Part I: Eugene Wang, Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Seafood
Eugene Wang grew up immersed in the vegetarian food business. For 20 + years his family has led the way in quality manufacturing of vegetarian food and distributing it throughout Asia and in North America. He took all he learned and in 1996, began consulting and leading food companies in the vegan and vegetarian food categories. Since 2004, his vision for launching the first Vegan Seafood has manifested into a viable category innovation lauded by the press and social media thought leaders, as well as natural trade industry leaders. The Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Seafood phenomena has brought him the accolade ‘Vegan Visionary’.
Eugene is an experienced entrepreneur and leader. His broad scope of professional experience makes him uniquely qualified to assist vegetarian/vegan companies to the next level of success. For example, as President of Super Elephant, Taiwan, in 2004-2010, he acquired national distribution for the top US natural distributor, UNFI, where he became highly skilled in all aspects of developing sales in the natural and specialty marketplace in Asia for leading US natural product companies. In 2001, he founded a software company in Silicon Valley that built web-based CRM software, and in 1999, he joined Sherpa Research Limited, Tokyo, to spearhead a leading Japanese company into the Chinese market by developing important alliances and creating proactive, strategic marketing plans. Mr. Wang started his career in 1995, at a management consulting firm in New York City, shortly after earning his MBA from Columbia University, Columbia Business School, New York.
Susan Carskadon, Sophie’s Kitchen Marketing, PR, Social Media, Advertising
Susan Carskadon has been launching state-of-the-art products in the natural and mainstream industries, domestically and internationally, for over 35 years. Her specialty is taking little known, new concepts to full consumer visibility.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody! Hello! I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food, and I’m back. I missed a week, and I always miss you when I miss a week. So I’m very happy to be here to talk about my favorite subject: food.
I’m actually in the Bay Area (sunny California) for a while doing some projects here, and I’m enjoying it very much. I think this is the best time of year to be here. It’s not too hot, not too anything; just too beautiful. So I’m feeling very, very grateful. Shall we think of some of the things we’re grateful for? I am grateful to be here right now.
I love to swim, and I’m having the opportunity to do a lot of that. It’s really wonderful exercise. Speaking of swimming, let’s get right down to water and those species that swim in the ocean, shall we? We’ve been talking about fish and the state of the ocean. I spoke with Mary Finelli, the founder of Fish Feel a few weeks ago, and next week our guest, Jonathan Balcombe, wrote a book about fish called What a Fish Knows.
While we’re talking about fish, the subject of eating fish comes up—something that I have not done for thirty years now. Many more health professionals are encouraging us to eat more and more fish, even though our oceans are polluted and fish supply is depleted.
So that’s why I’m excited to bring on my guest from Sophie’s Kitchen (vegan seafood). I’ve mentioned them before on the program, and now we’re going to be talking directly to Eugene Wang and Susan Carskadon. Are you with me today?
Eugene Wang: Hi, Caryn. It’s a pleasure to be here. Nice talking to y’all. Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. And is Susan with us too? Is Susan here? Okay. We’ll see about Susan in a little bit. Not yet, I’ve been told. Cool.
So, Eugene, I reading from your bio that you’ve been involved with vegetarian food business for a very long time. Let’s just jump right in and give us a brief introduction about how Sophie’s Kitchen came about.
Eugene Wang: Yes, indeed. My family has been involved with vegetarian manufacturing for over thirty years, and along the way, my family are eating vegetarian food thanks to their religious belief (Buddhism). Almost eight years ago, after I had my first newborn and she was almost two years old, I just found out she has a severe reaction to some of the shellfish. That gave me some ideas.
Along the way, I know a lot of people around me (friends, family, even vegans) who are still thinking about seafood. So I thought, “Why not use some of our technology to come up with something to help people with their choice of a plant based diet?” And that’s how Sophie’s Kitchen was formed.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, it’s beautiful. It’s amazing. I don’t encourage things that are unfortunate to happen, but oftentimes we really get creative when something bad happens. Then we create something so, so wonderful. I can’t imagine what it was like when your daughter had an allergic reaction. Seeing small children suffer in any way is probably the worst thing we could ever see.
