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We’re excited that we can tell We Rub You’s story, a company committed to providing authentic Korean sauces that take you back to Grandma’s while being all-natural, non-GMO, and with no MSG, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial ingredients. Everything notwithstanding, they make a bomb ass sauce and they have a truly Korean American story to boot.
When Shin and I first started talking about Goghism and what we thought about the Korean food scene in America I guess you could say that I was pretty cynical. I’m not talking restaurants here, I’m talking Korean products you can find (hopefully) in your local grocery store. I’ve thought to myself too many times “I could make a living consulting Korean companies on how to market their products”, and I know nothing about marketing I just know how to proofread a little and have a basic understanding of American culture because… I’m American.
So you could say that after slogging my way through ten bulgogi marinades most of which had traces and hints of what I would consider bulgogi, but none of which took me back to Grandma’s house, I was pretty disheartened and to be honest disinterested. Then came this bottle, it was only included into the stable of sauces at the last minute due to someone’s suggestion on Facebook — it straight up brought me back to life, it restored my faith in the potential of a great store bought marinade.
I would have been happy with just finding a great bottle of bulgogi marinade that I could rely on, but it only got better from there. Not only does We Rub You put out a great product, they have a story that’s unique, compelling, and wholly American all at the same time; not to mention they were totally down with talking to us and letting us tell their story. They are proof that in the food world at least, if you strive for excellence, have clear vision, a solid core of values to lean on, and the wherewithal to put out a product you can be proud of you can make your mark.
Table of Contents:
We need to go back over 50 years, to the time of a man and his legacy. Some men want their names carved in stone, their faces on a big screen, their names written down in history books, but a few look past that and just want to be happy and good to the people around them. There is a certain ideal of a man in Korean culture that I equate to the American ideal of the strong, independent, hardworking, humble farmer that grows crops, wrestles steers, mends fences, loves the land and his family, never complains and never makes excuses.
One of the Korean ideal archetypes is that of a kind and peaceful man. I don’t mean he’s just a ‘nice guy’, but someone who embodies kindness and inner peace, elevates it to a spiritual level that permeates his whole life. To radiate the warmth of the sun behind every smile, every gesture, every interaction with a beloved family member to a random stranger passing on the street. Janet and Ann Chung’s grandfather was such a man, and you only get a couple of these a generation if you’re lucky. He was well known not for being rich, handsome, or exceptional at anything in particular, but for being truly kind and peaceful. However, he is known for having lapsed once in his life: when his wife came home with a bottle of store bought soy sauce instead of brewing it herself he raised his voice at her, to everyone’s surprise. I mean… c’mon, that’s a story? I raised my voice this morning because I dribbled some coffee onto my shirt, I raised my voice at Shin’s cat for sitting on my laptop, at Mike for losing in credit card roulette.
That story does provide a clearer understanding of who We Rub You is and what they stand for, it explains their motivation of character and their dedication to authenticity of flavor and experience. I mean honestly, how can you come from that type of fabric and not focus your company to do what is right in the community and have a drive for authentic ingredients and flavors? Not because of some marketing consultant’s reports but because it’s just who they are.
The name, just like everything else with Janet and Ann it seems, came out organically (it took them less than an hour!). They took a spin on the stereotypical Korean American accent with something that embodied their mission statement, “to share LOVE with Korean food”. Growing up in the South I got a lot of “Your Mom rub me long time“, or things of that nature thrown at me, which I’m sure isn’t that uncommon of an experience for most Asian Americans growing up. Janet and Ann themselves mentioned getting a lot of skeptical looks from passersby, some asking “You guys do massages?” Being able to take that negative energy and turning it into a positive message that we can own is pretty powerful.
Janet and Ann didn’t have any professional culinary experience before starting We Rub You, they went to school to be an economist and engineer respectively. They did, however, grow up in their family’s kitchen, and have cooked continuously throughout their lives. They took some courses at the French Culinary Institute for fun, but nothing too serious. That all changed when one day an outdoor market opened up in Brooklyn, practically in their backyard. They started talking and on the spur of the moment they decided to make a go at it. “Affinity, Ability, and Opportunity combined into one.”
They started out with what they knew, a family recipe that wasn’t really a recipe, just how they normally cooked kalbi and bulgogi at home. After refining their sauce, working out the kinks, and figuring out how they could provide bulgogi in a convenient way they made their start.
