You are currently viewing How Jing Gao Started Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp

How Jing Gao Started Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp

In How I got my job, people from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their jobs. Today’s episode: Jing Gao.

Chili crisp has transformative powers. Chinese chili oil, which typically gets its signature crunch from fried shallots and garlic, dramatically improves everything it touches, from noodles and soups to eggs and ice cream. That’s why Jing Gao, originally from Chengdu, China, the capital of Sichuan, built a business around it, transforming his own career. After working in brand management and technology, Gao turned to food as a way to reconnect with her family and her heritage. She opened a restaurant in Shanghai, then ran a traveling pop-up that eventually evolved into Fly By Jing, a modern Asian food company bringing tasty staples to kitchens around the world.

The brand’s Sichuan Chili Crisp is its most popular offering, despite being more expensive than the classic Lao Gan Ma brand that many consumers are familiar with. As the market for crispy chili has warmed up over the past two years, Gao bet people would be willing to pay more for higher quality ingredients and better taste, and she was spot on. Gao launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise capital for the production and gauge whether there was interest in the US market; there was a lot of interest. Nearly 1,700 backers pledged $120,000 in funds. Kickstarter success led Gao to expand the brand with products like zhong sauce, frozen dumplings, and finishing oils. Now, she plans to continue growing, with the goal of adding more regional Chinese cuisine items to her repertoire.

In the following interview, Gao discusses the challenges of moving Fly By Jing to Los Angeles, relying on customer support during difficult times and removing Chinese food from the “ethnic aisle.”

Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?

Jinggao: I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know what kind of business it would be. I thought I was going to try a lot of things and eventually find what worked for me.

What was your first job? What did that entail?

I had many part-time jobs growing up, but my first full-time job after school was as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. It was great training to become an entrepreneur, as it required you to act as a mini-CEO of a brand, working with many other [departments] throughout the company, such as sales and R&D, to increase revenue. I worked for Gillette [owned by P&G] and cover girl [formerly owned by P&G] in the Canadian market.

Did you go to culinary school or college?

I went to business school, sort of a compromise between my parents’ wish that I become a doctor and my desire to go to art school. I never went to culinary school, but learned to cook by reading cookbooks and practicing. I’ve also staged in a restaurant, which is a great way to learn on the job without going to culinary school.

How did you get into the food industry?

I entered the food world when I returned to China in my twenties for a tech job. As I began to reconnect with my family there, exploring the food of the country became a way to reconnect with them and my heritage. I started learning everything I could about Chinese cooking and started a food blog where I chronicled my adventures.

This led me to write about food for international publications, learn to cook with Chinese masters, open a restaurant called Baoism in Shanghai, and launch a traveling pop-up restaurant that I named Fly By Jing. This winding road eventually led me to realize that Fly By Jing could be a modern Asian food brand that helps bring amazing Sichuan flavors to kitchens around the world.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you started in the industry?

There have been many challenges along the way, but probably none as difficult as when I decided to move to Los Angeles to launch Fly By Jing as a direct supplier. [consumer packaged goods] brand. While they found traction pretty quickly, everything that could have gone wrong, from manufacturing mishaps to logistical disasters to the resistance and blatant racism we’ve faced from the start.

I couldn’t find any investors who believed in the concept, so I had to start the business on my own, unable to hire help or even pay myself. But these first constraints helped me to work creatively to find solutions and [learn] never take no for an answer, which in turn [helped me] build a more resilient business.

When did you first feel success?

Every breakthrough has been [paired] with challenges. The first was our Kickstarter in 2018. It was an instant hit and showed me that there was a community that valued and demanded high quality Chinese flavors. But the journey to creating the first large-scale batch was long and painful. However, the few thousand initial customers who gave it a shot, sticking with me despite the constant mishaps and delays, were critical to our eventual growth.

What was the turning point that led you to where you are now?

In 2020, as the pandemic spread across the globe and reached the United States, we saw an overnight increase in home cooking and interest in more diverse flavor profiles. We had grown steadily the previous year through press and word of mouth, but a major feature of the New York Times Sam Sifton’s Sunday Magazine kind of changed everything for us.

We sold several months of stock overnight and continued to take pre-orders, which saved the business as we dealt with the ravages of the pandemic on global supply chains. It also catapulted us into the mainstream, as customers of all age groups in every state in the United States brought us to their homes.

What does your job entail? What’s your favorite part about it?

I wore all the Fly By Jing hats at first, but now I’ve built a team that helps me dream even bigger. I continue to set the vision and steer the ship, ensure we attract and retain the right talent to join the team, and ensure we have the resources we need to achieve our goals. I do all product development, lead brand campaigns, and work to create a happy and healthy environment for my team.

Do you have or have you ever had a mentor in your field?

Yes so much. I always encourage other founders who are just starting out to seek out mentors who have gone down similar paths. It’s so helpful to hear how other people have tackled the same issues and found solutions, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel yourself. Every mistake in the book has been made; seek out resources and mentors to avoid repeating them if you can.

How are you developing your industry?

At Fly By Jing, our goal is to change culture through taste and raise awareness and conversation around Chinese cuisine and other marginalized cuisines. We want to take Chinese food out of the so-called ethnic aisle and integrate it everywhere into everyday cooking. Our ever-expanding range of sauces, spices, oils and dumplings does just that.

What would you have done differently in your career?

I would have reminded myself to slow down a bit and enjoy the process. Easier said than done, but the life of a founder can be so hectic that we forget to stop and breathe once in a while – and take a minute to see how far we’ve come.

What advice would you give to someone who wants your job?

Make sure whatever you pursue is driven by your burning desire to bring it into the world. The road to entrepreneurship can often be excruciating and you will need a northern light to keep going. Remember that most of us are not born with passions. Passions are formed from interest, dedication and practice. The more you give to your job, the more it gives back to you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

Leave a Reply