President, Phoenix Bean, LLC
In one sense, Jenny Yang has followed a well-traveled path with her Phoenix Bean Tofu business. The stories of immigrants achieving success by making the foods of their native lands are parts of the social landscape of the United States.
Her decision to become a tofu entrepreneur — she bought Phoenix Bean from its retiring owner — was a change from working in corporate finance. Yang, her husband and two children lived right behind Phoenix Bean’s small factory and shop in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, and had been a longtime customer of Phoenix Bean. She had tired of the long commutes to the suburban corporate campus where she worked, and the idea of a second career in her own neighborhood and spending more time with her young children convinced her to take the plunge.
But Yang has an immigrant story with a twist. Yang first came to the U.S. from her native Taiwan in pursuit of higher education, earning her undergraduate degree from Ohio’s Miami University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
The company’s traditional consumer base was almost entirely made up of the city’s Asian restaurants and groceries, and she said she spent her first few years as owner solidifying that market with the fresh and uniquely flavorful tofu products made in the style of her native Taiwan.
The road to a broader consumer base began when the Chamber of Commerce in the neighboring Andersonville neighborhood invited Phoenix Bean to participate in its weekly summer farmers market. It was slow going at first: More than a decade ago, tofu was a very niche product consumed outside the Asian community mainly by those pursuing a vegan lifestyle. But Yang was able to educate consumers and answer their questions, informing new customers that her tofu is made from sustainably produced soybeans grown locally in Illinois. “Step-by-step, we found out what the perception from the general public, they didn’t know about the product,” she said.
Over the 16 years Yang has own the company, she has grown Phoenix Bean from almost exclusively serving Asian restaurants and markets, to a fast-growing company on-trend with the broader consumer market and its desire for healthy, sustainably produced alternatives to meat, packaged for ease of preparation. Her product line not only include fresh tofu, but also smoked tofu, yellow tofu (baked with turmeric), fried tofu, and flavorful tofu salads that are a customer favorite.
Yang benefited from participating in the first cohort of entrepreneurs in FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Accelerator from November 2014 to April 2015. This helped her get her products (under the Jenny’s Tofu label) into all Whole Foods stores in the Midwest and Mariano’s. As a job creator and economic engine on what had been a pretty sleepy city block, Yang drew support from Chicago officials and even federal agencies such as the U.S. Small Business Administration and Department of Agriculture.
With rising sales and consumer demand stretching the capacity of Phoenix Bean’s small storefront operation, Yang has undertaken a two-part expansion that should increase production capacity five-fold and create more jobs, economic vitality and pedestrian traffic in the neighborhood. Keeping it local was a top priority for Yang, who has already built out an adjacent storefront into a second production kitchen, a retail location and is in the process of renovating a former taxi company location in a warehouse-like building around the corner into a full-scale tofu factory.
“We can stay local here in the community,” Yang said. “Most of my workers live in this area, their kids go to school, they drop them off and come to work. At the end of the day, they go pick up their kids from school, and they go home together. I really like to see that.”
- 24 March, 2021
- 09:20 - 10:55