Smorgasburg is probably the most well known open air market in NYC, the “Woodstock of Eating”, it’s where the ramen burger came to fame so you know they’re pretty cutting edge. They didn’t think it would be all that crazy, I mean they were just a couple of nobodies with some bulgogi setting up a stall amongst some of the most well known purveyors in New York. Good thing that they and some friends stayed up all night baking brioche buns and prepping bulgogi because they sold out in a hot second.
With a reception like that they knew they were onto something, but open air markets aren’t really the most reliable models to make a living off of: bad weather, fickle New York tastes, the constant stream of different events, tons of reasons that contribute to an environment of inconsistency. They knew that they needed something more solid, more reliable, strong…. a building and a wider audience.
So We Rub You went retail. Taking a family recipe and converting into something that can be sold to the general public is no small task. It’s mind boggling how systematically and effectively they juggled PH levels, water activity, lab analyses, all to increase stability and shelf life without sacrificing flavor, their dedication to all natural ingredients, and the essence of what makes their bulgogi marinade special.
A couple years later with more experience, industry knowledge, and a Sofi Gold under their belts Ann and Janet Chung have proven that We Rub You is here to stay, that they can throw down with the best of them, all while staying true to who they are. American dream right?
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“Affinity, Ability, and Opportunity combined into one.”
It might be weird thinking that Janet and Ann are putting out better Korean food than these massive Korean companies with tons of resources, but by striving to represent what their grandparents ate back in the day and not misrepresenting what real Korean food is they’ve created a product that might not be as accessible as your CJs or Ottogis, but is definitely truer to what your mom would want you to eat. Also, given that food imported from Korea requires a lot more preservatives and additional ingredients to help it survive the trip it makes sense that only a Korean American company can provide food to Americans that preserve the essence and soul of Korean home made cooking.
One of the things I respect most about what Ann and Janet do… does Janet and Ann sound better? Is their seeming inability to stop meddling with what they’ve got. You might look at their product offerings of three sauces and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past years, but what you’re really looking at is just their latest iteration. They’ve been reformulating their sauces every season!
They’re cooking with and eating their own sauces all the time, and through this continual experimentation with different proteins and meal combinations they’re constantly gaining a fuller understanding of their sauces’ own flavor profile and applicability. Toasted sesame seed oil or not? Toasted sesame seeds? No sesame seeds? Roasted garlic? Black garlic? The tinkering is endless. That they have the confidence to look at their product and change it up when it’s already a sure thing (I mean they won gold here) is staggering.
Pair that with the fact that they are involved with every facet of their company whether they’re in talks with potential new vendors or lending a hand to bottle and package the product, they are quite literally living and breathing the Rub. That even extends beyond their sauces, We Rub You is determined to not only make sure you feel the love through their food, but that the community they’re in does as well. They employ human trafficking survivors and donate 10% of profits to organizations that support survivors.. Although their involvement and work in that area is ever changing, that drive to be a positive force within their community was there from its conception.
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“Generationally what Korean Americans are doing with food products, food trucks, restaurants, everything it’s pretty awesome. [Like in the] fashion world with Alexander Wang, Jason Wu, big time Chinese fashion labels that were influenced by their parents that were tailors, it’s interesting to see second generation, post immigration Korean kids doing the same thing.”
So what is We Rub You doing next? On the product end they’ll probably keep tinkering with their main stable of sauces for the rest of time, but they have also started work on a line of Korean condiments, I already have my hotdogs waiting.
After years of running around NYC renting out certified kitchens they’ll finally have a place to call home with their own micro manufacturing site. They’ll also be providing lunch service there, but I only care about what I’m going to be putting on my food… They’re still in the design phase but they’re slated to open and begin service this Fall! Maybe I’ll finally visit my sister in Brooklyn so I can stop by…
Looking back on it now I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In this day and age consumers have been more engaged with what actually goes into their food and where it comes from. There has also been more awareness of the fact that food does not exist in a vacuum; its creation and consumption have an impact on the world and are symbolic of who we are. I’m not just talking about Vegans here, although they’re doing most of the talking, over the past ten to fifteen years (those numbers are completely anecdotal) consumers have been clamoring for and demanding an authenticity of experience at newfound levels. You could probably view the food culture of any generation as different combinations of the ‘real’, the ‘good’, and the ‘accessible’. They’re not mutually exclusive but a lot of times one gets sacrificed for another.
We Rub You sits in the unique position of being small enough at the top where they can maintain the purity of their vision and not compromise their values, while providing a quality product with growing accessibility.
I want to say from the bottom of my heart on behalf of my stomach, keep doing you, my ribeye just ain’t the same without y’all.