Sue Ann Yong of Grumpy Ginger: Bringing Malaysian Food to the Masses
Late last year we launched our second annual Pearl River Mart Foods Chili Box. Featured are five spicy sauces from AAPI- and women-owned businesses, one of which is Grumpy Ginger. We had the chance to speak with Grumpy Ginger founder Sue Ann Yong how she started her business, making Malaysian food more well-known, and how a party at Pearl River helped her connect with the AAPI small business community.
Tell me a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Malaysia, and moved to the States 12 years ago. I did half of my high school in the States, and stayed for college and to work. The rest of my family is still in Malaysia and my brother is in Australia. We’re kind of all over the place!
Were you always interested in cooking?
Actually no, I didn't grow up cooking. I was lucky enough to have my mom make home-cooked meals all the time. In high school and college, I ate all my meals at the dining halls. I wasn't really cooking for myself until post college when I started working. That's when I started experimenting more in the kitchen. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself cooking in search of a piece of home. It’s also a great way to feel connected with my mom and family.
How did you start your business?
Like many of these small businesses, Grumpy Ginger was kind of a COVID baby. For as long as I’ve been in the U.S., each time I traveled back from Malaysia, 80% of my suitcase was stuffed with food and spices. When COVID-19 hit, my stock from home started to run low and all my favorite stores in Chinatown were shut down. Back then there weren’t many options to get Asian groceries delivered either.
While everyone was experimenting with baking bread, there I was figuring out how to make curry from scratch in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen. So I ate a lot of bad curry for a while.. but it did prove to be worth it! I would make such big batches that I started jarring them up and sending them to friends for fun.
At the time I wasn't serious about making it a business. But the more I started to think about it, the more I realized that a lot of people in the U.S. had never heard of or tried Malaysian food. But once they tried it, the response was always “Wow, why haven’t I tried this before?” It dawned on me that Malaysian food is far less common and less recognized compared to other Asian cuisines in the U.S. like Chinese, Japanese, or Thai.
I wanted to start Grumpy Ginger to make Malaysian food more accessible to the general American population. Malaysian food is usually not represented in mainstream grocery stores. It’s often imported and only available in ethnic grocery stores. Sometimes the product packaging isn’t in English either.
I often go to markets in Chinatown with my friends and it can be overwhelming to someone who may not be familiar with the cuisine. They may not know what to look for. I wanted Grumpy Ginger to bridge this gap, to make Malaysian cuisine more accessible and convenient for Asian Americans or people like me who miss the taste of home, but also to the wider American audience who like cooking and want to try new cuisines.
How did you come up with the name "Grumpy Ginger"?
Ginger is an important ingredient in terms of Southeast Asian and Malaysian cuisine so I definitely wanted ginger to be in the name. I wanted the brand to be fun and have a playful personality and eventually we came up with a grumpy cartoon character with bright colors and a fun handwritten font. I think that with food products in the ethnic aisle, there’s often a big educational element, so our goal was to first establish a strong connection with customers through our fun and approachable personality.
What's the most surprising thing you've learned along the way?
Starting a small business, I was expecting to have to find my way on my own and that it was going to take a long time to network and find my place. But it was so nice to learn how supportive the AAPI community is and to be welcomed so quickly. The first time was actually at the Lunar x Pearl River AAPI heritage month celebration last year. I gave [Pearl River Mart President] Joanne [Kwong] a jar of Grumpy Ginger, and the rest is history! I also became friends with so many fellow AAPI business owners. They've been so supportive. It's nice to be part of a community that really looks out for one another.
What do you do for inspiration?
I watch a lot of cooking videos and spend a lot of time in the kitchen experimenting with new recipes. I also have a full-time job at a tech company. It’s been tough juggling my job and running Grumpy Ginger, but honestly I'm constantly inspired by all the other AAPI brands out there today. I feel like we're finally having our moment in the food and beverage space with leading brands like Fly By Jing, Omson, Lunar, and Sanzo paving the way and bringing us true authentic Asian flavors. I’m really inspired by what we can achieve together as a community at a larger scale.
How do you balance having a full-time job and running your own business?
I'm still figuring that out. It’s definitely not easy and I'm very lucky to have friends and family who have graciously helped so much along the way! Growing up, I was a competitive squash player so I missed a lot of school because of training, traveling, and competing. It was always a juggling act between school and squash so I guess I’ve built a lot of those muscles!
I will say that in many ways having a full-time job has actually helped with Grumpy Ginger. If I have a packed schedule and only two hours to do something, I have no choice but to get it done. If I have a full open day to work on something, I sometimes end up getting nothing done because I think I have so much time and I just procrastinate! I am however very tempted to run Grumpy Ginger full time!
What's a country you're looking forward to visiting again for the food?
Besides home, it's a tie between Thailand and Japan. I love Thai food. If I had to pick one favorite cuisine, it would be Thai. It's probably the closest to Malaysian cuisine — I love how spicy and sour it is. And I think Northern Thai food is different from what you'd typically get in a restaurant in the states. I would love to go back to Chiang Mai!
What are you obsessed with right now?
Yoga! It's not exactly an obsession right now, but something I've always wanted to spend more time on. The physical benefits are obviously great, but I love the mental and emotional aspects of it too. It forces me to be very present. If I'm in a headstand and get distracted and think of anything else, I'll fall.
I think a lot of what I do on the mat translates off the mat as well. Holding an uncomfortable pose for longer than you’d want, finding the right balance in a pose, finding comfort in the discomfort — it all translates very well to working a full-time job and running your own business.Have a hankering for chili sauce now? Check out the Pearl River Mart Foods Chili Box and our whole sauce collection. You can also read more of our interviews with AAPI entrepreneurs.