Fly by Jing’s founder, Jing Gao, went by the Western name “Jenny” for most of her life. Although she was born in Chengdu, China, she lived in both Europe and Canada while growing up, places where “Jenny” was just more common. It wasn’t until she incorporated her given name into her Chinese food business that she began to reclaim it.
Now Jing, is one of the most recognizable Asian entrepreneurs in North America. Fly by Jing Sichuan chili crisp went from a viral Kickstarter campaign to partnerships with Disney and Shake Shack in fewer than five years.
“What I think I’m the most proud of is that the way that we make the product today is pretty similar to how I made it in my kitchen in Shanghai several years ago,” Jing says.
Jing’s first foray into business was a restaurant in Shanghai. She left a career in tech to pursue her passion for food, which led to her running an underground supper club and selling her first sauces.
It wasn’t until she attended Expo West, one of the largest natural food shows, in California that she realized she had an opportunity. There were hardly any Asian food vendors there, even though Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines in America.
“There’s more than 50,000 Chinese restaurants here, and yet Chinese food has a really bad reputation in the US,” Jing says. “People have all kinds of ideas about whether it’s high quality or not, whether it’s healthy or not, and also whether it’s worth paying for it or not.”
After 10 years of living in China, working in the food industry, and even training as a chef, Jing was shocked at how many misconceptions exist about Chinese food.
“So I decided that if I wanted to change people’s perceptions, really shine a light on this cuisine and do it justice, I needed to move to the US,” Jing says. “US media really does dictate a lot of the way that the world sees things. And so I wanted to tell my story, tell the story of Chinese food, but through my lens.”
Jing wants to be clear—this is just one recipe for chili crisp. In China, she says, every family has their own way of making it. For her version, she wanted to use natural ingredients sourced from her home province of Sichuan.
“We had a lot of people, Chinese and otherwise, that resisted this product because it wasn’t in line with what their previous experience was with Chinese food,” Jing explains. “They were like, ‘Well, I’ve been to China once,’ or ‘I have eaten at a lot of Chinese restaurants, and this doesn’t taste like that, so therefore this must not be Chinese food.’”
But the unique flavor is part of Fly by Jing’s mission to reclaim identity. Its chili crisp may not taste like “traditional” chili oils, because cuisines are meant to evolve, particularly in an area as big and diverse as Chinese food.
Los Angeles, where Fly by Jing is based, also contributes to the company’s unique flavor and branding.
“LA has a really exciting food scene. There’s a lot of great things happening in the restaurant world,” Jing says. “But also, in the last few years, there’s been a rise in consumer packaged goods companies based here. It’s been a really nice little ecosystem of tech companies, CPG companies, and more food and beverage companies as well.”
Jing had a model to follow when she launched Fly by Jing on Kickstarter, which funded and fueled a lot of the company’s early success.
“I cold emailed several editors who I knew had interest in writing about Asian food,” Jing says, “and two of them ended up writing pieces about the campaign that went live on New York magazine and Saveur on the day of the campaign launching, and that led the campaign to be fully funded within a day.”
Jing offers more tips on Kickstarter campaigns, and dives deeper into her journey of reclaiming her culture through building a business on the full episode of Shopify Masters on Location.