Eugene Wang: Definitely. We were this close to sending her to the hospital. I have some problems with seafood too, so I know all too well how that felt. But—like you said—at the end of the day, it’s kind of fortunate when you look at it from the outside perspective. That I got this inspiration to create something in the world to help people live a better life. I think it’s probably a blessing in itself.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. Now, shellfish: I know people have had problems with shellfish for a long time. They are bottom eaters; they tend to eat the garbagy things. I’m wondering if shellfish is more of a problem today because our oceans are so toxic.
Eugene Wang: I don’t know. I think its shellfish itself. Because of the gene, because of the protein that it provides, it gives a lot of problems to the people who eat it. But then again, today, the ocean is really so polluted that people aren’t aware of. Pretty much a lot of the fish are really endangered.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Eugene Wang: Let me give you an example: there’s research coming out from Japan. They studied the fish in Tokyo Bay and what they found out (alarmingly) is that you can find micro particles-of-probably-plastics in the fish’s flesh. Meaning that the fish have accidentally eating the plastic that we dump into the ocean by accident.
Caryn Hartglass: I was just thinking of these fleece jackets. They’re synthetic fleece, and I was reading that just by washing them in the washing machine, these Nano particulates go out into the water supply, into the ocean, and into the sea life. As you were saying.
Eugene Wang: Right. So I think the key here is: what happens on land is very easy for people to measure, be aware of, and understand the degree of pollution or damage that we have done. What happens in water (the ocean) is really problematic. Because very often a lot of people just don’t see; they don’t see it; they can’t understand it; they can’t measure it.
There’s a huge debate about how much the ocean fishery has been depleted just by our greed. A lot of the experts, a lot of the people have different numbers. These numbers—a lot of the time—are giving a contradictory, puzzling picture.
In any case, I think the urgency here is that we have to understand: because we don’t know doesn’t mean that there’s no problem. We really have to be aware and taking some actions to prevent bad things from happening, before it’s too late.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. Before it’s too late for Sophie! (chuckles)
Eugene Wang: Yes, indeed! And for future generations to come, not just our current generation like Sophie. Probably by about 2050, the world is going to fill up with 9 billion people. Think about it: how much protein you’d need to feed these people. Can we be sustainable from just land animals or animals from the ocean? I don’t think so, and that’s why we’re acting in any possible way to help the world solve this issue.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, so let’s talk about the delicious vegan seafood that you’ve created, and this one special ingredient that you use: the konjac.
Eugene Wang: Yes, konjac. Some people call it Japanese yam because it was perfected by the Japanese for hundreds of years. If you went a Japanese restaurant, you must have these little noodle-like or tofu taffy-like food that’s made out of konjac (Japanese yam root) and you were simply not aware of.
What we found out through our patented technology can we can use this Japanese yam root and perfectly simulate the texture of shellfish. That’s why we use it in our food. Together with the pea protein, it gives our food a very perfect balance between the protein and fiber count. That’s the beauty of this never heard of yam root in this market.
Susan Carskadon: This is Susan here. Hey!
Caryn Hartglass: Hi, Susan. Welcome to It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining us. You’re in the marketing with Sophie’s Kitchen, right?
Susan Carskadon: Yes, yes. That’s what is so interesting. One of the fascinating things about konjac that we have found out is that there’s a brain connection. Eugene has been able to recreate an incredible mouthful of seafood using konjac. What’s so fascinating is that, because of that brain-body connection, people really get the satisfaction of real seafood when they’re eating Sophie’s Kitchen products.
