Meet Aruna Lee, ICA Lab alumni, fermentress, and founder of Volcano Kimchi. After launching her business in 2014 with a plant-based kimchi recipe and an abundance of tenacity, Aruna’s small business began to flourish through the Saturday Ferry Building Farmers Market, being recognized for producing high quality, sustainable and innovative kimchi recipes. Today, Volcano Kimchi operates across 4 farmers markets in the Bay Area and retails in almost a dozen stores and online. We connected with Aruna to get a deeper understanding of how she runs a successful business and her innovative approach to kimchi and fermentation.
In one sentence, who are you?
I am an immigrant woman entrepreneur who has combined my cultural heritage with the culinary cultures of my adopted home in California to create a community and business built around delicious kimchi and other fermented foods.
Tell us about your business.
I launched Volcano Kimchi in 2014 with little more than a plant-based kimchi recipe and the belief in what I had to offer. After landing my first buyer at Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, I was then able to secure a location at CUESA's (now FoodWise) Saturday Ferry Building Farmers Market, which brought added exposure and quickly helped to establish Volcano Kimchi as a brand recognized for its high quality, commitment to sustainability, and innovative approach to kimchi and fermentation. Since then Volcano Kimchi has expanded, operating booths at 4 farmers markets across the Bay Area, as well as retailing in close to a dozen stores and online. In 2020, we moved into our own kitchen space in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, and soon after expanded our team to support the increase in sales and production. We're now ready for the next chapter. In 2023 our goal is to open a brick-and-mortar retail/production space, giving Volcano Kimchi a permanent home from where we hope to continue to build out the growing community of friends, customers, and supporters who have become part of the Volcano family.
Why did you start your business?
Back in 2014 more and more people were starting to become aware of kimchi and its benefits in terms of gut health and overall physical wellbeing. There were a few brands that appeared at the time, but there was nothing like what I had grown up with: a vegan kimchi made using fresh, local ingredients, with flavors that popped and zipped and that made you feel like you were really eating something vibrant, something alive. So I began to ferment, and experiment, working to get the flavors that I remembered. My vision was to bring to people here a kimchi that tasted good, made them feel good, and that was good for the planet.
Best advice you have ever received?
Be patient and persistent.
What’s your favorite part about running your own business? What is your biggest challenge?
I love my team. I love the fact that I've created something that has given these three women — all of them immigrant mothers like myself — a place to find employment, community, and fulfillment. That means a lot to me. My biggest challenge has really been financial. I bootstrapped this company from next to nothing. And while we're still small we've made a mark in a city recognized as one of the food capitals of the world. But not having working capital makes it tough to do the things you envision and forces you to just focus on the immediate day-to-day demands.
What has been your most impactful interaction with ICA, and why?
ICA created a space where I really felt like I belonged, a space where I could learn among people striving like me to move forward. Since becoming part of the ICA program, I've also gained more confidence speaking about the business side of my company, something that used to intimidate me.
What role does community play in your business?
It's everything. It's what has kept me going all these years, standing out at the farmers market every weekend in the sun, the rain, the wind... it's been the people I meet who energize me and who make me want to keep going. Becoming part of the world of fermenters, of makers, of entrepreneurs has also been a source of strength and inspiration. Kimchi is not made to be eaten alone. It's meant to be enjoyed among friends, family. That's the philosophy behind my business.
What is your favorite way to eat kimchi?
Honestly, at the end of a day at the market, I come home, crack a jar of kimchi, fill a bowl of steaming hot rice, and put some toasted seaweed on the table. Balancing the sheet of seaweed with my chopsticks, I gather a mouthful of rice in between and top it with some kimchi. It's like a massage, like a sigh of satisfaction, all the day's work forgotten in that one delicious, nourishing bite :-)
Learn more about Volcano Kimchi at volcanokimchi.com. Aruna is a Lab at ICA alumni, our accelerator program designed for early-stage businesses generating revenue and looking to develop a plan to strategically grow.