Boston food entrepreneur taps into her immigrant roots to create healthy sauces and build community.
Location: Boston, MA
Industry: Sauce Manufacturing
Leadership: BIPOC-Owned/Led, Woman-Owned/Led
ICIC Program: Cultivate Small Business, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses
Ruby Chan grew up in Chinatown in New York, surrounded by the fragrant smells of her immigrant parents’ authentic cuisines.
The family grew up poor and lived in a housing project on the city’s lower East Side. Her parents owned a small Chinese restaurant in Clifton, N.J., where she started working at a young age and developed a deep passion for food.
“I learned the trade of cooking by watching my parents,” she remembers.
But her plan was never to get into the restaurant business or the food industry. She moved to Boston to attend Bentley University, where she got a master’s degree in accounting. She met her now husband, Matt, while studying at Bentley and the couple stayed in Boston and started a family.
She worked in accounting for large Boston companies, including Gillette and Citizens Bank, but she always loved her time in the kitchen at home with her family.
“I’m a career mom of four kids and my biggest anxiety was always dinner time,” she recalls. “I had four tired, hungry screaming kids. And I just started making these sauces as dinner for my kids. I used them on roasted chicken, fish, noodles.”
She kept her kids happy and well-fed making the scallion and ginger sauces she watched her parents make and cook with for years. She recalls customers at the New Jersey restaurant coming in and asking to buy quarts of their ginger scallion sauce.
As she juggled her hectic corporate schedule and her busy life as a mom of four, she thought back to those days in New Jersey and realized there was a market for her family’s sauce. Besides being delicious and versatile for use in all different foods and recipes, it was healthy: zero grams of sugar, just two grams of carbohydrates, rich in nutrients, and plant-based. It also hit her that it was Keto-friendly, a trendy tag for the millions who follow the popular protein-rich diet.
Inspiration leads to reinvention
In 2016, her then 12-year-old daughter invited some neighbors over for dinner because she said they loved her cooking – and specifically the ginger scallion sauce.
She and her husband made a plan for her to give it a try for two years to see if the business could work.
“I literally just quit my job. It was the scariest thing ever,” she says. “But because of the fact that I came from nothing, I felt like I had nothing to lose. There were a lot of hiccups along the way.”
She started researching and found Commonwealth Kitchen, a food industry incubator in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. She started working out of their headquarters and soon was selling her FreshZen sauces online.
“Commonwealth Kitchen really helped me and held my hand through that process of taking an idea to market,” she says.
During the COVID lockdowns, online sales skyrocketed as more people were cooking at home and experimenting with new cuisines and styles. She has since developed three sauces – Classic Ginger Scallion, a fresh “Asian pesto” Ginger Scallion with Roasted Garlic, and a “Clean Asian” Chili Garlic hot sauce.
Her sauces are now in Whole Foods and more than 70 markets and specialty food stores across New England. She’s since sold more than 80,000 jars and her story has been featured in a wide variety of major media outlets in Boston and beyond, including the Boston Globe and on WCVB-TV’s popular show “Chronicle.”
She still works out of Commonwealth Kitchen, making batches of sauce weekly and outsources packaging and distribution. The business got a boost when she was connected to ICIC’s Cultivate Small Business program through Commonwealth Kitchen.
The innovative program – supported by Commonwealth Kitchen, Santander Bank, and Babson College – helps early-stage entrepreneurs in low-income neighborhoods, with a focus on women-, minority- and immigrant-owned businesses in the food industry. Participants receive industry-specific education, mentoring, and networking opportunities, as well as capital grants.
“It was awesome. It was a great program for me,” she says. “It was really about finding my tribe and my network. It gave me a shared sense of humanity. No one succeeds alone.”
She said the program was eye-opening because it connected her with a diverse group of food entrepreneurs, many of whom shared her belief that healthy nutrition and locally-owned businesses are key to happier and healthier communities.
“We are all working in food, but we’re all also on the frontlines of this mission in the food industry, of unleashing the power of this diverse entrepreneurial environment,” she says. “It was a supportive network of like-minded people that helped me come to the realization of that collective power. It’s really been about doing more for other people and uplifting the communities around us. We’re all in it together.”
Growth through marketing, leadership and expanding product lines
Like most businesses, supply chain issues have impacted her business as have inflated food costs and economic volatility. With a large portion of her sales online, she’s shifting to new flexible pouch packaging to reduce breakage during shipping. She’s also offering family-friendly and single-serving sizes and is expanding sales to hospitals, schools, and universities.
While she won’t be headed back to the corporate boardrooms anytime soon, she was recently asked to speak at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s prestigious Sloan Business School to discuss inclusivity and leadership challenges.
“FreshZen was one of many companies that helped create this incredible space and give power to individual stories and bring people together,” she says. “That’s what Commonwealth Kitchen is all about. It’s a really great network of people.”
She’s also planning to create new product lines, including salad dressings and healthy, clean snacks.
“Business is great today,” she says. “Our vision is to expand the product line up and down the supermarket aisles. Our dream is to be a national everyday brand.”
Photo credits: Photos courtesy of FreshZen.