamicart will be the leading online Asian American grocer that makes the so-called Asian section of the “ethnic aisle” completely obsolete. One of our goals is to offer nationwide delivery, so that all lovers of Asian food, no matter where they live, can easily access high quality and fairly priced Asian and Asian American products and ingredients. 

Five years in, we also hope to offer an even more expansive selection of curated products. We’re looking forward to increasing our catalog of East Asian and Southeast Asian products, as well as expanding into South Asian products. Our catalog will continue to grow and evolve, just as Asian American food culture does. We plan to add hundreds more products in the near future, with the goal of allowing our customers to find every grocery item they need for their own Asian cuisine journeys. We still have so much more that we are planning and looking forward to adding, and we welcome product and ingredient requests.

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