As night fell under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, N.Y., the air became perfumed with kimchi fried rice, chicken robata and mung-bean pancakes. The scene was the sold-out Luckyrice Asian food festival, one of the hottest tickets of the year for die-hard foodies on the East Coast, and the successful culmination of New York-based entrepreneur Danielle Chang's dream to raise the awareness of -- and profit from -- Asian cultures in the U.S.
Ten years ago Chang and a friend, TV journalist Lisa Ling, tried to start a magazine focusing on Asian cultures but written for a mass audience. They quickly realized that interest was lackluster. "We would go around and talk to advertisers and potential sponsors and they would always refer us to the niche marketing people or the ethnic marketing group. People couldn't understand how something about Asian culture could appeal to people who weren't Asian," Chang says.
How things have changed. "I think the zeitgeist has really shifted in recent years so that there's much more interest in Asian culture across disciplines, whether it's fashion or travel, and certainly in the food world," she says.
With that shift, Chang (whose diverse work background includes time as an art curator and art dealer; an associate at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong; the head of a startup media company, Simplycity Media; and CEO of fashion company Vivienne Tam) decided it was time to create an Asian-lifestyle brand that targeted the general public.
In 2010 she launched Luckyrice, a media and marketing company anchored by food festivals. "The idea was to create a platform that would bring together everybody that was interested in Asian culture and food. So, that would be the chefs, the sponsors and the consumers," she says. Using food as the glue, she contends, "is something that crosses boundaries. The Koreans appreciate Chinese food, who appreciate Japanese food, who appreciate Taiwanese food. There are no cultural barriers or language barriers. Food just adds a form of social currency that has also become very popular. People are spending so much more money eating out, caring about what they're putting in their body, paying attention to chefs. Chefs are becoming artists. The trends all play together."
But even with the zeitgeist change and her extensive experience, Chang knew she would have to overcome one sizable challenge if she wanted to launch a food festival: She didn't come from a culinary background. So she went after--and got--big-time help. She created a "culinary council" loaded with food-world luminaries, including Daniel Boulud, chef-owner of the three-star Daniel in New York City; David Chang, chef-owner of the Momofuku Restaurant Group; and Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto.
The enthusiasm from the chefs and potential sponsors Chang approached "gave us the proof of concept to say we're on to something here," she says.
The first festival in New York was supposed to be a one-day event. It quickly turned into a weeklong tradition that has sold out for three years running. Chang won't release revenue figures but says 5,000 people attended the most recent festival throughout the week, with event ticket prices ranging from $50 to $250.
That success led to expansion to Las Vegas and Los Angeles in 2012 (tickets to the L.A. festival last August sold out) and possible events in Miami and San Francisco in 2013. The growth happened quickly, thanks to the bankroll provided by the festival's major sponsor, Bombay Sapphire, which is using the event to launch its new gin, East, nationwide.
"Instead of having a ton of sponsors, we really want to just work with the best in class, one sponsor in each category ... to create a marketing strategy," Chang says. "I think in order to do that we need to be a national brand.
So that's part of the strategy behind the national-expansion rollout."
With the food festivals growing steadily, Chang has started to diversify, planning events for other organizations, such as the Malaysian External Trade Development Corporation, and publishing a weekly e-newsletter about Asian cuisine and culture, as well as developing other media properties. She's also looking to establish a permanent Luckyrice market/food presence in New York City.
Even with this phenomenal growth, however, Chang is determined to keep her core team small. Currently the company has three full-time staffers and hires a lot of contract workers.
"It's a tiny business, and I want to keep it that way," she says. "I think that's what's fun about being an entrepreneur: You can work directly with the talent--in this case, the chefs--choose clients that you enjoy and have a life."