Raised in a Chinese, Vietnamese and Jewish-American family, Debbie Wei Mullin was exposed to traditional and fusion home-cooking at a young age. Wei Pantry was created by Debbie to make high-quality Vietnamese staples easily accessible in American kitchens.
We took a moment to interview Debbie and got insights on how she applied her passion for sustainable supply chain development in her business while concocting an award-winning shallot oil.
You grew up exposed to different kinds of cuisines, from Chinese to Vietnamese to Jewish-American. Can you tell me more about your background?
“My mom is from Vietnam and her dad was from China so she grew up making Vietnamese food with a Cantonese swing. My dad is Jewish-American so my family would make Jewish food with Chinese influences, like Matzah balls stuffed with pork or chicken soup sprinkled with dried shallots. Growing up in the U.S., certain ingredients weren’t always available so I wanted to create a product line, like shallot oil, that integrated the best parts of Vietnamese food that I can add to anything I’m cooking.”
There’s a picture of your grandmother on your website making dinner for a large household in Saigon, Vietnam. Can you tell me more about her and what influence did she have on you and your business?
“She’s the best cook I’ve ever met! Since she was the second wife of the household, she had to cook for the entire family, including the 12 kids and their nannies. She moved to the U.S. when she was in her 60s but still continued cooking afterwards. She had a crazy integrity when she was in the kitchen! She had certain way of doing things so I was only allowed to do the chopping whenever I cooked with her.”
So you received your Bachelor’s in Economics from UC Berkeley and your Master’s in Urban Studies and Planning from MIT. What were your career intentions at that time and what made you eventually decide to jump into the food industry?
“I wanted to work in international development because of my diverse background. Vietnam was still a poor country when my mom had left so I wanted to work with big social development programs for Asian countries. I’ve worked for a think tank, a NGO and the World Bank before but I eventually realized entrepreneurship was more my calling. I thought I could make the best impact by building a physical product by working with businesses that supported good agricultural practices, a concept that’s still relatively new in Vietnam. The skills I used earlier on in my career are still the skills I use now to run my business.”
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in the earlier days of Wei Pantry?
“I think it would have to be starting a business in a new industry. My family has always made food from scratch so we’ve never known much about specialty food products. It was a challenge to learn how to place my products in the market, but luckily people responded very well.”
In an interview [with Postcard Pantry], you mentioned that you knew this business would be a lucrative one when you had your mother over for dinner and she asked you where can she buy the shallot oil you had created. What did your mother say when you told her you wanted to start your own business?
“She’s always wanted me to take a safer and more professional route; entrepreneurship to her was too risky. It was hard for her to watch me go to fancy schools and get fancy jobs then walk away from them all. But she also wanted me to be happy and was still very supportive of me.”
What is your favorite dish to make with shallot crisps?
“Shredded pork rice bowl! It’s the most complicated dish to make but I try to make my recipe as simple as possible.” Recipe can be found here.
If you can identify a single experience, what would you say is the one experience that made you most proud of being the founder and CEO of Wei Pantry?
”I recently took a break from the hustle of day-to-day stuff to speak with investors about our newest offering, cold-brew Vietnamese coffee. Having them agree with me on my values and reaching the amount of capital we needed to launch this product was what made me most proud of being the owner of Wei Pantry.”
What is your long-term vision for Wei Pantry?
“I want to make high quality Vietnamese food accessible in homes, whether it’s coffee or salad, by creating staples that can be easily integrated when cooking.”