During the pandemic, Andrea Xu foud a new way to tap into her Asian heritage and help connect consumers to the flavors, ingredients and dishes that are deeply rooted in her culture's cuisine.
The young entrepreneur spoke to "Good Morning America" about how her unique culinary experience growing up to Chinese parents in Spain before living in the U.S. for a decade shaped her tastes and sparked an idea to launch her own food business this March.
Umamicart is an online grocery store that delivers hundreds of hand-curated Asian-owned products. From fruits and veggies to cuts of meat and traditional pantry staples, the selection of products highlight and celebrate the endlessly diverse world of Asian American culture and cuisine.
Xu started her career in finance at Goldman Sachs before a stint at a venture capital firm, but she said, "A lot of me didn't feel like that's what I wanted to dedicate my life to."
"I just kept going back to being interested in small businesses and making offline things online, because that's what I grew up seeing my parents struggle with," she said. "I just always ended up more interested in food and thinking about how hard it was to access Asian food and wanting to work with mom and pop suppliers, so I took a leap of faith and started Umamicart."
When she built her small-but-mighty team of five people based in Brooklyn, New York, she said they all had the same pain points in common: "accessibility to ingredients that our parents used for their cooking in one place and ingredients that we've picked up along the way."
"I think there's an interesting intersection for people like myself who have Asian heritage, but didn't grow up in Asia," she explained. "I feel like we're very picky about the flavor, because we grew up eating it -- but we don't always know exactly what goes in every dish -- but the stuff in the mainstream grocer isn't exactly what we want."
Like others who may have access to local stores, Xu said she always gravitates towards going to Chinatown or Koreatown. But she also acknowledged "that's not always accessible or realistic to think that you're going to be able to go all the time -- so in between you're sort of settling for the swaps -- if you don't have time to procure the right ingredients."
Enter Umamicart, whose goal is to "sort of take that burden of authenticity off for people," Xu said, by curating thoughtfully sourced products "that represent Asian brands and makers -- from suppliers we love and think super highly of and we think that's the product mix that our consumers will really like."
"The concept of authenticity is really nuanced," Xu continued. "I'm not the domain expert for Chinese food for sure, but who really is or defines that? For my parents, having their Chinese restaurant in Spain, they definitely had this burden where there was certain dishes they had to carry -- when in reality, why couldn't they serve what was super personal and that they liked?"
Xu works with an array of local suppliers, offline mom and pop-run markets and more who could bring traditional southeast Asian flavors and ingredients to the site.
"We started working on this in the midst of the pandemic, so it was pretty hard to meet them in person, and a lot of them don't have online channels," she said. "It was a labor of love building trust and explaining the value proposition to them and that we're not a site where we're going to charge them a super high fee -- rather work with them to highlight their products and build a good partnership."
Xu and her team first start with products they want for specific cuisines like Chinese, Korean and Japanese, then identify and meet suppliers, then sample and choose a product mix.
Here are a few of Xu's favorites and best sellers on Umamicart: sashimi grade seafood options; Crave Natural oatmeals, produced by a fellow female-founded company that come in multiple Asian flavors like red bean and taro; Er jing tiao chili, which is the most popular variety of chili in Sichuan and used to make chili crisp and oil; Japanese dashi; and snacks, particularly shrimp crackers.
While there are other Asian retailers with online presences, Xu said her goal was to make it more than just a convenience point of putting a catalog of products on a website.
"It was more about celebrating the cooking behind it, celebrating these flavors and making a good experience," she said.
For AAPI Heritage Month, Umamicart partnered with a selection of its favorite Asian heritage brands to showcase their histories and entry into the U.S. market. The well-recognized food brands will offer exclusive discounts, giveaways and recipes for a month of fun and delicious treats.
The five brands include Myojo USA, Lee Kum Kee, Otafuku, Calbee and IRVINS, and a portion of Umamicart's proceeds during May will be donated to Send Chinatown Love and Heart of Dinner.
The company currently delivers locally in New York City and states in the Mid-Atlantic region.