[[Just like everyone else, I’m just trying to adapt.]]
Prior to Covid I wanted to start a spice shop, not an all kinds of individual spices type of shop, but more like a specialty type of shop. A blend of roasted chili with some ridiculous name like Fire Dust and a roasted rice blend that I have yet to come up with a name for. The spice isn’t just any mix but a combination of flavors that I actually use in my own cooking/food. Those were the two that I started out playing around with while I was trying my hand at standup comedy.
I had lots of self-doubt and questions, such as: how do I get people to use it in their cooking when most of the friends I gave samples to don’t really know what to do with them? Or what would I put on the “About” page if I were to start selling? A random digital designer/food stylist with over a decade of experience as a bartender and a waitress at Japanese restaurants? Daughter of a former chef? Granddaughter of a street food vendor in Thailand? Blogger? Eater? Comedian wanna-be? Who am I?!?!?!? I shut off my thoughts and decided to just do a food pop-up at one of the comedy venues, hoping I get to reach more people with the flavor I was trying to introduce while observing comedians. Two birds with one stone, or so I thought. First week was great, then Covid happened and suddenly there was no more toilet paper.
[[It felt like we were being isolated on an island. Each household was stuck on an island and we were all just talking and looking at each other from afar. Facetiming with friends and families had never been so welcomed before now. ]]
The Birth of Linji (Market)
A few months into the Covid era, a friend of Nate and I started a kimchi business and offered to share a booth with him. “Farmer’s markets are a thing right now?” Was my first thought. Nate still has a job and is working from home, and I didn’t have much else to do so I thought maybe I could pick things up where I left off prior to Covid. I hastily said yes only to realize a few hours later that I didn’t have a brand name or a logo. When I did a pop-up at the comedy venue I didn’t have a name. Majestic Beast was the brand name I thought I was going to use for the spice line at the time (I have reasons behind that) but I couldn’t justify using that name for my little pop-up, it just didn’t and still doesn’t feel right. Then I thought about how my in-laws-in-laws (it’s how I refer to an in-law family side of my in-law) named their restaurant after a street their family lived on. So, I decided to look into the name of the area I actually lived in where my grandma had her food shop in front of her house, Nang Linji Road (Google would spell Linchi, but the pronunciation in Thai is more of a J than Ch) which in its literal translation is Mrs. Linji Road. That evolved into Linji Market although part of that was because Linji.com wasn’t available as a URL at the time.
[[Linji was a Chinese philosopher, in case you’re not aware.]]
Now that I have a brand name, and a logo, I set the rest of the branding aside. I still needed to think of where to source my supplies, pricing, and test out the market. The spice line went on pause (again) but maybe I’d introduce the sweet chili tamarind paste that has my Fire Dust mix in it instead, people could spread that on their sandwich bread, that would be a piece of cake, or so I thought.
The jarring process was a nightmare. Stuffing the paste in a little funnel into a little jar got old oh so quick. The pot I used could make X amount of 2oz jars, the hand-filling speed was X amount of jars per hour, and the pasteurization process. I didn’t like it…and still don’t like it. Then over the course of a few weeks the chili oil came along.
It started when I ran out of the chili oil I normally got at the Asian market. A few attempts to make some at home started out with the basics then it evolved with the leftover spice from the time I made massaman curry wraps for the farmer’s market. It started to sell and started to take off. How could I make more per week? What would I do when the farmer’s market season was over? What are the processes to make it to retail? My focus shifted to chili oil solely. Eventually, I told myself that I needed to make this work before I tried to make another product, my Fire Dust would still need to be on pause.
I will spare you the hideous and overwhelming details of the process that are boring but pretty important that made me look at shelf-stable products differently. To all the scientists and engineers and food makers that went through trials and error to make food last longer than its natural state, and safe to eat for the consumers, especially with meat products, RESPECT.
In a magical Covid era moment, late September of 2020 to be precise, I saw a unit in an old row home type of building that seemed to be available but had no contact information online whatsoever. I walked up to a salon that shared the same row with the unit I had my eye on. A pretty and friendly hairstylist/owner at the shop responded “Oh, Susan (the landlord) doesn’t have a website. It’s word of mouth only. And I’ve heard that one of the tenants is leaving this month. Not the unit that you’re looking at though but here’s her phone number and email, see if you can get more info about the upcoming unit.”
