Kyung Chun fondly recalls watching his mother dish out red chili sauce to add on top of Korean meals she cooked for the family.
Those memories and his love for his church community prompted him to create K-Mama Sauce in 2015. But although the family’s gochujang sauces, a fermented Korean chili paste, is sold in grocery stores across the Midwest, one coveted destination remained elusive—the Minnesota State Fair.
Chun, 40, of Minneapolis, applied every year for the last seven years to sell K-Mama Sauce as a vendor at the fair. He was finally accepted this year, his eighth try.
“For like an eight-year-old, small church-based family business, it’s a big deal for us,” said Chun, who goes by KC.
For the next several days, Chun and his staff will be selling K-Mama Sauce at a booth in aisle seven of the grandstand building.
K-Mama Sauce offers three different gochujang sauces ranging in spice levels; two options are gluten-free. The sauces are also sold online and in grocery stores across the Midwest, including Lunds & Byerlys, Fresh Thyme, and Target. Thirty percent of the profits go towards the Church of All Nations.
The sauce is used as a condiment for meats and vegetables, or added into stir fries and Korean dishes such as bibimbap, which is a bowl of rice, vegetables, and meat.
Chun found out via a voicemail message in April that he was accepted into the fair as a vendor.
“I still have it,” he said of the message.
Chun said he plans to play the voicemail message for K-Mama employees, “Because I think that it feels impossible. I mean, I think as a small business, like entrepreneurs in general, feel like making it is pretty impossible.”
Chun and his wife, Stephanie Tan, initially felt nervous on the first day of the fair, but that soon eased.
“I think we’re really getting a good feel for it,” Chun told Sahan Journal last Thursday.
Five people, including Chun and Tan, staffed the booth on Thursday. Tan said they arrived at 7:30 a.m. to prepare, stacking sauces on a small brown shelf and laying out merchandise such as hoodies and t-shirts.
Chun and Tan, 33, have been married for two years. They work at K-Mama Sauce full-time at their office inside the Church of All Nations. The sauces, which were created to raise money for the Church of All Nations, are made in northeast Minneapolis.
They typically employ a few part-time staff members, but have six part-time staff members and more than 10 volunteers from the church helping out during the fair.
“We’ve always been wondering, ‘What is the best place to get our sauce just for more people to try?’” Tan said. “I think the State Fair is one of the best places for that, because it’s just people from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds come here.”
Many of the fairgoers visiting their booth haven’t tried K-Mama Sauce before, Chun said.
Some fairgoers were hesitant because “when you say hot sauce, people are scared in Minnesota,” Chun said.
But when they do give it a chance, he added, “They really, really enjoy it. So I love that. I mean, I know for a fact that my mom’s sauces are good, so I’m glad they’re trying it.”
By the end of the first day, Chun said, they sold 171 bottles of K-Mama Sauce.
Journey to Minnesota
Chun’s family immigrated from Korea to the United States and settled in New Jersey when he was three years old. His parents were pastors, and growing up, his family was rooted in a deeply-religious, tight-knit suburb that was home to many other Korean immigrant families.
“I didn’t know at the time, but it was, you know, for my parents’ generation–that first generation immigrant–it’s their only group of friends, or only other Koreans that they know,” Chun said. “I think there’s a place for the immigrant church, and I think it’s a very important place, and like a community center. It’s important, but my sister and I, we grew out of that very quickly.”
Chun said his parents were socially and religiously conservative. Their viewpoints on subjects such as race and sexuality clashed with Chun and his sister’s opinions.
One day, Chun attended a seminar in 2009 as a graduate student, and learned about a multicultural Presbyterian church for the first time—Church of All Nations.
“I’ve never heard of that,” Chun said of the church. “You know, there’s a saying in America, ‘The most segregated place and time is on Sunday mornings,’ when everyone’s at church or not going to church.”
The Church of All Nations currently has parishioners from about two dozen different ethnic and racial groups, Chun said.
After hearing the church’s founding pastor, Jin Kim, speak at the seminar, Chun worked as an intern at Church of All Nations and eventually moved to Minnesota in 2010.
Chun missed Korean food after moving to the Midwest from the East Coast. It was harder to find Korean food in Minnesota, and even harder to find the level of spiciness that seemed to be readily available back home. He also wanted to try something new to support the church instead of “conventional church work.”
That’s when Kim, the church’s pastor, proposed launching a small business to raise money for the church. Kim also had another idea.
“He kind of pitched to me his childhood dream of making a Korean-style hot sauce,” said Chun, who was working as a government employee at the time.
Chun researched the history of gochujang sauce and discovered that it was growing in popularity. Korean people have been eating gochujang, which is made from fermented red chili pepper paste, for hundreds of years.
Chun had studied business for a few years and had previously worked in retail, but had no experience starting his own business. However, he described himself as someone who is constantly hustling, and was up for the challenge.
Chun also had a significant advantage because of generational wealth. His grandfather was very wealthy, he said, and that passed down from generation to generation. He completed his masters degree in divinity without taking any loans. That experience instilled in him the value of passing down wealth.
“I grew up in a family and the currency was money,” he said. “But it took me a business to learn the currency of love—like running this family business with non-related members of my own family.”
Longtime state fair vendors, he said, are also examples of generational wealth.
“Once you’re tapped in and you gain more knowledge within that system, and you pass it on to your next successive generations, they’re going to remain wealthy to some degree,” he said.
Fresh face at the fair
Chun’s advice for other business leaders trying to become state fair vendors is to be visible and to communicate with the fair’s sales and concessions department. He added that it helped that K-Mama Sauce products were already being sold in stores when he applied to be a vendor.
K-Mama Sauce had also been invited to showcase the sauces on stage for a couple of days at the fair last year. They demonstrated recipes using the sauces and gave out samples to fair attendees, but did not have a dedicated booth.
“We were able to say to the salespeople at the State Fair, ‘We’ve already done this. People interacted positively with us. People have already seen us and our brand,’” Chun said.
K-Mama has 12,000 six-ounce bottles and 8,000 two-ounce bottles of mild, spicy, and hot sauces for sale at the fair this year.
Adam Vang, 27, has worked for K-Mama Sauce for the past three years, and is helping at the state fair. His favorite sauce is the spiciest one. Vang goes to the same church as Chun and Tan, where they all met four years ago.
“Yes, making money is important but I feel like, especially during these festivals, they really care about us,” Vang said of the company. “Yeah, I just feel loved, I feel cared for. It’s been really fun.”
Chun said the fair is the perfect place to buy his sauces, because fairgoers can use them on foods they eat at the fair.
“We’re really, really grateful, because they [the fair] chose us for a reason,” he said. “My team and I were ready to fulfill that opportunity.”