It’s fascinating to us, and it was a whole genre of science that we didn’t really think about it, even though Eugene was trying to perfect that mouth feel. So now we’re overjoyed when we’re around consumers. They go, “Oh my god, it’s almost like seafood!” It’s a real, real feather in our cap, and it’s a fascinating aspect to all of this.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Since I’ve been vegan for a long time, seeking out all kinds of crazy vegan foods, I’m familiar with a handful of other companies that make different kinds of vegan seafood (May Wah in New York is an example). It’s been fun to buy some of their products; I think that they come from Taiwan. But I have never—until I tried your vegan salmon—ever had anything like that! That salmon’s just crazy!
Eugene Wang: (chuckles) Thank you, thank you. Yeah.
Susan Carskadon: It’s amazing, it’s amazing. And have you tried the crab cake?
Caryn Hartglass: I’m not religious, but I grew up in a Jewish family and we definitely like the traditional foods. A bagel cream cheese on lox is something that a lot of people can’t do without, and I don’t think anybody knows the difference with your product.
Eugene Wang: So, Caryn, here’s the difference between our way of promoting our foods than the competition. Number one: we are definitely designed for this market. May Wah—the company you’d mentioned—their products are mostly designed in Asia for Asian markets, which a lot of the time have ingredients that we here in North America don’t really understand or feel well about. Things like sugar, synthetic flavoring, or synthetic coloring. Those ingredients you won’t see in our foods.
Not just that: we’re kosher certified, we’re non GMO verified; we’ve got numerous certifications and verifications to make sure that customers here really understand our philosophy, our core belief in this brand in making these foods. We hope that people will not just enjoy it, but also feel healthy and eat healthy with our foods.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, that’s really an important point because unfortunately there are a lot of vegan products that try to simulate animal foods—especially the earlier ones—are filled with synthetic ingredients, salts, sugar, and fat that aren’t healthy for us. You read the package label and you don’t know what’s in it. So a healthier, cleaner product is really important.
Eugene Wang: Definitely, for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I heard about your products but hadn’t had an opportunity to try them until I went to the Foodbytes! conference in Brooklyn. That’s where I met you and got to sample some of your products.
The Foodbytes! event is interesting where they’re making an opportunity for more food companies to make people aware of their products. They sound like they’re very forward thinking in terms of the companies they want to promote. For example, there was a company promoting a wild seafood product, and they used the slogan, “sustainable seafood,” which I think is an oxymoron because it’s not sustainable in any way that you might do in the wild or not.
Eugene Wang: Right, right. Yeah, I think people are still confusing what is really cutting-edge, what is really visionary for supply. I mean, the whole nation, the whole industry is actively seeking the answer. It’s truly going to be a long way down the road for what’s really the answer. There are only a few visionary groups or people who can foresee that.
So events like Foodbytes!, I think, are really good broadcasting, an educating event for us to help deliver our message to the masses. Just like you said, it’s really hard to fish sustainably out of the ocean or any water because you really don’t have a way to measure it. Instead of thinking about what we should do with our fisheries and our fishing industry, why not just create a whole new alternative category that helps people eat less or stay away from these seafoods?
That way, even though we can’t convince the whole world not to eat fish, we can probably cut down the consumption of fishery quite a bit and help solve the problem we’re seeing coming in the future. That’s what we think we want to do and should do.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, let’s get back to your production. I really appreciate that you’re sensitive to the ingredients that you’re using and making a more helpful, environmentally friendly product. Where does your konjac come from? Is it grown in the United States? Do you import it from Asia?
Eugene Wang: Yeah, we import it. We actually have a lot of our foods made in Asia right now because number one: we’re food-starting startups. As you can imagine, it took up a lot of money to set up a facility right here. But we’re in the process of shifting our manufacturing operations over here as we speak. Just recently, we had a new co-packer in Toronto. We’re going to see more percentage of our production shift over.
The konjac root is currently sourced out of China. Before the 2011 earthquake, we actually sourced it out of Japan. But unfortunately the konjac root was growing around the Fukushima area, so we were forced to switch to another supplier. So that’s why we have to source from China.
