San Francisco, California

Founder Hyunjoo Albrecht makes kimchi based on her grandmother’s recipe, and it’s caught on in a big way.

Photos Frank Revi

Albrecht grew up in a little village in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — a childhood, she says with studied understatement, that was “interesting, with a lot of adventures.” To a large degree, she was raised by her grandmother, who ran a small restaurant catering to South Korean and American soldiers. She learned a lot about cooking, business and food while playing and working at grandma’s knee — and that included the preparation of kimchi, a culinary and cultural touchstone for all Korean people, both North and South.

Kimchi — basically, fermented cabbage and/or Asian radish infused with red pepper, garlic, ginger and other ingredients — is used as a daily accompaniment to Korean entrees ranging from barbecued beef to simple bowls of rice. Its potent, umami-rich taste and crisp texture make it addictive — and not just for Koreans. Kimchi has attracted a legion of devotees of all ethnicities over the past couple of decades, and is now widely available across the United States.

Albrecht immigrated to the U.S. in 2003, worked as a business executive, and got married. But food remained a bedrock passion, and she left the corporate world and trained as a chef, ultimately working as a line cook at since-shuttered Aqua, one of San Francisco’s most renowned restaurants at the time.

Her dedication to Korean cuisine remained through it all, but it was marred by a major disappointment: the kimchi available in America was mediocre at best. “I could tell it was made with cost and shelf life in mind, not quality,” she says. “It was way too salty, and loaded with artificial preservatives. And it just didn’t taste right — nothing at all like my grandmother’s kimchi.”

So Albrecht did what any enterprising Korean émigré would do when deprived of her most beloved staple — she made her own at home, fermenting Napa cabbage with the requisite spices, sans preservatives. And she followed her grandma’s recipes. She loved the end product, and so did her family and friends. And it occurred to her: There could be a business here.

“So in 2010, I started Sinto Gourmet,” she says. “‘Sinto’ comes from Sinto buri, an old saying in Korea that means ‘Body and soil cannot be separated.'”

To say that Albrecht launched her business on a shoestring is an understatement. “I started on the smallest possible budget,” she says. “I spent $8,500 for the necessary permits and licenses, and I hired a local art student to make labels. I began making kimchi at home, storing jars in my bathroom closet, and I sold locally — first at farmers markets, and then to Rainbow Grocery, a warehouse co-op store in San Francisco.”

Bowing to the inevitability that success can engender, Albrecht and her husband expanded operations from the bathroom closet to a commercial space in San Francisco’s Mission District. Today, the company processes about two tons of Napa cabbage a day — along with large quantities of Asian radish — for four kimchi varieties: spicy red Napa cabbage, mild white Napa cabbage, spicy red “mu” radish, and “plenty roots.” Sinto Gourmet also retails two varieties of gochu jang, or Korean hot sauce: tangy apple and garlic sesame.

Sinto’s broad gustatory palette of kimchis represents the regional differences in preference on the Korean Peninsula, says Albrecht. “In the South, they prefer the spicier varieties, but North Koreans like a milder kimchi — the white variety,” she says.

Albrecht has been loath to seek outside investment, a reluctance, she says, originating from her traditional Korean and Buddhist upbringing emphasizing frugality and self-sufficiency. “Selling the company or going with an IPO — that doesn’t really appeal to me,” she says. “At the same time, we’re a family-oriented business. That includes the families of our employees who depend on us, and we’re committed to securing financial stability for them. So we’re expanding our marketing efforts, investing in ecommerce solutions, selling more D2C, and looking to expand from outlets like Whole Foods into traditional supermarkets like Safeway.”

Albrecht also plans to market a Korean-style, gluten-free chili paste (which she currently sells only to restaurants and institutional kitchens) to retail outlets. As with the kimchi and gochu jang, the primary selling points for the paste are traditional ingredients and taste profiles. “Unlike the current Asian chili pastes on the market, we use rice syrup, not corn syrup; rice flour, not wheat flour; and millet malt, not barley malt,” she says. “It’s true to Korean cuisine and culture.”

Albrecht says the demand for kimchi is large and expanding, and that she’s determined to grow her business in response. “I’ve had two realizations over the last year or so,” she says. “First, I’d underestimated the U.S. market. It’s huge. And second, I didn’t have an accurate sense of the resources it takes to scale. But I’m learning. My goal is to make kimchi a staple. I want it to be like milk or eggs or vegetables — when you go to the supermarket, you just pick some up without thinking.”

Challenges: Catching the attention of customers. “Kimchi is actually a saturated market,” says Albrecht. “There are a lot of brands out there. Our challenge is figuring how to stand out. That said, we think emphasizing the quality of the ingredients, the lack of preservatives, and the superior taste is the way to go.”

Opportunities: Albrecht points to the mass grocery market: “Expanding our presence in conventional supermarkets is the logical next step. There’s tremendous potential for growth there.”

Needs: “We need capital to expand, so we’re thinking about the best, most responsible way to obtain it,” notes Albrecht. “Also, we’re outgrowing our production facility, and rents and leases in San Francisco are just too high. We’re looking beyond the city to outlying communities.”