Sue Liang describes herself as having a “vegetable obsessive disorder.” She shortens it to #vod when tweeting her latest tips on how to follow a plant-based diet. It’s an obsession that’s inspired the Jamaica Plain resident to launch a natural foods company.
Liang, 30, began Asulia Foods in 2012 after being downsized from a finance position at a Boston bank. “Even before the layoff,” she says, “I’d been searching for an occupation that I could be in love with. I wanted to do something where I could give back — give back to girls and to the environment.”
The company produces frozen vegan dumplings in flavors the entrepreneur calls “modern fusion”: taro root with daikon radishes and scallions; chickpeas with coconut milk and curry; and kale and shiitake mushrooms with ginger. Dumplings have already been baked so they need only 15 to 20 minutes in the oven before serving.
This spring, Asulia was chosen as one of 128 startups (beating out 1,600 other applicants) to join the 2014 class of MassChallenge, a large startup accelerator. The four-month program provides free office space in the Seaport District, as well as mentoring support from successful entrepreneurs. “It means that my business ideas are validated,” says Liang, a Suffolk University grad.
She’s great at selling her own products. “The kale — I am just obsessed with kale. I eat it all the time. I love that chickpeas fill you up with protein and fiber without making you feel weighed down. And taro root is such an underused root vegetable. It’s got an amazing creamy and nutty texture. I am excited to show people that it can be used for more than chips and bubble tea.”
Liang’s family history fuels her passion. She immigrated to the United States as a young girl with her adoptive mother, Li Ling Chen, 73, from their native China. After two years in New York City, they moved to Montana, where Liang grew up. When she was a baby, says Liang, her biological family sold her in Guangshou, China. Forty years earlier, Chen herself had been abandoned as a child by her family. Today, Liang donates 5 percent of Asulia’s profits to Room to Read, an organization supporting literacy skills and gender equality in education across Asia and Africa. “Nutrition and education are transformative,” she says.
Inspired by her mother’s traditional dumplings, Liang’s favorite comfort food, she spent four months reinventing them with healthier ingredients. Her mother was both a supporter and a critic throughout the process. “She is the ultimate Iron Chef and business woman. She has always been a modern woman, eating super foods like goji berries and quinoa long before they were trendy. She gives me her honest opinion, and I always seek her stamp of approval.”
Liang chose a thin wheat wrapper to ensure that each batch emerges from the oven with a consistently crunchy exterior, avoiding the sometimes finicky process of pan-frying. The Boston-made dumplings are packed in brightly colored boxes printed by a Maine company that uses 100 percent wind energy to power its presses. Dumplings cost $9.49-$9.99 for a package of 7 to 8 frozen pieces.
Starting the company wasn’t exactly what she envisioned. “It isn’t glamorous. People see you’ve got a product on the grocery shelves, but they seldom see how many hours you’ve put in and the sacrifices that you make.”
But being in business for yourself has a giant plus side: It isn’t corporate life.
Asulia Dumplings are available at The Willow Rest, 1 Holly St., Gloucester, 978-283-2417; Debra’s Natural Gourmet, 98 Commonwealth Ave., Concord, 978-371-7573; Volante Farms, 292 Forest St., Needham, 781-444-2351; Formaggio Kitchen South End, 268 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-6996, or go to www.asulia.com.Gillian O'Callaghan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.