People don’t understand that the konjac roots are still very small. When we grow, we definitely will think about growing the konjac right here in the states or even Canada to help cut down the costs and make it more sustainable. Which will definitely match our business philosophy.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. It is very difficult to start any food business, and I appreciate you saying that. I know that you have to make some compromises sometimes in terms of where you’re getting your supplies, just because it’s a very difficult thing to do. And you’ve come a long way. So can konjac be grown in the United States or Canada?
Eugene Wang: Definitely, definitely. I just can’t a farmer or farm willing to do that for me. (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so we have to put that out there. Anyone who wants to grow konjac, here is an opportunity for you.
Eugene Wang: Right, right. (chuckles) Actually, believe it or not, konjac is used in a lot of different industries, especially in supplements. They call it glucomannan. So it’s a huge business actually.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh!
Susan Carskadon: Yeah.
Eugene Wang: It’s just so weird that the farming industry here doesn’t really understand or even heard about it such a plant. So that’s why we had real difficulty sorting it out here.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, that looks like a great opportunity unless it’s difficult to grow.
Eugene Wang: Not at all, not at all. It’s a root.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, huh.
Eugene Wang: So I suppose it’s just like a potato.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. Okay, everybody: start growing some konjac. Amazing root.
Eugene Wang: (chuckles)
Susan Carskadon: It’s very prolific in Asia. It’s an ancient stable, really. It’s low in calories and high in fiber; that’s what everybody in America is looking for. You know? (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: All right, I briefly mentioned your salmon which is just amazing, scary amazing. The first thing I saw when I walked into Foodbytes! was your display with the salmon. I was looking at it and I thought it was vegan, but it just looked so real that I couldn’t believe it. I had to read everything that was there before I would try it. (chuckles) ‘Cause it looked like salmon! Now, I don’t even know how you do it, but it’s just pretty incredible.
Eugene Wang: Yes. ‘Cause the first thing I thought of when I was first starting this business was lox. Just recently, people have become aware of the genetically modified salmon that’s going to be marketed into the United States pretty soon. Salmon is just a huge business and, to some extent, is polluting our oceans, thanks to these congregated farms. It’s a multibillion-dollar business; no one really dares to challenge it.
But, if we’re making vegan seafood, we better be the first ones to fire the shots and come up with something that’s really helping people to cut down their consumption of salmon. Plus, these smoked salmon taste really good, has a lot of fiber, and allows a season for change. That you really shouldn’t miss the opportunity to try some. And I believe that it could be available in a natural food stores near you. So hopefully people get the chance to try it.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, let’s talk about shrimp, because shrimp has a big story behind it from a health point of view, from an environmental point of view. It is loaded with cholesterol; it is not a healthy food to eat. ‘Course, a lot of people are allergic to it. The shrimp farms of today are a disaster for the environment, destroying coral reefs. I haven’t been in one in a long time, but I remember going to these restaurants that had unlimited cocktail shrimp and these shrimp bars. We would just eat so many of them, and they’re still going on today. But real shrimp is such a terrible thing for people to consume on so many levels. So you have come up with a vegan shrimp.
Eugene Wang: That’s totally the point. When we look at the whole market research numbers, shrimp—I believe, by far—is the number one consumed item among all the seafood. Like you said, shrimp farms give the whole world a lot of problems. Not just the pollution they create: they use a lot of chemicals to keep the shrimp healthy and alive. A lot of companies use slave labor to peel the shrimp, to process the shrimp. And down the road, that creates a lot of problems.
So, just by over consuming or by over depending on one item, the whole world is creating such a mess to the Earth. And I think really, there should be a major company that is coming out and doing something about it.
It’s just so unfortunate that none of these multinational food companies really see this. But I believe what we’re trying to do here definitely will be noticed by these big guys, and hopefully they will join the parade and come up with something to help people to stay away from shrimp consumption.
Like you said, shrimp itself has a lot of cholesterol. People who are middle-aged (mid-forties) or even elders: I would say try not to eat too much shrimp in your daily diet. Eat our vegan shrimp; it’s probably a better option for all of you.
