James Read, founder of live probiotic kimchi brand Kim Kong Kimchi, began his journey to entrepreneurship in 2016 after trying to make ‘vegan zombie brains’ from fermented cauliflower as a Halloween special at his pop-up restaurant in London.
“Since then, I got kind of obsessed with foods that fizz," he told NutraIngredients. "I swapped the cauliflower for a crockpot and a clipboard, and kept experimenting to try and make the very best kimchi I could.
“I got a bowl about the size of my head and made what I thought at the time was a lot of kimchi. I had too much to eat myself so I started selling it locally through Facebook.
"That got a really encouraging response so I decided to look into branding and research regulations on selling kimchi commercially and I soon managed to get my product into a couple of local shops.
"From there, I got into Planet Organic and then I was contacted by Whole Foods and Amazon and even an importer in Finland.
“It’s grown and grown and it’s been a wild ride from making it in a bowl in my apartment to this international empire!”
Kept unpasteurised, to keep the bacteria alive, Read describes every jar of Kim Kong Kimchi as a spicy probiotic party of lactic acid bacteria.
As well as providing probiotics for gut health, kimchi is also a source of vitamins A, B1, B2 and C and minerals such as iron, calcium and selenium.
Traditionally a Korean delicacy made from spicy fermented vegetables, kimchi was originally created to preserve food over hot summers and harsh winters. Production involves brining the veg and mixing it with a spiced sauce and fish before leaving it to ferment for a few days.
Read's recipe uses Chinese leaf cabbage, carrot and spring onion and gochugaru chilli flakes.
“I wanted to keep the traditional flavours with the smoky chilli flavour but in order to keep the product all inclusive - vegan - the only thing we decided not to include, is the fish.
“I tried lots of different umami flavours such as soy paste but eventually I settled on an aged miso which gives it a deep rich flavour and keeps the product ‘accidentally vegan’.
"Traditionally kimchi is usually aged for three or four days but I wanted to give mine a richer more developed flavour so I age it for eight to 10.”
Kim Kong Kimchi is now sold in more than 50 shops across two countries. Read believes a large driver of the product's popularity is kimchi's association with gut health.
“There’s been a huge rise in popularity of kimchi since I first made the product. When I first started making it I had three or four competitors on the shelf, whereas now I have 10 or 12.
“And the unpasteurised kimchi products have only really started to appear in the last few years.
“I think the reason its popularity has grown is both because it’s a quirky new product and because it's healthy.”
Life’s un-Googleable questions
The 34-year-old says he encountered countless challenges to do with the manufacturing process of a live food.
“Dealing with production of a live food I’ve had so many un-Googleable challenges. Everything from what size containers I should keep the product in to how to drain the containers, to refrigeration issues to scalability questions.”
Another challenge Read has is that the bacteria in Kimchi does become ‘overactive’ when it is not kept chilled and when this happens the product will ‘fizz over like a shaken up bottle of pop’.
“It’s important to educate the consumer that this can happen as well as to ensure the retailers understand they have to have a chilled chain."
Read will attend NutraIngredients' Probiota conference in Copenhagen this week (February 13th-15th) and join the panel discussion on 'the rise of fermented foods'.
He and two other fermented food and drink brands will present their businesses and discuss the challenges and opportunities of this fast-growing market.