Jing Gao's reinventing the spice trade with Fly by Jing
Think a bottle of hot sauce can’t be political? That a jar of spices can’t tell the story of someone’s life? That a line of seasonings can’t take down the patriarchy and unpack the history of colonialism? Then you haven’t met this generation of DTC spice traders.
The Spice trade
When you’re walking down a baking goods aisle in a supermarket with its rows and rows of identically labelled bottles, it’s hard to remember just how deeply spices shaped our global history. Over a thousand years ago, merchants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia sailed perilously across oceans for years at a time in the pursuit of exotic dried bark, leaves and seeds.
Along these routes, the early global economy was formed, and different cultures adopted new technologies, religions, and flavors. Now, it’s a few strands of saffron that you stir into your risotto when you’re feeling fancy; or a pinch of dusty pre-ground cinnamon (or, more likely, cassia) from Sri Lanka or maybe Indonesia, in morning oatmeal. Back then, it was the whole rest of the world.
New kids on the block
A new crop of DTC spice and condiment companies online makes it easier for people to know where their spices come from and who is growing them. These are BIPOC-led entrepreneurs leading with authenticity and giving shoppers a deep look into where their seasonings come from.
After all, why buy your turmeric from some giant multinational who sources from dozens of anonymous small farmers in China or India and blends them in some nondescript warehouse when you could directly support that small farmer through a BIPOC-owned small business and receive a fresher, better tasting, more sustainable product in the process?
The pantry gets political
Meanwhile, anti-racism movements have helped throw some spotlight on other indie creators. Smaller DTC companies like EXAU, a Black-owned producer of organic Calabrian olive oil, and Loisa, a company specializing in Latin seasonings and pantry items, have seen boosts in sales directly associated with online shoppers responding to unsavoury politics and news.
For the new creators in this space, authenticity in the brand is as important as the ingredients’ provenance, and Gao is no exception. For her, it’s not just business, it’s personal and political, and it’s this positioning that has turned her into a leader in the market.
To understand how Fly By Jing managed to go from a few batches of knock-out sauce lugged around in a suitcase to a leader in this growing industry, let’s dig in—with an appropriately big spoon—to the story of Fly By Jing.
Fly by Jing
Fly by Jing is a DTC condiment company based in LA and Chengdu, China, founded by chef and entrepreneur Jing Gao. Its signature product is the Sichuan Chili Crisp, a punchy hot sauce with ingredients sourced from local farmers in Sichuan province.
Fly By Jing’s condiments line is one of a steady wave of spices and condiments companies to pop up online. Online spices were already seeing some growth leading up to the pandemic. The past year’s stay-at-home orders, restaurant lockdowns, and the all-around boom in online shopping have amped up the demand spices and seasonings.
For brands like Fly By Jing and Diaspora Co., which work with small farmers producing single-origin turmeric and other South Asian spices in India, the timing was right. A growing consumer appetite for Indian spices and complex Asian sauces helped them quickly find a mainstream audience. Fly By Jing is projected to make 10 times its previous year’s sales in 2021.
But carving out a space for yourself in a centuries-old industry isn’t always smooth sailing. Fly By Jing’s first two years saw major setbacks in the form of manufacturing hurdles, skeptical investors who had trouble seeing the long-term marketability of her product. Then there was the total shutdown of the global supply chain under COVID-19. Backdropping these headaches was the stress of being an independent, Chinese-American entrepreneur trying to stake her place.
How Jing Gao is reinventing the spice trade
Jing Gao hadn’t initially intended for Fly By Jing to become a condiment line - she launched her company as a series of underground pop-up dinners. A “fly” is a type of casual restaurant in Chengdu known for attracting people like flies, and Gao was the person in the kitchen cranking out these flavor combinations. The sauces in her lineup were originally meant to complement the dishes she served at her dinners, but not long after, guests started requesting the sauces to take home.
Boosted by the early buzz from her popup dinners, her blog and her bylines in major food websites and magazines, she launched a Kickstarter. That Kickstarter made $120,031, tripling their $35,000 goal.
“The success of the Kickstarter was a surprise to me,” she says. “I felt optimistic that I could raise the money, but the barrage of support was one of the first moments where I got a taste of how big Fly By Jing could be. It showed me that despite everything that investors and other ‘experts’ in the space had been telling me, there was a huge demand for high-quality Chinese flavors in this market.”
She shares her journey
The condiments in Fly By Jing’s lineup highlight the spices and flavor combinations of Sichuan province. The line includes two varieties of dried chili peppers, a fermented fava bean paste, a dry spice blend, and a dumpling sauce. The signature Sichuan Chili Crisp combines crunchy flakes of chili pepper and fermented black beans and other umami-laced aromatics, all steeped in rapeseed and soybean oils. The ingredients are carefully handpicked from small local farms and bottled by hand to keep their texture and crunch.
The flavors she draws from are found everywhere in Sichuan, but they are also a unique expression of her journey from China to America and again. In both countries, she had trouble getting people to see her vision. During the testing and bottling process, the Chinese factories she worked with struggled to adapt to her formulas’ precise temperatures and ingredients.
She overcomes all obstacles
It was headache after headache for Gao to find a factory that could properly export her sauces to the US without relying on backdoor channels and even a printer that could print the exact gradient and eye-catching neon tones that she was looking for.
