SAN RAFAEL — Korean food has been topping trendy cuisine charts for the past few years, and now the Marin County natural foods entrepreneur who helped make it a household staple is getting national retailer attention for her new venture in seaweed snacks for the uber-health-conscious.
Though there are a number of options in grocery stores these days for packaged sheets of dried, roasted seaweed, Belvedere resident Annie Chun is betting Western consumers have developed not only a taste for it but will prefer a brand made with ingredients that are gluten-free, certified organic and doesn't contain genetically modified organisms, or GMO. Her new San Rafael-based venture rolls into nationwide distribution next month.
Many may not know Ms. Chun ever left the consumer packaged foods business, because her beaming face graces the Annie Chun's label on supermarket packaged noodles, instant rice, potstickers, sauces, sushi rolls and even seaweed sheets sold. But Ms. Chun and Steve Broad, her husband and business partner, sold the brand in 2009 to South Korea-based CJ Foods after building it to $15 million in annual sales. CJ had rapidly started increasing sales four years earlier through a distribution agreement. Brand sales are estimated to have more than doubled in the past three years.
After the noncompete agreement expired, Ms. Chun and Mr. Broad this year rolled out their own seaweed snack company, GimMe Health Foods, LLC (gimmehealth.com). It's named for gim — pronounced "geem" — the Korean word for dried, roasted seaweed, called nori in Japanese.
The venture may be based in Marin, where the Annie Chun's packaged Asian food brand was based until sold, and the staff of five mostly alumni of the previous business, but Ms. Chun and Mr. Broad have spent the last three years carefully planning and organizing this venture to differentiate its products from the wave of packaged seaweed now rolling into U.S. grocery stores under private labels or brands such as Annie Chun's.
"I've been in the natural, organic food business for 21 years, and I wanted all the ingredients to be up to that standard," Ms. Chun said.
Setting up manufacturing for frozen meals was too involved to tackle initially, so Ms. Chun and Mr. Broad went with the suggestion of their daughter, Mia, to give gim a go and call the snack brand GimMe.
Though many packages of gim in grocery stores say "Made in Korea," finding suppliers that would meet USDA organic certification standards in production was challenging, according to Ms. Chun. After narrowing down the list of about 200 mostly small South Korean seaweed processors and suppliers to about 10, the GimMe team finally convinced an undisclosed 43-year-old family-owned company, which is among that country's largest buyers and processors, to change the way it roasts.
Soybean and canola oils are commonly used in roasting to offset the cost and potency of sesame oil used for flavoring. But much of such oils come from GMO foodstock, so GimMe had to find certified-organic oil sources, including oil made from perilla, called kkaenip in Korean.
The source for the seaweed is Jangheung Bay, located on the southwestern coast of the Korean peninsula. It was the first area to be designated under the international "slow food" designation. The government has banned pesticide use in the watershed draining into the bay and limited what types of boats can enter it.
Texas-based grocery chain Whole Foods Market is set to start carrying the line nationwide in June. It is getting distribution to 150 Albertsons and 100 Sprouts markets in the Southwest through large distributors Nature's Best and United Natural Foods.
About 2,000 Wal-Mart stores have started carrying packages of honey Dijon- and cheddar-flavored shredded dried seaweed, called "crumbles." GimMe has been working with mom bloggers and the retailer's publicity team to help raise awareness of seaweed's nutritional benefits — high in iron and iodine — but also benefits of organic and GMO certification.
"The population at large is not as exposed to seaweed as the population at large," Ms. Chun said. "Kids love it, and it's low-calorie and not as high in sodium as other snacks."
Sales projections are for $2 million the first year.