Food held a significance beyond sustenance in Eric Wu’s home growing up; it was a way to express love and care and became a language of love. This early connection between food and love has influenced Wu’s journey and passion for food today.
Eric Wu and Adam Yee, co-founders of Sobo Foods, are on a mission to reimagine nostalgic Asian American flavors through plant-based dumplings. They're prioritizing health and environmental concerns while reintroducing comforting Asian American flavors such as pork and chive, kimchi tofu, and Japanese curry potato.
We spoke with Wu about his remarkable journey, from being a college student co-founding Gainful, a $100 million personalized sports nutrition company, and then returning to his roots and passion for food sustainability to establish Sobo Foods.
Eric Wu: I started my first company, Gainful, when I was still a senior at Georgetown University. I didn't want to find a “real job”—I wanted to do something in startups and entrepreneurship unlike many of my college friends at the time who were going into consulting and banking.
Gainful is a personalized sports nutrition company that started because I grew up playing sports and could never find a supplement that worked for me. I have some dietary restrictions and as a soccer player I had different needs from your average person who was going to the gym. I wasn't trying to get huge and buff like all of the bodybuilders on the covers of these protein powder containers. That’s when I decided to concoct my own from my college apartment basement.
I enlisted my best friend from high school, Jahaan, who helped me build an algorithm and design a website. What started as a fun summer side project turned into an opportunity when we got accepted into Y Combinator. We moved out to Silicon Valley, did the whole song and dance of raising venture money, and one thing led to another and now it's a 25-person company in New York.
EW: I originally went to Georgetown thinking that I was going to get an International Relations degree. But what I ended up studying was pretty different and by the time senior year rolled around, I was basically crafting my own major. I focused on food agriculture, food technology, and food sustainability.
EW: My interest in sports nutrition is a little bit more academic, whereas my interest in food systems and sustainability is a bit more personal. I grew up in a food obsessed household. My mom has a food Instagram that I'm her Media Manager for called @sunkitchen. And my dad, also obsessed with food, enters local food competitions with all the other Chinese dads in the neighborhood.
So I grew up in a household that was always thinking about food and what delicious things we were going to eat next. But also a household that really valued health. My mom had her own garden in the backyard where she would try to grow all the vegetables that we ate. So from a very young age, food was a really, really big part of my parents' love language toward me—food is kind of a universal love language for at least Asian immigrants and folks from the Chinese diaspora but I'm sure beyond that as well.
EW: Dumplings, the ultimate comfort food. It's a labor of love making dumplings by hand—creating the dough, rolling it out, making the filling, and then all that work gets put into a little package that then arrives in your mouth. It feels like comfort and home, but it also feels like community. So often the dumplings that we ate were part of a big party where all my aunties would get around a table and make dumplings together while they would talk and gossip.
It really brings me back to my childhood, especially while I was going to school on the East Coast. It was very nostalgic and heartwarming to eat dumplings, even if they were just the crappy, cheap frozen dumplings from the supermarkets—they remind me of home.
EW: Dumplings are certainly having a moment right now. I feel like we're at the point in time where if you haven't heard about dumplings, if you haven't tried a dumpling no matter where you live in America, no matter where your family is from, it's about to happen. I see absolutely nothing wrong with more and more people discovering a food that I fell in love with from an early age even if they're discovering it at a later age. And that's part of the mission of Sobo—to share these recipes and nostalgic feelings with as many people as possible in America. I'm trying to reinterpret and share with the rest of the world regardless of where their families are from.
Plant-based is also really important for the responsibility that we have as stewards and caretakers of this planet. Every single time that we sit down for a meal, we have a choice to make. We have the power to make a choice about how our food impacts the systems around us whether that's human systems, communities, or environmental systems.
Through Sobo we can show people that there is a way to eat something that's just as delicious, nostalgic, and comforting as the foods that we grew up with but in a way that's better for their health and the environment. If I can make just a little bit of an impact doing that then I think I've done my life's work.
EW: Sobo's visual identity is very much inspired by the experiences that Adam and I had growing up as Chinese American kids. I've shared this experience with a lot of other Chinese American and Asian American folks, which is: you kind of feel like you're neither one or the other. You feel like a third culture kid—in between. I’ve tried to imbue this feeling into Sobo’s visual identity and the language that we use around the brand.
We're starting from a place that's really authentic to us, which is nostalgic Asian American flavors like Japanese curry. It’s not really a dumpling flavor, but we love that flavor and we packed it into a dumpling. It's the quintessential weeknight meal that my mom would make when she didn't have time to whip up something from scratch.
EW: One of the highlights of Sobo for me has been feeding people. I think it's such a love language and I didn't get the chance to do it quite the same way with protein powder. So doing more pop-up events like we served our dumplings to folks at the Chimaek festival. It's so personal. It's so values-based. It's so culturally important. I just don't think a food company should be built without bringing a community along behind.