James Dickinson photo illustration
I persuaded my friends Sarah and Steve Kim to have a dinner party for the very first food feature that I did as managing editor for R•Home, Richmond magazine's sister publication. I wanted to showcase the amazing Korean food that Steve makes for family and friends. It was titled "A Korean Feast," and the shoot happened on the hottest day of the year — the thermometer hit 106 degrees that late summer afternoon.
You know that someone is a friend when they throw a whole party for you just so that you can photograph it for a magazine. You know that person is a good friend when you set their table on fire during said shoot and they don't get mad — they laugh. Nervously, it's true, but they try for your sake to brush it off and insist they don't even need a new tablecloth to replace the one you've just covered in candle wax and scorch marks.
At the dinner party, Steve had a bottle of what he called "Kim Kim" sauce on the table. It's his own concoction of a spicy, sesame-laden hot sauce inspired by the Korean food he grew up eating. I thought it was terrific, and the whole party agreed that he really should sell it and make his fortune. He agreed. After all, the creator of Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha sauce originally began his business, according to Bon Appétit magazine, by selling his product out of the back of his van.
People say that kind of stuff all the time to friends, especially after a few beers in 100-degree-plus weather. Steve is different. He actually went out, bottled his sauce and is now selling it for $6.99 a bottle. Ellwood Thompson's Local Market carries it. So does Whole Foods, and soon, it'll be on shelves at Fresh Market. You can also find it at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream and at Lamplighter Roasting Co., where it's been selling out. Chefs around town have been clamoring for it.
And remarkably, KIMKIM sauce was chosen out of nearly 2,000 entries to be a sofi silver medal finalist at the National Association for Specialty Food Trade's Summer Fancy Food Show, the big food show to be held in June in Washington, D.C. This is a big deal, especially for something that just started production in the spring. I had one question for Steve.
How did this happen?
"When we'd eat, I'd make a bowl of the stuff, and growing up, dipping food into it was one of my favorite things." He decided to put the sauce in a bottle for our party, so he tinkered with the ratio of ingredients to thin the sauce and make it more squeezable. After the party, "at my house, I had [a bottle] around all the time, and people asked for it," he says. "Food is my passion, and I thought, ‘Let's play around with this.' "
Then another piece fell into place unexpectedly. Steve discovered that the father of one of his son's friends is Tim Ashman, who owns a specialty bottling company in Virginia Beach, Ashman Manufacturing and Distributing Co. It bottles everything from barbecue sauce to seafood rubs. "I gave him a call, and he explained the whole process, from the minimum order to sourcing ingredients."
It seemed like a realistic project — something Steve could do in his spare time without too much of a financial outlay. He discovered that the key to pursuing his new hobby was perseverance. Nothing has been easy.
"I had do a lot of research to find the right squeeze bottle," he says. Ashman's company bottles the rest of its products in glass, so Steve had to figure out the process to bottle in plastic. "You'd be amazed; finding one that works is pretty hard." Even the seal for the bottle was difficult to locate. "I spent hours on how to put a seal on [the bottle] and finding a press-on one that worked."
Finding all-natural Korean ingredients was also tricky. "I needed them in bulk, and I couldn't find them. I eventually met a guy in a Korean grocery store in Newport News who helped me with sourcing ingredients," says Steve, whose day job is in consumer data analysis. "I'd load up my car and go to Virginia Beach to mix another batch and another batch until I got what I wanted."
"Part of what I've enjoyed most," he says, "is meeting people that really are interested in helping other people. The Korean grocery store guy doesn't have a vested interest in my business, but he wanted to help anyway."
Steve and Ashman did an initial run of 10 cases and put bottles at stores around town on the shelves with the other condiments to see how people reacted. "Everyone seemed to love it," Steve says. They went ahead and ran an additional 90 cases. At the Virginia Food and Beverage Expo in late March, both Whole Foods and Fresh Market were impressed enough to stock KIMKIM sauce in their local stores.
"It's happening fast," says Steve. "If we can conquer Richmond, I thought, we can get a sense of what the potential is." That potential seems to be expanding exponentially. "Almost all of the bottles we initially ran are out there." Now, he says, they'll just have to see what happens next.