On the Fly: Kim and Vanessa Pham of Omsom

Inside Omsom's first year in the midst of a pandemic and what the future holds

Vanessa and Kim from omsom

Deanie Chen / Omsom

Sisters Kim and Vanessa Pham did the unthinkable—they launched a food business during a pandemic. After working at start-ups and in management consulting, the duo launched Omsom in May 2020. On the surface, the brand produces a line of pantry items that celebrate Asian flavors. But it's deeper than that. The sisters created a company that tells undiluted stories of community and cuisine.

Omsom, a Vietnamese phrase that means rowdy or rambunctious, was often used in the Pham household to describe Kim and Vanessa, and like their personalities the brand stays true to the spirit of the name. They offer pantry shortcuts that are anything but short on flavor— and did we mention the vibrant packaging!

omsom dinner spread

Jenny Huang / Omsom

Currently, the kits focus on specific East Asian and Southeast Asian dishes like Thai Larb, Vietnamese Lemongrass BBQ, and Korean Spicy Bulgogi. It includes all the sauces, aromatics, and seasonings one needs to create an authentic culinary experience at home. Each shortcut kit is complete with easy-to-follow recipes—it's as simple as tear, pour, add protein and vegetables, and enjoy.

The key to their flavorful success is all about the ingredients. Each uses taste-tested ingredients that are typically hard to find stateside— importing high-quality ingredients directly from Asia. That, and the notable chefs that help craft the goods hailing from famed New York City restaurants Fish Cheeks, Jeepney, Málà Project, Bessou, and Madame Vo.

Omsom turned a stay-at-home ordeal into a cooking adventure that changed the quarantine kitchen game for the better. It's a tall order for ready-to-cook-with sauces to encompass a continent of cookery, but it's clearly a task that holds a special place in the Pham sisters' hearts (and stomachs).

We chatted with co-owner Kim Pham to learn more about Omsom, how it started, and what the future holds.

What inspired you to start Omsom?

As first-generation Vietnamese-Americans and daughters of refugees, food is not just a love language for us, it’s a way for us to re-engage with our identities as WOC and “third culture.” My sister and co-founder Vanessa and I have long wanted to start a business together—we’re best friends. Growing up, we never felt represented by the “ethnic” aisle in mainstream grocery stores (why they still exist is beyond me!?). So, we set out to build a company that reclaims the complexity, integrity, and nuances of Asian cuisines and communities. Our mission is to give Asian Americans a modern way to access a real-deal taste of home and to show non-Asian Americans what it means for this category to be done right.

vanessa and kim of omsom

Deanie Chen / Omsom

Why was it important to incorporate social justice into your brand and business model?

We really started this with a bright-eyed desire to build “the company of our dreams.” A big part of that is making intentional decisions every step of the way that support the things we deeply care about: Celebrating BIPOC communities and culture, equitable compensation, and the redistribution of capital. We are extremely proud of how that’s manifested in the short time since the launch.

At the core, it’s run by us—two daughters of refugees and women of color without access to generational wealth. I (Kim) identify as LGBTQ+. Our entire team is POC. 

We prioritize fair and on-going partnerships with Asian chefs in a holistic business model, and they receive a royalty on all sales of their product (versus a one-time engagement fee). 95+ percent of the company’s creative dollars are spent with Asian talent and creatives.

We continuously use our platform for good. Acknowledging that the liberation of Asian communities is intricately tied to that of Black communities, we donated 5% of our June sales to Color of Change and highlighted Black-owned businesses throughout the summer. Instead of running a discount for Black Friday weekend, we harnessed our power for good. With our community’s help, we donated 1200 meals to homebound Asian American elderly in NYC’s Chinatown.

Additionally, we create purpose-led content to educate on harmful myths and tropes that affect BIPOC communities like the xenophobic origins of MSG, the myth that Asian food has to be “cheap,” as well as the origins of this infamous “ethnic” aisle. Every day, we actively choose to de-center our brand’s perspective around whiteness.

So you launched Omsom at the beginning of a global pandemic! How was that experience? Did you pivot at all?

Before making the decision to launch, we definitely took a step back to think long and hard if we should still launch. Our advisors and peers thought it best to hunker down and “wait it out” until the fall, at least. Many were nervous about consumers’ mindshare for discovering new products and constricting American wallets.

Even as first-time founders, Vanessa and I had to follow our own truth here - in our gut, we believed that with so many folks stuck at home indefinitely, many are rediscovering the joy around cooking (remember the sourdough starters and scallion growing that dominated our IG feeds?). We found an internal conviction in a belief that Omsom may actually be more relevant now than ever. So we decided to move forward, despite the many challenges and unknowns, giving people something exciting in these uncertain times—to literally spice up their pantry!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced launching and growing a food business during the pandemic?

Launching during a pandemic required some changes and compromises. For example, we scrapped our plans for any in-person community events like influencer dinners and pop-up showcases. We also got creative when it came to building this organic movement purely online, which required a serious re-jigger of strategy and marketing spend. In terms of the supply chain, we ran into obstacles like delays in the delivery of our packaging and ingredients. The hardest part was that we couldn’t be present for one of our production runs that took place amidst shelter-in-place. We had to get really innovative around overseeing the run. Vanessa ended up facetiming throughout production with the plant manager and overnighting samples to ensure it met our standards.

While the pandemic forced Omsom to return to a bootstrapped, scrappy mentality, it also reminded us what we’re good at and who we stand for—that’s building with heart for a community that has long been underserved.

Tough times can be brutal, but they also force a distillation of what’s real, who you are as a leader, who your core audience is, and what’s most important about your product. While the pandemic forced Omsom to return to a bootstrapped, scrappy mentality, it also reminded us what we’re good at and who we stand for—that’s building with heart for a community that has long been underserved. We took this opportunity, painful as it is, to remove all the distractions and focus on our north star as a brand.

Do you think 2020 has changed the way people cook and eat at home? 

Absolutely, 2020 has without a doubt changed the way people cook and eat at home, among many other ways we now approach our daily life. I think a lot of folks rediscovered the joy of cooking, using their own hands to create nourishment and comfort in the kitchen. It’s a truly beautiful thing that has emerged from truly tough and harrowing times. And, I’m so freakin’ thankful Omsom has even been a part of that journey for folks.

eating omsom

Jenny Huang / Omsom

What is one item from your line that is a must-have regardless of cooking experience?

All of our products are made in this “starter” format and are really easy to use. We wanted to provide the foundation of a dish for home cooks with a level of cultural integrity that has been disappointingly hard to achieve until now. From there, you can take it home with our recipes or make it your own. Omsom has your back on flavor but also leaves room for flexibility—you can bring your own protein, vegetables, and base to the party. We want to not only celebrate these flavors, but empower folks to actively engage with them.

What’s next for Omsom? How do you see the business evolving and growing over the next few years?

Our ambition is to be the new authority in Asian food CPG. We are particularly focused on doing right by the Asian American audience, the fastest growing population with the fastest growing buying power. 

Although Omsom is currently available exclusively direct to consumer with very select retail and e-comm partners, we have every intention to meet that market share through several touchpoints. We see more products and more retailers in our near future. We know well that pre-covid up to 90% of grocery purchasing decisions were made in-store—and are ready to move and grow with our community wherever they are looking for them.

We also realize that the future of Asian food CPG doesn’t need to look “one” way and that there isn’t one “size fits all” in terms of product format. So we’re working on exciting partnerships that will continue to push the boundaries of the Omsom universe—stay tuned!

For more information on Omsom or to purchase the starter kits visit their website.