Kheedim Oh never aspired to start a food brand. The self-described “accidental entrepreneur” began Mama O’s Premium Kimchi in Brooklyn in 2007, in the midst of the Great Recession. With just $50 to his name, he started hauling giant jars of homemade kimchi to retailers on his skateboard.
Thirteen years later, Oh has grown the brand into one of the top fermented kimchi sold in the United States. Handcrafted kimchi is a labor-intensive food craft, but Oh doesn’t cut corners. He has never received a dime of funding and employs only a small team that uses his mother’s kimchi recipe.
“Everything we do is the time-honored, traditional way. From the experience of having to do it myself for so long, I’ve learned how to be as ruthlessly efficient in doing the steps to make the kimchi,” Oh says. “It takes time. But, to be honest, I don’t know how to do it another way. My goal is to make the best product.”
His kimchi, kimchi paste and kimchi kit have been praised by Food & Wine magazine and Williams Sonoma. Oh spent decades prior to Mama O’s building a name for himself in the entertainment industry as a DJ. It’s only been in the last few months that he stopped working regular DJ gigs “and that’s only because I’ve had to dedicate so much more energy into making the kimchi.” Oh still incorporates music into his work, creating novel stop-motion recipe videos incorporating Mama O’s kimchi. He also hosts Kimchipalooza, an annual festival in Brooklyn with live music and kimchi-centric tastings, demos and DIY workshops.
“I never had a 40 hour week job in my life. All I’ve done is hustle for gigs. I’m a hustler,” Oh says, adding: “I don’t mind it.”
Oh bounced from locations while growing his brand. From his apartment kitchen to a commercial kitchen space to a basement kitchen in a friend’s restaurant to a kitchen of a deli in Queens and, finally, to his current space in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn.
“I’m not trying to grow this company and then sell it. That’s not my motivation. I’m blessed to be able to do something I enjoy, that’s positive, that’s good for people, that helps people. Ultimately, that’s what I’m doing: helping people.”
Below, a Q&A with the dynamic founder.
The Fermentation Association: Why did you start making kimchi?Kheedim Oh: I never set out to start a kimchi company. I needed kimchi for myself and all the kimchi in the stores were not to my liking. I asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I live in New York, my parents live in Maryland. It’s just too far to go bum a jar to kimchi so i asked my mom to teach me how to make it. I would take the Chinatown bus down to Maryland to make it. I would make a batch, but when you make a batch of kimchi at home, you typically do a 50-pound box of vegetables at a time. I would make it, bring it back in a cooler, then I’d wheel it back to my house on a skateboard because I couldn’t afford a taxi.
TFA: When did you move from making it as a hobby to selling it?
Oh: So I was making the kimchi and, at the time, I lived by myself. Fifty pounds is just way too much for your personal stash. I would give it away to my friends and they were like “This is so good, you should sell it.” I didn’t put much too much stake into that. But I was buying ribs from my butcher (Jeffrey’s Meat Market) and he was like “If you have kimchi and rice, you eat like a king.” So I gave him a batch, checked up on him a week later, and he said “I love it!” I said “You know I sell this shit?” and he said “I want to start carrying it.” At that point I had to come up with a name, incorporate, get insurance, all that stuff. I was making it out of the kitchen in my apartment, bringing it to him, he was only a couple blocks away. He was a total angel. He didn’t want any money, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to promote my business.
TFA: Tell me about the brand name, Mama O.
Oh: It was an homage to my mom because she taught me how to make it and what’s better than moms? You eat with your eyes before you eat with your mouth. So we call it Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, not Mama O’s Cutrate Kimchi. We strive to make the best tasting, highest rated, best kimchi. That went into it with our branding, how we wanted to portray ourselves. We may not be the biggest kimchi brand, but we’re definitely making the best.
TFA: Kimchi has traditionally been a recipe passed down through generations of Koreans. Today, that’s not happening as much. Do you think handcrafted kimchi is a dying food craft?
Oh: Yeah. It’s really sad. That was part of the reasoning why I wanted to learn to make it, because my mom makes really good kimchi. All of the stuff in the stores was just terrible. It was a link to my heritage that I really didn’t want to lose. I wanted to know how to make it just so I could have it. I invented Mama O’s Premium Kimchi Paste, which is the first paste for making kimchi at home. It’s my mom’s recipe. What’s great about the paste is it takes all the guesswork and grunt work out of it. What normally takes 3 hours takes 10 minutes because all the measuring and chopping is done.
