In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jing Gao.
Chile crisp has transformative powers. The Chinese hot pepper oil, which usually gets its signature crunch from fried shallots and garlic, significantly upgrades anything it touches, from noodles and soups to eggs and ice cream. That’s why Jing Gao — a native of Chengdu, China, the capital of Sichuan — built a business around it, transforming her own career in the process. After working in brand management and tech, Gao pivoted to food as a way to reconnect with her family and her heritage. She opened a restaurant in Shanghai and then ran a traveling pop-up that eventually evolved into Fly By Jing, a modern Asian food company bringing flavor-packed pantry staples to kitchens around the world.
The brand’s numbingly spicy Sichuan Chili Crisp is its most popular offering, despite the fact that it’s more expensive than the classic Lao Gan Ma brand that many consumers know. As the market for chile crisp heated up in the last two years, Gao bet that 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 production and gauge if there was interest in the U.S. market; there was a lot of interest. Nearly 1,700 backers pledged $120,000 in funds. The success of the Kickstarter led Gao to expand the brand with products like zhong sauce, frozen dumplings, and finishing oils. Now, she plans to continue growing, with her sights set on adding more items from regional Chinese cuisines to her repertoire.
In the following interview, Gao discusses the challenges of moving Fly By Jing to Los Angeles, relying on customer support during rough patches, and taking Chinese food out of the “ethnic aisle.”
Eater: What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
Jing Gao: I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but didn’t know what kind of business it was going to be. I thought I would try a lot of things and would eventually find what was right for me.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
I had many part-time jobs growing up, but my first full-time job out of school was as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble. It was great training to become an entrepreneur because it required you to act as a mini-CEO of a brand, working with many other [departments] across the company, like sales and R&D, to grow the top line. I worked for Gillette [owned by P&G] and CoverGirl [formerly owned by P&G] in the Canadian market.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
I went to business school, somehow a compromise between my parents’ wishes for me to become a doctor and my desire to go to art school. I never went to culinary school, but taught myself to cook by reading cookbooks and practicing. I 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 got into the food world when I moved back to China in my 20s for a tech job. As I started to reconnect with my family there, exploring the country’s food became a way to reconnect with them and my heritage. I started to learn everything I could about Chinese cuisine and launched a food blog where I chronicled my adventures.
That led to writing about food for international publications, learning to cook with Chinese masters, opening a restaurant called Baoism in Shanghai, and launching a traveling pop-up restaurant that I named Fly By Jing. This winding road eventually led me to the realization that Fly By Jing could be a modern Asian food brand that helps introduce incredible Sichuan flavors to kitchens around the globe.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
There were many challenges along the way, but probably none as difficult as when I decided to move to LA to launch Fly By Jing as a direct-to-consumer [consumer packaged goods] brand. Despite having found traction pretty quickly, everything that could have gone wrong did, from manufacturing mishaps to logistics catastrophes to the resistance and blatant racism we faced from the beginning.
I couldn’t find any investors who believed in the concept, so I had to bootstrap the company by myself, unable to hire help or even pay myself. But those early constraints helped me to work creatively to find solutions and [learn] never to take no for an answer, which in turn [helped me] build a more resilient business.
When was the first time you felt successful?
Every breakthrough has been [paired] with challenges. The first was our Kickstarter back in 2018. It was an instant success and it showed me that there was a community out there who valued and demanded high-quality Chinese flavors. But the journey to creating the first big batch at scale was long and painful. However, the initial few thousand customers who took a chance, sticking with me through incessant mishaps and delays, were pivotal to our eventual growth.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
In 2020, as the pandemic spread across the world and reached the U.S., we saw an overnight surge in home cooking and interest in more diverse flavor profiles. We had been growing steadily in the previous year due to press and word of mouth, but one major feature in the New York Times Sunday magazine by Sam Sifton kind of changed everything for us.
We sold out of several months of inventory overnight and continued to take preorders, which saved the company as we dealt with the ravages of the pandemic on global supply chains. It also catapulted us into the mainstream, as customers in every age group across every state in the U.S. brought us into their homes.
What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?
I wore all the hats at Fly By Jing in the beginning, but now I’ve built a team who are helping me dream even bigger. I continue to set the vision and steer the ship, make sure we attract and retain the right talent to join the team, and ensure that we have the resources we need to achieve our goals. I do all the product development, direct brand campaigns, and work on creating a happy and healthy environment for my team.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
Yes, so many. I always encourage other founders who are starting out to seek out mentors who’ve gone down similar paths. It’s so helpful to hear how other people have tackled the same problems 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 making change in your industry?
At Fly By Jing, our goal is to shift culture through taste and elevate the consciousness and conversation around Chinese food and other marginalized cuisines. We want to take Chinese food out of the so-called ethnic aisle and make it part of everyday cooking everywhere. Our continually expanding line of sauces, spices, oils, and dumplings is doing just that.
What would you have done differently in your career?
I would’ve reminded myself to slow down a little bit and enjoy the process. Easier said than done, but a founder’s life can be so hectic that we forget to stop and breathe every once in a while — and to take a minute to look at how far we’ve come.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Make sure that whatever you are pursuing is driven by your burning desire to bring it into the world. The road to entrepreneurship can be often excruciating and you’ll need a north light to keep you going. Remember that most of us aren’t born with passions. Passions form from interest, dedication, and practice. The more you give to your craft, 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.