Lisa Cheng Smith is the co-founder of Taiwanese grocery Yun Hai, which sells imported culinary products. Alongside Lillian Lin, a friend with restaurant experience, Lisa launched Yun Hai online in 2019 and recently opened a bricks-and-mortar space in Williamsburg.
After recognizing a gap in the market for Taiwanese groceries, Lisa started to import products on a small scale. When China banned imports of pineapple from Taiwan in 2021, Lisa partnered with Taiwanese farmers who were left with unsold crops. Yun Hai now exclusively represents a number of high-end Taiwanese brands: ‘We're invested in sharing Taiwanese voices so, if a brand already exists, we don't relabel it. In some cases, brands aren't quite ready for the US, so we'll do some branding and collaborate with the producer,’ she says. An avid home cook, Lisa says that she couldn't imagine starting a business that didn't fulfill a need for her.
Finding a gap in the market
Lisa, who is half-Taiwanese, noticed that top-shelf products from Europe tend to be readily available in US supermarkets, but that it's impossible to find high-end Chinese-diaspora pantry items. ‘Craft-level Japanese items are imported to the United States, but the culturally or culinary Chinese ones aren't – and people want this stuff,’ says Lisa. In Taiwan, there are fun and fancy foods readily available, from huge brands to artisanal products. ‘I started Yun Hai to try to represent what's going on in food in Taiwan right now and make it accessible.’ She recognized an opportunity to amplify Taiwanese farmers and brands: ‘There's a huge market here and we can help them sell and diversify their business. We can also provide a channel for them if things aren't going so hot in Taiwan, or if they have surplus.’
The Yun Hai store is located in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, NYC. Lisa and Lillian hadn't planned on opening a physical space, but an opportunity presented itself. Yun Hai had an ongoing partnership with Williamsburg Taiwanese restaurant Win Son, which it supplied with soy sauce. ‘We've had a really friendly, positive relationship,’ says Lisa. When Win Son was opening a new production kitchen next door to its restaurant, it came with a storefront it didn't need – and it offered the space for sublease to Yun Hai. ‘I wouldn't have opened a store if they weren't doing that,’ says Lisa.
Five things Lisa has learned
1. Run a tight ship
‘Corporate discipline is key. That can be anything as simple as making sure you use your own bank account. Do we have all the product prices organized? Is our bookkeeping tight? Are we managing our cost of goods sold? Once you start growing, those are the things that'll slow your growth.’
2. Manage with care
‘If you're going to hire or manage people, that's a really big decision. If you aren't prepared to give them what they need, it can become a bad experience. We have to prioritize managing them and making sure that they're productive and happy, otherwise people will leave or it'll become toxic.’
3. Have a growth strategy
‘You need to have a good understanding of cash flow and how the business can grow. We're bootstrapped and we're growing two times every year. We need to be ready to order that holiday stuff before it lands with twice the amount of cash than last year. If you don't do it, you can't grow or even survive.’
4. Make it personal
‘Customers are excited to have a peer-to-peer interaction. When I started doing our marketing we would send boilerplate emails, but lately I've been sending a super‑long newsletter. It gets so much traction, even though it's text-heavy. It's really personal. People like to hear from the founder.’
5. Allow for mistakes
‘It's hard to wear all the hats. You can do it – and a lot of business owners will have to do it – but you have to accept that things will be messy and chaotic and not [go] according to plan, and mistakes will be made. Which I think is OK. How perfect does everything have to be?’
When embarking on Yun Hai's next step, Lisa struggled to maintain the online store. ‘The rest of the business was impacted,’ says Lisa. ‘The biggest obstacle was being able to find the time and space to grow the brand with this new channel.’ With a limited budget, she and her co-founder ended up doing a lot of the hard work themselves and neglecting the online arm. ‘I designed the whole store. Lillian and I did a lot in terms of building and installing,’ says Lisa. The bricks-and-mortar space was successful but, if she could do it again, she'd make sure that the online sales were looked after. ‘Customer service was good, but we weren't marketing to keep up the momentum. If we do it again, we need a plan.’
This article was first published in How to Start a Business 2023. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.