The thing that I told myself a few days earlier about doing one thing at a time just flew out of the door. I contacted the landlord, and shortly after I signed the lease. Due to the four seasons we have here in Colorado, the farmer’s market isn’t around all year and I needed to find a way to continue making and selling my products, plus the labor of setting up and breaking down the booth really wore me out, I no longer had the time nor desire to even cook my own meals.
Having a shop for one product made no sense, especially if the production was still very small. I thought maybe my shop could also carry local products, cookbooks, and miscellaneous kitchen items along with my own products. That idea was dismissed pretty quickly when I realized that it’s a whole new line of work. Who was I kidding, I couldn’t carry other people’s products, I could barely keep up with my own product (my method of jarring chili oil wasn’t quite refined). One thing at a time, RASAMI! Ok, but maybe after we get the shop set up for people to come pick up orders I could use the space for storing boxes and shipping. Two things at a time would be fine, right?
Well, getting an affordable rental unit also comes with…SHIT TONS of work. If you don’t want to get a loan nor have access to a family that would lend you their money expect to be handy or have friends who are handy. Also, thanks to the people who invented the internet and the people of the internet itself we can now find a tutorial on how to be a handyman for almost everything.
[[Screw everything else, it’s Pinterest time!]]
[[What was I doing? I don’t know, it’s Covid time, and I now have a shop to set up, weeeeee! ]]
Now the shop was now ready for pick-up orders. I gave it a try for maybe about two weeks and nothing felt right. I just spent lots of time, money, and energy on setting up a shop but I hadn’t figured out how to make more than 5 cases a day and if I’m at the shop I can’t make anything at all…AND I hadn’t spent time with my doggo in a while, what am I doing?!?!?!
Thanks to the universe for sending me my roomie, Jenna. I’m calling Jenna my roomie because we shared the shop. Since I no longer offered in-store pick up and mostly used the space for storing supplies and shipping I had a good chunk of the space that was doing nothing. Jenna is an awesome pilates trainer and amazing human being that showed me what it’s like to be confident, strong, and determined. She rented the front half of the shop to get her business off the ground, and I got some help with rent until I was ready to take the business further.
Social Networks are a Full-Time Job
There was a time that I didn’t understand why some business owners won’t get on their social networks and promote their products or do updates more often. Well, now I’m on the other side and can see why. And in case you’re still on the other side like me back in a day, it’s like this. You just had a baby, you physically are exhausted from tending, caring, and navigating on how to be a good parent. You don’t live near your family and they can’t come to help due to Covid travel restrictions, and there are only a handful of people who you trust to handle your baby but they also have their own babies to take care of, and may I remind you, it’s Covid era. You have to make a choice between taking care of your baby, and posting about your baby on Instagram.
This is very personal to me, and I’d like it to keep it that way, at least until my baby gets a little bigger.
For those who can multi-task with their biz/projects and are still able to keep up with social networks, I salute you.
One Year and One Month Later
My roomie found a new place for her business and I finally learned how to jar more than 5 cases a day, and am comfortable enough with the method that I feel good enough to get some help. I now have more time to articulate and narrow down what I actually want to do and pick up things where I left off. And if you’ve known me for more than one year and one month you know that I value creativity, I’m not a Thai food maker like my grandma, a chef like my mother, nor a chili oil lady. I’m just me. I perceive food as an art form and not just a craft. And to me, if the aesthetic and the flavor of each ingredient trigger our senses that create a different emotional reaction, that’s art. You may love it, hate it, or it may remind you of something you had experienced from your childhood. But whatever it is I hope that the things I create can make you feel something… and hopefully it’s something special.
Linji would have not existed without my dearest husband, my partner in crime, Nate, thank you for putting up with all my craziness and being supportive throughout the years.
Photos of the soft-opening night last Thursday, will upload a proper photo of the space when I’m done with all the packaging ^_^’