- Sisters Vanessa and Kim Pham founded Omsom to "give the middle finger" to the model minority stereotype.
- The sisters started selling their chef-designed meal starter kits in May, after mentors advised them not to. Their first sampler kits of sauce and seasonings packets for Southeast Asian meals sold out within a week of launching.
- While the Asian-American community comprises Omsom's core customer base, the startup has attracted customers of all ages and backgrounds.
- Demand for Omsom's products is growing rapidly, and the Phams are scaling up production every two weeks to meet it.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Vanessa and Kim Pham were children, they were often rowdy and rambunctious occupants of the back seat of their parents' car. Their parents would turn back and chastise them, "Don't be so om-sòm."
Years later, Kim and Vanessa would go on to launch their dream business, Omsom – named after the Vietnamese word that embodies the loud and proud energy that they want to represent.
"Asian-Americans have this model minority stereotype of being quiet and submissive," Kim told Business Insider. "We wanted to give the middle finger to that. We want to make you a little uncomfortable."
That's why Omsom's direct-to-consumer and chef-designed starter kits for Asian meals come in bright, expressive packaging. A sampler of Omsom's three starter kits sold out within a week of the brand's launch in May.
In the three months since Omsom was launched, the Pham sisters' startup has been featured in Vogue, Forbes, Thrillist, and Food & Wine. Vogue contributor Julie Tong tried the kit and wrote that Omsom "completely transformed my home cooking."
Omsom launches during the pandemic against mentors' advice
Kim and Vanessa always dreamed of starting a business together. Kim was the daredevil of the pair: she was drawn to early-stage startups and eventually landed in venture capitalism. Vanessa chose a more conventional route — Harvard, then Bain Capital.
Kim said that while she was working in technology, she was often the only person of color or woman in the room. "It was discouraging," Kim said. "With Omsom, I wanted to build the company of my dreams down to the folks we hire. Our team is entirely women of color."
Vanessa pursued brand-name jobs, partially with the goal of impressing her parents, and also to reach a position of power where she could reshape institutions to be more favorable to women and people of color, especially Southeast Asian women like herself. But eventually, she realized that "trying to conform and move up that ladder could potentially put my own values at risk."
So the sisters decided to found their dream business together. They conducted extensive consumer research and observed around 50 people cooking at home. They also worked with top chefs in Southeast Asian cuisine — Chat and Ohm Suansilphong of Fish Cheeks, Nicole Ponseca of Jeepney, and Jimmy Ly of Madame Vo — to create their first starter kits.
The starter kits aren't meal kits. They're packets that contain all the spices, sauces, and seasonings needed to cook a specific dish. Omsom's first three starter kits are for Thai larb, Filipino sisig, and Vietnamese lemongrass barbecue.
After the nation went into lockdown, the Pham sisters decided to go ahead with their May launch.
"A lot of our mentors told us not to launch. " Kim said. "They said a lot of folks won't be in the place to try a new brand. And we're first-time founders. But there was a point where Vanessa and I had to dig into our conviction like, this is happening, but folks more than ever need joy in their lives."
Omsom's products have sold out three times since May, with a waitlist nearing 2,000 customers at one point in July. The company did not disclose its total sales performance to Business Insider.
Chefs that have helped create the starter kits are also paid royalty fees, Omsom said. Each ingredient is sourced from the country that makes it. Vanessa estimates that only about 30% to 50% of the ingredients in their starter kits can be found in conventional grocery store chains like Walmart and Kroger.
"We want to celebrate the regions and cuisines that these dishes and ingredients come from," Kim said.
The Phams noted that while the Asian-American community is their core customer base, they've wooed customers of every age and background. They initially expected the vast majority of their business to come from the coasts, where the majority of Asian-Americans live. However, Omsom has shipped starter kits to all 50 states, it said. In fact, one-third of Omsom's customers are from the Midwest and southern parts of the US.
"We have been completely surprised. We have customers who are from states that we've never been to, who are upwards of 70-years-old," Vanessa said.
Not "niche," not "adventurous," but staple
The Phams don't talk about their products as being "adventurous."
And there's still a lot of work to be done to ensure that America's actual demographics and eating habits are properly represented within grocery store aisles, Vanessa said. "Glass noodles should be next to pasta. Asian condiments should be next to Western condiments and Jamaican condiments."
Vanessa also believes that the "ethnic aisles" at grocery stores encourage customers to think of the items in them as special occasion items, rather than staple goods. In her opinion, it's not representative of how Americans eat today.
"We have a lot of folks who say, 'Hmm, seems a bit niche,' and we're like, we're talking about an entire continent here," Kim said.
At first, the Phams said even their parents were confused by their decision to start a food business.
"Being the children of immigrants, I've had to confront the fear of taking risks, of letting my parents down for all the sacrifices they've made," Vanessa said. "But my dad in particular has been so vocal about how proud he is of us."
The Phams even started an Instagram series called "Papa Pham Reacts."
Demand for Omsom's products is growing continuously, and the Phams are scaling up production every two weeks to meet it. At the same time, they're working with three new chefs to launch Japanese, Korean, and Szechuan starter kits this fall.
The Phams said that Omsom's ultimate goal is to be a household name in Asian cuisine. "That's where our hearts are. It could mean a lot of different things depending on what the community wants," Vanessa said.
"People say you gotta build the world that you want to live in," Kim said. "And that's what we're trying to do every day."
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