Susan Carskadon: That brings up a really important point. We have also learned that a lot of our fans are not necessarily all vegan. They are just looking for more plant-based foods to add to their diet. It’s an amazing thing to be able to augment perhaps your half vegan diet or just adding more plant foods to your diet. Our foods make it really easy.
So let’s say you have shrimp once in awhile, but you still want to enjoy shrimp that’s plant-based. Then voilà: Sophie’s Kitchen’s whole line of products.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s a really good point.
Eugene Wang: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Because the pendulum has swung really, way too far in terms of the animal products we consume today. And we need to swing it back, whether people become vegan—which, you know, I would love personally, but I don’t think that’s going to happen; people need to consume more plants and less animals if we’re going to continue on this planet. And this is definitely the way to do it.
Eugene Wang: Speaking of which, 40% of the whole nation is actually staying away from real meat and seafood right now, as we speak.
The other day, I got an email from one of our consumers. She mentioned a very interesting story. She just mixed our vegan shrimp with the real shrimp to (number one) cut down on the cholesterol she took in that meal, and also as a way for her to convince herself to get onto a more plant-based diet. This is a very wonderful story, as you can see. People here in this country are trying to stay away from animal protein.
Caryn Hartglass: Right. That’s clever, very clever. Good.
Eugene Wang: Yeah, yeah.
Susan Carskadon: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: The thing I like about your shrimp is I remember a long time ago when I ate shrimp. Occasionally, I’d get a piece of the shell that wasn’t peeled off, and it would pointy or crunchy. But there’s no shell in your products! (chuckles)
Eugene Wang: (chuckles)
Susan Carskadon: Yeah. (chuckles)
Eugene Wang: Definitely, definitely. Eating our shrimp is not only healthy but also a wonderful choice.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, okay. Now, we can find your product online and in stores. Is that correct?
Eugene Wang: That’s correct, that’s correct. Online, there’s a sea of vegan stores that you can check out. Or go to our website; there’s a link of these stores. A lot of the natural food stores like Whole Foods Market and Mother’s carry our product too. Feel free to go to the natural food stores. If not, contact us through our website. We’ll give you the directions.
Susan Carskadon: Also our products are available throughout North America in almost every natural food store. For instance, even if a vegan tuna was in an aisle of tuna, our frozen products are in the frozen aisle. But any store can order our products. So it’s as simple as a consumer going into their favorite natural foods store and asking for it. We’re also in a lot of Safeways in the country. We’re pretty available.
Caryn Hartglass: I didn’t realize that your tuna is in the same aisle as fish tuna. That’s good.
Susan Carskadon: Right, right.
Eugene Wang: It’s just so unfortunate that the retail stores don’t really have a space for this type of product. “Think about it; don’t be here.” So we’re probably really the first one to be innovative to a lot of these retail stores. I believe consumer buying choices will tell these buyers that we really have to catch up with consumer demand in terms of alternative protein. Especially plant-based protein. So that these plant-based products will be more visible anywhere in the supermarket.
Caryn Hartglass: That sounds good to me. Well, Eugene and Susan of Sophie’s Kitchen: Vegan Seafood, thanks so much for joining me and for doing what you’re doing. Now we just have to grow more konjac in the United States. (chuckles)
Eugene Wang: (chuckles) Thank you very much, Caryn. Thank you for the opportunity. Bye.
Susan Carskadon: Thank you. Bye. Bye-bye.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Take care, both of you. Bye.
Yeah, Eugene Wang of Sophie’s Kitchen: Vegan Seafood. This is really a beautiful thing, and, I tell you, I tried some of these products and they’re good. Now, I have to admit: I never really liked smoked salmon. I was talking earlier about the smoked salmon on bagels and cream cheese, back in the day when I ate those things.
When I tried their vegan salmon, it really tasted like it but—I don’t know how else to put it—I liked it, whereas I didn’t like the original version. And I can’t really explain what the difference is, unless subconsciously or consciously—as I’m going to go into the next topic—maybe I knew what the original product was, and that’s why I didn’t like eating whoever it was.
Transcribed by HT, 9/26/2016