Meanwhile, in the US, potential investors she met with worried that her product was too niche and encouraged her to tone down the story she was trying to tell about herself and the Chinese flavors in her products. People couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a high-quality natural food product that also happened to be Chinese. In the end, she decided to go on her own and bootstrap the funding.
Instead of glossing over this bumpy road and locking up these lessons for herself, she decided to share her story and these challenges publicly. She writes widely about her experience in essays published on her blog and for other sites, and in doing so, invites others to come along on the journey.
“Part of being one of the first Asian natural food brands on the scene is making it easier for the people who come next—which we have seen in recent years, as a ton of new brands made their way to market,” she says. “I wanted to be candid about some of the struggles in the hope that it would help the other founders who would follow.”
Her prices are political
At US$15 for a six-ounce jar, the Sichuan Chili Crisp isn’t cheap. For comparison, the supermarket competitor, Laoganma, which also has a passionate following across the world, retails at around $4 per 8oz jar. Early coverage of the brand almost always mentioned their price, either directly or through words like “high-end,” often comparing the Sichuan Chili Crisp with Laoganma, which is made with artificial preservatives flavor boosters like MSG. Some potential investors balked at the idea of a premium Chinese food product, while commenters online questioned whether a high-end product could even be authentically Chinese.
It’s hard to imagine this type of reaction to an upmarket Eurocentric product. You would never question why a cold-pressed organic olive oil from an exclusive valley in Tuscany would be more expensive than a generic grocery store brand or feel the need to qualify it with the words “high end.”
Yet Jing’s preserved fava bean paste, produced in a specific region outside of Chengdu highly regarded for its doubanjiang and sold exclusively in China, is met with innocent skeptical comparisons with common grocery store versions.
“When people push back on the price of Chinese food, what they’re saying has a much wider impact,” she says. “The context is the undervaluing of food, but the impact is undervaluing Chinese people and culture. When people ask us about our prices, we explain the quality and provenance of the ingredients and the skill that goes into making them. Lately, I try to hold up a mirror and ask them why they think Chinese food should be cheap.”
Instead of lowering her price, she directly addressed these criticisms in her writing and interviews, using it as a springboard to expand on western society’s perception of Chinese food and why we choose to value what we value. In openly defending the pricing of her products, she also manages to defend the value of herself and her culture and carving a path for others to follow.
She rolls with the punches
When Sam Sifton of the New York Times published a column about the Sichuan Chili Crisp in April 2020, she found herself overwhelmed by orders overnight - the company surpassed their entire previous years’ sales in a single week. By then, the pandemic had taken over the world, shutting down street-level retail and halting the global supply chain.
Back then, says Gao, she was the only full-time employee, handling the supply chain while firing off customer service emails. In a world now used to overnight shipping, backorders were pushed further back, and the supply line took months to recover.
“The sales kept coming in, and I had to increase our manufacturing capacity several times over,” she says. “I sent out several transparent email updates to our preorder customers detailing every aspect of production and where we were at.”
In the end, customers understood, and the company continued using preorder sales to support other community initiatives and grassroots organizations. By the end of 2020, they sold 132,740 jars of sauces from their lineup.
Her platform is personal
As the company continues to grow, Jing has pushed herself as an entrepreneur further into the center of Fly By Jing’s brand story. Even her name has become deliberately woven into the brand to tell her story. In early interviews, when she was still running her popup dinners, she went by Jenny, a conventional western name that helped her fit in during a childhood spent frequently moving around.
When you bring up Fly By Jing’s website, her story and name are displayed on the homepage. Scrolling from left to right on the top third of the landing page reads this text: “FOOD BY JENNY WHO INCREASINGLY GOES BY HER BIRTH NAME JING AND WAS BORN IN CHENGDU AND GREW UP EVERYWHERE AND USES HER EXPERIENCE AS A TRAINED CHEF TO SHARE MEANINGFUL FLAVORS THAT OPEN PEOPLE UP TO NEW IDEAS AND CONVERSATIONS.”
Most people don’t have to question their birth names’ personal and political histories, but many immigrants and children of immigrants do. For Gao, publicly reclaiming Jing and putting it front and center of her brand was shining a spotlight on the complex experience of cultural diaspora, embracing all its winding paths.
“The evolution of the brand was an evolution of self, so it was natural that I would become a larger part of the brand's face as we both came into our identities and power,” she says. “As I reconnected with my roots in my adulthood, and especially as I began working on Fly By Jing, learning about food was my way of carving out a space for myself that was uniquely mine.”
She's only just getting started
This year, she is taking her brand-as-self approach one step further with the launch of an account of OnlyFans. This subscription-based content platform lets users directly fund content from creators (popular with sex workers and adult entertainers). To a lesser extent, fitness models, OnlyFans requires new users to verify that they are over 18 years old to start an account).
Fly By Jing isn’t the only brand on OnlyFans - and they will not be charging subscribers for access to their content - but this move helps encourage the casual and interactive relationship that Jing was already fostering with her customers.
“We saw an opportunity with the platform because OnlyFans works well for a brand like ours, which is very centered on a single person with her own story,” she says. “Our audience is very engaged and, in a lot of ways, have been confidants of mine as I navigated the challenges and triumphs of building the business.”
Spices have always been more than pantry staples. They represent merging cultures and world exploration, and increasingly, the people at the helm of this online market are leading with authenticity. Through transparent and consistent messaging and placing herself directly at the heart of her brand, Gao has carved a space for herself while rewriting the rules for all who will come after.