Zoë Geller and Jason Yang are two Yale alums who founded Fire Ox Foods to make delicious, vegetable-based foods accessible to all. The duo are on a mission to create satisfying, healthy meals inspired by cuisines from around the world. These are not your typical frozen dinner options. Fire Ox was built from personal experiences. Geller’s time as an Americorps volunteer made her witness to a lack of basic fruits and veggies for people in other areas of the world. Yang, who grew up on his mother’s vegetable dishes, was astonished to find most Americans were not so keen on vegetables. Both of them wanted to do something to change things. In 2020 New Haven, CT-based Fire OX Foods was born from both a need and passion.
Today the brand is thriving, inspired by cultures from cultures that span the globe. The vegan options abound with good-for-us things like veggies, legumes, whole grains, herbs and spices that we wouldn’t find in traditional frozen food offerings. Bestsellers include Massaman Coconut Curry and Ethiopian Braised Greens. “When we first started testing recipes in our kitchen, it dawned on us that there are cuisines from around the world that have figured out how to make vegetables taste amazing, ‘said Geller. “We wanted to create vegetable-centered dishes inspired by these authentic cuisines that people would actually want to eat, and even crave – simultaneously bringing these delicious cuisines to life and helping people eat more veggies.”
The two sat down with Beyondish to discuss the brand’s beginnings, the challenges and the future they envision for Fire Ox.
What’s the best part about running Fire Ox?
Hands down, hearing from customers who love our products and what we’re building. We also really enjoy connecting with our team, advisors and our interns on a regular basis. It feels really fulfilling to be a part of building a business and a movement that we’re all passionate about. It is really our individual love of good food that connects us all and energizes us to persevere when the inevitable challenges arise.
Where do you see the brand in the future?
Our mission is to make delicious, vegetable-based foods accessible to all. To that end, we would like to scale our business to make our products available in natural food stores and grocery stores across the country. We intend on developing a large line of frozen veggie meals and we also see opportunities to innovate in other categories including veggie burgers and toddler and kids’ foods.
When you first came up with the idea, did you ever think you’d be where you are today?
When we first got into this we were very naive and had no idea what it would take to scale our brand. We thought it would take a few years and a couple of rounds of funding to get it to scale and then maybe sell the business a few years later. The opposite has taken place. It feels like we’ve hit every challenge along the way and it has taken five times as long to get anything done.
We didn’t realize how much time and money it would take to get into a new store chain and how much effort it would take to raise awareness about our brand and partner with the store to get people to try our meals. So, no, we thought we would be a much larger business by now – maybe this is a reflection of my high expectations, but we also think it is just a reflection of how hard it is to launch and grow a food startup, especially in today’s current financial market.
What’s been the biggest challenge in running your own business?
There are a myriad of challenges when running a food business, especially when two co-founders (who are also parents) manage all aspects of the business. We’ve experienced everything from navigating a trademark infringement, to having our meals spoiled due to improper storage, to fundraising and having enough cash to keep the lights on.
How do you choose new items to offer?
We consider a number of factors when developing new recipes. One: What we as cofounders love and what we cook for ourselves and our families. Two: What recipes are familiar to shoppers (for example, Ethiopian food might not be familiar to a lot of people). Three: The cost of the ingredients. Four: Whether it’s possible to scale up the recipe at a co-packing facility given the equipment that they have. Five: What’s in line with our mission to create delicious, healthy dishes that contain lots of veggies.
How did you come up with the name?
1937 was a particularly important year for Suydam Cutting. The son of fabled financier and philanthropist Robert Fulton Cutting – who, with his brother William Bayard Cutting, built railroads and operated the ferries in Manhattan and Brooklyn – Suydam traveled the world for 15 years, starting in the early 1920s. It was a time of firsts, when exploration of places like Chinese Turkestan (Sudyam accompanied Teddy Roosevelt there in 1925), Ethiopia, Assam, Tibet, and the Galapagos were largely unexplored by Westerners. But of all the places he traveled, his travels to Tibet would prove his most cherished. His third trip – undertaken in the Year of the Ox (1937) – was a seminal turning point and, ultimately, the title of his richly detailed memoir published in 1940.
Fast forward to 2020 and a flat in Brooklyn where Suydam’s great niece, Zoe Geller, sat unpacking boxes that had been unopened since her mother’s death some six years prior. Geller came upon a first edition of The Fire Ox and Other Years. Flipping through the pages, she was both amazed and delighted to discover a connection to her great uncle that she had, up until that moment, not known – a love of travel, a deep interest in different cultures, and an intense appreciation for the environment. Hence the name Fire Ox Foods!
What’s the biggest obstacle in making healthy food accessible to everyone?
Based on our experience, in order to increase access to healthier foods like ours, you need quite a bit of capital to fund the production, slotting and marketing of the new food product on store shelves. Many food startup brands raise a lot of money to fund their launch as well as their ongoing operations, sales and marketing costs.
It’s also arguably more difficult to scale a healthy food brand because these products are often made with higher quality ingredients and therefore are more expensive. In addition, for a startup business like ours, our production costs are much higher since we make food on a small scale compared to our competitors, and therefore our prices are higher. Hence, it is more difficult to get people to try our products, since they are more expensive than our competitors.
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