Michelle Tew’s Culinary Journey From College Cook To Target Stores

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Michelle Tew’s journey from cooking for her Columbia University roommates to becoming the founder of Homiah is an inspiring entrepreneurial odyssey.

Tew’s Homiah brand offers Southeast Asian spice kits and condiments, including the Sambal Chili Crunch. The brand’s name, ‘Homiah,’ originates from a Malaysian phrase that means ‘to live the good life.’ Cooking expresses love and care in Malaysian culture, and Homiah is a tribute to Tew’s vibrant culinary journey. Her Malaysian upbringing and memories of cooking with her grandmother are a significant part of her story.

When Tew arrived in New York with a scholarship to attend Columbia University, it was a significant change for her as she had never been to the United States. Cooking became a way for her to cope with the transition. Tew recalls her early days of cooking for her dormmates in college, saying, “It was never just about the cooking; it was about sharing a piece of my heritage with others.” These communal meals brought comfort to her and sparked the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey.

Her cooking continued after graduation, and it became a side hustle when she was asked to cook at events and “night markets” – a type of New York City pop-up outdoor dining experience with vendors serving all kinds of cuisines. Tew served up to 200 guests at some of these events.

“I would just come with my big pot of soup, trays of noodles, and a burner. It was like a street vendor,” said Tew.

As Tew’s pop-up events gained traction, customers were intrigued by her secret spices and recipes. “People started asking me for the spices and recipes, wanting to recreate those flavors at home,” she shared. This demand sowed the seeds for Homiah, inspiring Tew to venture into packaging and selling the distinctive flavors of Malaysian spices.

During the pandemic, home cooking became popular. In 2021, Tew launched a Kickstarter campaign with a friend and raised $40,000 to run a production round. With the money raised, she flew back to Malaysia and set up a small facility there, which marked the beginning of her start-up journey.

Tew shared the difficulties she encountered while starting Homiah. “It was a whirlwind experience for me – navigating FDA approvals, setting up production facilities, and learning how to import my products – it was all overwhelming,” she admits. However, her unwavering commitment to sharing her culinary heritage kept her motivated. Tew had a breakthrough when Homiah was accepted into Target Accelerators’ Takeoff Food Program. This program offers training and mentorship to small food and beverage companies, helping them to enter grocery stores like Target. Out of 5,000 applications, Homiah was one of the few brands selected by Target.

“I’m going from cooking at night markets to launching my products in Target this September. When I started the business, I never thought we would go into American grocery stores. I didn’t think that grocery stores like Target would want us.”

However, Target expressed interest in providing its customers with new flavors, and Homiah was a fitting representative of this strategy.

“I hope my authentic and innovative flavors will excite and delight customers. With Target’s support, I can share my unique creations with the American market and showcase the richness and diversity of my culture.” shared Tew.

The emergence of young and innovative Asian food companies in American grocery stores is a positive development highlighting food’s power to bring people closer together and create new connections. Companies like Homiah and Mìlà Soup Dumplings are not only bringing exciting new flavors and culinary traditions to the American market but also helping foster relationships across cultures. By introducing consumers to new and unfamiliar foods, these companies are breaking down barriers and encouraging people to explore and appreciate the richness and diversity of different cultures. Ultimately, this can help to promote greater understanding and respect between people from various backgrounds and contribute to a more harmonious and inclusive society.

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