TFA: You also created a homemade kimchi kit. Why sell a DIY kit?
Oh: It sells well around the holidays, especially. It’s a 7-inch cube, it’s a perfect gift size and it’s super cute. It’s the first kit of its kind. That kit took me two years to develop. I had to create the paste, then create the kit for it.
What’s great about the kit is it works every time — it takes the guesswork out of making kimchi. I have so many people tell me they tried to make kimchi on their own and it didn’t work. Kimchi tastes totally different when you’re making it to when it’s done fermenting it and eating it. With lactic acid fermentation, it’s transforming the food on the molecular level. So people, when they’re making it, they try to mess with the flavor to make it taste how they want, but the flavor changes through fermentation.
I’m trying to educate consumers and retailers on how they can use this paste with their vegetables. Retailers can take any vegetable past their prime and make kimchi with it, add value to things they potentially have to throw away. It’s the art of how to transform your vegetables. It’s a great way to maintain food sovereignty. You’re in control of what you make and what you put in your body.
TFA: How have Americans’ perception of kimchi changed from when you started to now?
Oh: It’s interesting because, definitely, there’s a greater awareness of it. It’s kind of confusing on two ends because people don’t know what good kimchi is. There are a lot of chefs that put kimchi on their menus, but it’s not really kimchi. It’s quick kimchi, they acidify it with vinegar.
I’m curious how exactly it will end up in the American diet because kimchi is part of the American food zeitgeist. Kombucha is fully incorporated — it’s an American thing now. But kimchi, I don’t know. I’m curious how people are going to want to eat their kimchi. I think it will possibly be in the form of salad or salad accompaniment. I think a lot of people like kimchi with their eggs in the morning. My favorite way, personally, is on a hot dog, with Western food. I fulfilled a lifelong dream – -one of my neighbors in Brooklyn is Joe’s Pizza. He made a kimchi pizza. I like it better than pepperoni. Kimchi and cheese is like Starsky and Hutch, it’s a great combination.
TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Oh: I see more of it, especially after whenever this outbreak settles. Though I got to say, what’s been interesting, the media and journalists have not been touting naturally fermented foods which they should be. I get the resistance to promoting probiotic supplements, I don’t think they’re good either. But I don’t get why no one is promoting fermented foods naturally to people because this has been saving people’s health since the beginning of time.
I see the fermented space growing. I’m curious to see if the supplement industry is going to blow up. I’m not a proponent of the probiotic supplement industry.
TFA: What’s your advice for other startups wanting to start a fermentation brand?
Oh: (Laughs) Besides don’t. Food is tough. Especially now because I think it’s going to get even harder. Really, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone. But coming out of this, so many people are going to want to start a food brand. You’ll have people coming in that have funding.
That said, you have to love food to do it. But only do it if you love it. But if you don’t love it and you just want to make a killing at it, that’s not going to work. As they say, it takes 10 years to be an overnight success in the food business.
TFA: What are the future plans for Mama O’s Premium Kimchi?
Oh: Right now, I want to start more partnerships with restaurants when they open again. A lot of restaurants don’t have the time to make it, but I don’t want them making quick kimchi and passing it off as real kimchi.
We are launching our first hot sauce — Kimchilli — in May with Whole Foods. I’m super excited to launch the hot sauce.
I’m super lucky — I wish people would acknowledge luck in their success. I was fortunate with my timing, the new science with the mind-gut connection was starting to come out. I’m really trying to make things that people need. And do a lot of education.
Ultimately my goal is to change how Americans eat and encourage them to eat more like Korean people. I totally get the appeal of a Western diet. I love a good steak. But you can’t just eat a steak. You have to have sides and all of that with it. Just a steak is obscene. I’m really trying to encourage people to eat in a way where meat isn’t the main thing, it’s just an accompaniment. Eat more traditionally fermented foods. One interesting thing with fermented foods is it’s not all the same probiotics. Kombucha affects me differently than when I eat kimchi. Even yogurt, I feel it does the least for me. But it’s based on your personal chemistry as well. It all depends on what works for you, then incorporating things in your diet. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen.