On any given Saturday between April and November, you’ll likely find Matt and Chong Choi stationed at the PSU Farmers Market proudly selling Choi’s Kimchi to a frenzy of excited customers. Kimchi is a Korean side dish that consists of a variety of fermented or pickled vegetables with traditional seasonings like garlic and Korean red chili pepper. There is always a crowd of people at Choi’s Kimchi stand, eagerly waiting to get their hands on a sample or stock up on jars of kimchi to take home and enjoy. For almost a decade, this dynamic mother-son duo have been giving Portlanders a truly authentic taste of this fermented Korean staple, and they have no plans of stopping anytime soon.
It all started in 2011 when Matt’s mother Chong, a Korean immigrant, approached him and said she wanted to start selling her kimchi at the PSU Farmers Market. “I told her I would help,” Matt said. “So I cold-called the manager and told him we had this concept of using locally sourced produce to make super traditional Korean kimchi recipes.” The manager was intrigued by the idea, so Matt brought some samples to his office. A few weeks later, Choi’s Kimchi Company had a spot at the market, and the business has been thriving ever since. “Our first week at the Farmer’s Market my mom ended up making 150-200 jars,” Matt said. “I thought we would sell maybe fifteen jars if we did well, but by noon we had sold out of everything.”
The popularity of Choi’s Kimchi has everything to do with Chong Choi’s traditional family recipes. While Choi’s Kimchi occasionally produces seasonal and special-release varieties of kimchi, they mostly like celebrating the traditional flavor profiles that are hard to come by in the States. “I think that the more traditional it gets the better our customers like it,” Matt recalled. “So the inspiration for new flavors usually comes from my mom, who learned these recipes from her mother and grandmother.”
Choi’s may not be the only kimchi company out there, but they certainly bring a fresh perspective to the market. As a family-operated business that locally sources its produce, their mission is to give Americans an authentic taste of a Korean favorite. “That’s kind of why we started,” Matt said. “My mom didn’t think the other kimchi companies were good enough. She didn’t like that people were going to eat kimchi in a store and think it was an accurate representation. She thought she could tell that story better.” So far, they have not disappointed.
In fact, in late 2011, wholesalers noticed Choi’s growing popularity. Soon they were getting written up in local and national publications and receiving wholesale offers from major retailers. “I didn’t even know what wholesale meant or how to have regulatory compliant labels,” recalled Matt. So when the general manager of Woodsman Market, Choi’s first wholesale partner, invited them to sell at their store on SE Division, “the first thing I told him was yes, because you don’t get many opportunities like that. After we talked, I went home right away and researched for hours about everything we needed to be compliant to sell wholesale.” One of the first things Matt did was apply for a domestic kitchen license, which allows small producers to use their own home-kitchen as a commercial kitchen. “My mom and her friends were making all the kimchi at the time, and I was sticking labels on jars,” Matt recalled. “At that point, we were still selling more at PSU than at a single wholesale-market location because we were still known as the farmers market kimchi guys.”
Now, you’ll find Chong making large batches of kimchi at their commercial production facility in North Portland. “My mom still makes the kimchi – she’s the production manager – but now she has five production members helping, so it’s a lot different than it used to be,” Matt explained. “My dad, Pom, also works with us in production now and my Aunt Claire is the book keeper.”
Despite recently doubling the size of their production facility, the PSU Farmers Market remains an important part of Choi’s business model, enabling them to meet and connect with customers face-to-face. “In the summertime we get twelve- to fifteen-thousand customers, so you talk to a lot of people,” Matt recalled. “A lot of these people come with their kids and it turns out they served during the Korean War. They remember eating kimchi for the first time and they say that when they eat our kimchi, it vividly brings them back to that period.” For Matt, connecting with customers is one of the most rewarding aspects of selling at PSU. “Some veterans tell us that they remember driving over fields, hearing explosions, and thinking they’d hit a mine. Instead, it turned out that their vehicles had crushed kimchi crocks buried underground, which was how kimchi was traditionally fermented.”
As the Choi’s look towards the future, their hope is to support growth. “I always said my slogan was “my mom makes the kimchi, and it’s my job to sell it,” and that helps both of us,” Matt said. “For my mom, the more kimchi I sell, the more people get to try her recipes, so our visions are aligned in that way. We’re excited to continue introducing new product lines, developing current product lines, and reaching new customers. We have a lot to look forward to.”