Co-founders Jennifer Liao and Caleb Wang alongside recently appointed general manager Vincent Kitirattragarn, the co-founder of the Asian-American snack company Dang Foods, will unveil at Natural Products Expo West (at booths N1501 and 5127 in Hall E) the company’s new name – MiLa, which the team says is more accessible and representative of what the brand and company has become.
“Our original name, Xiao Chi Jie, means street food avenue and when we began it was very fitting because we were a brick and mortar location that offered traditional street food, including soup dumplings. But now, our product portfolio has expanded beyond street food and we are not just a restaurant. We’re a national Chinese food brand with a full range of ingredients and products from sweet to spicy” that is sold nationally online, Liao said.
“MiLa stands for honey and spice in Chinese, and the idea is we now have products that are sweet and spicy, and this name will better encompass our expanded offering,” which includes not just soup dumplings but noodle kits, BBQ skewers, sauces, seasonal ice creams and kitchen accessories, like bamboo steaming baskets, she added.
“We basically outgrew our name, and our new name gives us more space to grow.”
And growth is the big goal of 2023 by expanding into brick and mortar stores across channels to tap into the $1-2 billion frozen Chinese food market in American grocery stores, said Kitirattragran.
He explained that frozen Chinese food is growing 16% year-over-year in the US, and retailers are giving more space to Chinese food products and brands.
Most of this growth and business is focused on mass, club and conventional grocery stores, but he added MiLa’s clean labels and better-for-you positioning make it a good fit for natural specialty stores, where less than 1% of the category currently is.
“We have an opportunity to grow that market share as well,” he said.
He explained the brand currently is testing its products in different channels, including club, conventional, specialty and natural, with an intention of going deep before expanding wide and gathering feedback from customers and consumers.
A new look to better pop on retail shelf
Complementing the new name is a new look that through a blend of modern and nostalgic elements reflects the founders’ embrace of the emerging concept of third culture, which Liao said is at the heart of MiLa.
She explained as second generation Chinese Americans she and co-founder Caleb Wang began their business because they craved, but couldn’t find in the US, a ‘good version’ of their favorite food from Shanghai. But as their company has grown and their products have evolved to meet a broader consumer base, they wanted to incorporate “our own informed experiences living in the US, which has different implications for how we perceive food and culture and what we want from it.”
This “amalgamation” of their heritage and the first culture of where their parents are from and the second culture of where they reside is “very distinct from just American culture or just from Chinese culture – it’s a third culture,” and one that is equally “authentic to ourselves” and what influences them, Liao explained.
This comes through in the packing's collage of modern and nostalgic images as well as the expanded color palette that draws on the colors of neon street signs that influenced the brand’s original packaging and bold primary red, which Liao said holds significance in Chinese heritage and culture.
At the same time, the whimsical hot air balloon made from a soup dumpling that features prominently on the bag of frozen dumplings speaks to “the whole idea this food can take you on an adventure,” Liao said.
She added the two figures in the balloon basket – her mom and a family friend pivotal to the company’s origins – grounds the image in the company’s rich – albeit short – history.
‘Even though we have a new name and brand, a lot of what we stand for remains the same’
As excited as the team is about the rebrand and the potential for growth it presents, Liao acknowledges the risk of confusing or even losing existing customers unless the company “communicates and even over communicates” what it has changed and why.
She explained that the company already gave repeat customers a heads up and will include cards in the physical packaging that explain the new look and name. Plus, the website and other materials will feature both names through a transition period.
“Even though we have a new name and brand, a lot of what we stand for remains the same and we are doing a much better job of crystallizing for ourselves and consumers are main pillars, which are culture, craft, commitment and community,” Liao added.
With that in mind, she added, “one of our big goals for the year is to just grow responsibly,” and in a way where the team can manage changing economy and sustainably scale without compromising quality and values.