It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when rising food entrepreneur Christine Yee didn’t imagine she’d ever work in the food business again. Growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan, Yee was one of five siblings who grew up working behind the scenes in the family restaurant. She had watched her parents run House of Yee Chinese Restaurant, and saw firsthand how laborious and all-encompassing the work was. “It was very hard work, with very little margins,” recalls Yee. “The restaurant was how my parents raised the family, paid the bills — they didn’t think about expansion plans or removing themselves from the operations — it was the typical immigrant family trying to survive.”
When the family moved to the Vancouver area in the 90s, they closed the restaurant and Yee thought that was the last of it. But when you grow up working in a family restaurant, the food business is in your genes. Yee describes feeling a pull towards the industry, so she circled back to her childhood, keeping in mind her parents successes and failures, and also following her own instincts.
In 2015, Yee started developing a gluten-free dumpling recipe in her home kitchen. She would later move to a 1600 sq.ft space to create her first to-market line of premium frozen dumplings, providing consumers with healthy, wholesome dumplings made with no MSG. She named her product House of Yee Fine Foods, in honour of her family’s legacy. Today, her dumplings are in over 40 stores and she is keeping up with constant demand by learning to do what her parents didn’t: scaling up the business.
Chosen out of 130 women entrepreneurs, Yee was a semi-finalist in the 2019 The Forum for Women Entrepreneurs (FWE) Pitch for the Purse. And in 2020, she was invited by How She Hustles to talk about how to scale up a food business. Here’s a taste of the some of the goods (pun intended):
Advice for (food) entrepreneurs:
Innovate — Yee always knew she wanted to go into the health food industry, but it was important to carve out space for something new. “It’s about ideas,” she says. “I asked myself how I was going to bring something new to the market.”
“Dumplings are a classic, humble food that everyone likes to eat. And everyone has tried dumplings with different fillings. I knew I was going to make the best filling out there. But beyond that, no one has actually innovated the dumpling wrapper. So that was something that I wanted to do.” Today, after creating the space for something new in the market (both in the industry as well as the literal market), her dumplings are the only gluten-free dumplings available in the frozen aisle section of the grocery store.
Go online — “A lot of people just tinker with ideas — just do it,” Yee says. “Put your ideas online. Go test your market through Instagram and Facebook. Social media and Google are two very powerful tools to start with — and it’s free! Be resourceful. Take the leap. And when you put the product out, you’ll get immediate feedback. Listen to your customers — they root for you.”
She adds: “Ignore the negative comments and be comfortable with rejection. But keep it moving!”
Scale up, pronto — Yee doesn’t mince words when it comes to taking your business to the next level. “You need money to make the business grow,” she says. “It’s unromantic, but every entrepreneur’s job is to generate revenue; you need cash to keep your dreams alive.”
Practical advice, no doubt, but how? It may sound counter-intuitive, but Yee recommends creating a business model that removes yourself from the daily operations. “Hire a great team, have systems to measure and track production, then work on marketing, sales, and networking.”
“One of my biggest challenges since I started was just keeping up with demand,” says Yee. But by removing herself from the production, she was able to focus on growing the sales. This creates a cyclical flow within the business that will allow for upgrading the production and keeping up with demand.
Seek out mentorship — This one’s a biggie. Yee advises entrepreneurs to find people along the way that can help show them the ropes. For her, it started with her family, but as she’s grown into a solo food entrepreneur, she credits many people in the industry for guiding her towards her goals.
“Seek out mentors. You’d be so surprised at the generosity of people, especially in the food scene. Because it’s so hard, there’s a really tight-knit community that is willing to help out. And when it’s your turn, pay it forward.” When you return the favour, she adds, it has a two-fold effect: it provides help to those starting out, but it also grows your community and refines your own business acumen at the same time.
Dream big — Yee shares a story about driving to a major grocery store and standing in the frozen aisle section. She’d stand there, looking at all the available frozen foods, and visualize her dumplings on those very shelves. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it allowed her to feel herself there.
“Dreaming your dream is just part of the entrepreneur’s journey. Have the gumption to dream big and then have the audacity to follow through,” says Yee. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll be worth it because one day you’ll wake up and you’ll be in the frozen aisle section of the supermarket.”