The dream for many is to turn family recipes into a thriving food business. Jen Liao and Caleb Wang made that dream a reality with their company, MìLà.
Initially launched as a street food restaurant, they transitioned MìLà into a multimillion-dollar direct-to-consumer (DTC) food brand, selling authentic frozen soup dumplings. Running MìLà allows Jen and Caleb to connect to their family history while adding to the tapestry of Chinese cuisine within the American food ecosystem.
Ahead, Jen shares the takeaways she’s gathered from rebranding, and retooling their business to serve customers exactly where they are.
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Maintaining the same, high-quality standard as before
While Jen and her partner Caleb decided to change the name of their company from Xiaochi to MìLà to better represent the whole brand, instead of just the restaurant, they wanted the new business to maintain the same, high-quality taste and standard as before.
“It had to be almost exactly what we had tasted in China because that’s what we had wanted to bring over,” Jen says. In order for the transition to be successful, Jen knew the packaged goods would have to taste just as good, if not better, than the food customers expected from the restaurant.
To ensure customers received their frozen dumplings in good condition, Jen and Caleb conducted their own randomized research early on. “We would look at all the tracking numbers on an order by order basis, if it was more than three days in transit, we would proactively reach out to ask if it arrived frozen or not,” Jen says. This allowed the team to test and adjust how much dry ice they would need to pack the orders so they could maintain their high standards.
As a DTC business, your customers can’t see firsthand what size your production and operations are. “There’s a lot more understanding for something that is brick-and-mortar, like a restaurant, where food is served live, and you see it made to order, so you understand variation,” Jen says.
Taking your time to iterate, making things just right
MìLà’s first attempt at packaging was a brown paper bag, labeled with a sharpie pen, that Jen and Caleb would go door-to-door delivering. This was only a temporary solution as they tested out new options.
“If there’s a way to do a beta test or a pilot or a V1 (first version) of whatever you’re thinking about, go do that, and gather data points that can inform how you plan for the rest of [your business],” Jen says. It’s important to collect data from early customers, and notice which set of packaging speaks to them.
Using community building apps to bring existing, and new customers together
One of the most important aspects of transitioning from a restaurant to a DTC business is your marketing strategy, and how you plan on getting the word out.
Jen and the team at MìLà relied on community building applications such as WeChat and Facebook to bring new customers in, and share updates with existing ones. Jen’s mom would join different WeChat groups and start inviting members from those groups to hers. The chat continued to grow as she shared updates on MìLà’s delicious offerings.
Customers who had frequented the restaurant were able to support via local Facebook groups where they could stay up-to-date with the business and order the soup dumplings for delivery.
The process of launching a DTC business out of your existing restaurant is a slow one, but by maintaining your products integrity, and meeting your customers where they are, you can create a successful brand out of your favorite dishes.
To discover Jen’s tips for working with retail partners, expanding production, or to hear how she secured Simu Liu as MìLà’s celebrity investor, tune in to the full Shopify Masters episode.