Back on Good Eggs!!

The past six weeks have been a wild ride. Mama Tong was in "sleep mode" in September, only to be awoken by Lindsey Ott! We are so grateful to Lindsey for taking over Mama Tong and operating the business so that we can offer the soups again. We have spun it back up as fast as reasonable, and we're back!! Imagine that we are doing a little Chinese herbal soup dance in celebration! Cue the dragons!!

We are back selling on Good Eggs as of today!! Just look for us at http://www.goodeggs.com/mamatong 

We will also be at the Oakland First Friday event at Uptown Body and Fender (401 26th St  Oakland, CA 94612) on November 1st, 2013. Come by and meet Lindsey and the Mama Tong crew. We will be serving Ji Tong Chicken Herbal Soup and the Mushroom and Yiyiren Soup to warm you up!!

It feels so good to be back! Come order from us again.

The 3 Places that helped Mama Tong get going

So, I had an idea to make soup! It was an all-consuming, dream-invading, possessed-like-the-devil undertaking. I had my family's recipes and an instinct that other people would like it, but I had never had a business before.  

That's when I decided I had to do it right. I got started with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco. I took their Business Planning Class which was like a mini-MBA, a crash course on marketing, financials, management, and all tools needed to get through the initial hump of start-up.  

Here I am at the celebration at the end, where I got Best Business Plan. 

Here I am at the celebration at the end, where I got Best Business Plan. 

Good times at Uptown Kitchen in Oakland.

Good times at Uptown Kitchen in Oakland.

Soon after I got started we began cooking at Uptown Kitchen in downtown Oakland. This kitchen is a great space. It used to be the Alameda County Food Bank's kitchen, so there were two great big soup kettles there where we can make big batches of soup. The community there is amazing too! It was fun to be among other food crafters and taste their creations! Wow. There is much inspiration in that kitchen, which is ever-evolving. Nearby there is also Kitchener, run by Sophia Chang who is a wonderful champion of the local food scene. These resources make food innovation in Oakland possible!

My son took this picture of me with Angelica and Darren at the Good Eggs warehouse on my last day of delivery there. 

My son took this picture of me with Angelica and Darren at the Good Eggs warehouse on my last day of delivery there. 

Making all that soup and filling my inventory was great and all... but connecting with customers and a distribution was key to actually making this venture viable. Good Eggs was my golden goose for that! I could have done events or farmer's markets, but I really wanted to have more flexibility and that meant using Good Egg's online farmer's market was a good idea. I was lucky to start with them at the very beginning. It was exciting to watch this start-up grow out of their initial space in the Mission and move to a warehouse in the Dogpatch. It was also great to see more customers sign in and order Mama Tong soups as they got more traction. 

Lots of orders meant we were making plenty of soup and I was fulfilling, delivering, and operating more and more. At one point at the end of the summer, I felt that I was not able to be strategic about the next step for Mama Tong, which is why we are currently on a break. Mama Tong wouldn't have been a success without these three organizations. And to them I will always be grateful. 

Top 2 Asian Chicken Varieties

Your standard American chicken is different to the chickens that Chinese people prefer. They are typically found in Chinese markets like 99 Ranch or Chinatown.

The number one favorite Chinese chicken (not typically served on salads!) is the Vikon chicken or yellow chicken. My mom calls it the "run run free" chicken (a rough transliteration) also known as free-range. When asking my auntie why she likes to use the yellow chicken, she said it was leaner because it's free range, which is obvious when you examine the breast of the chicken (in comparison to the standard fryer chicken). It's much smaller. 

Here is a Vikon chicken - alive. Running free. At the meat counter, it's a yellow chicken that is typically sold whole with the head and feet on "Buddhist style".

Here is a Vikon chicken - alive. Running free. At the meat counter, it's a yellow chicken that is typically sold whole with the head and feet on "Buddhist style".

The special and fabled Silkie Chicken takes a second place. The Silkie Chicken is an ornamental chicken breed from Asia (wu gu ji, in Mandarin). You may not be able to tell from their white plumage (that is soft as silk), but they have dark blue or black skin and bones. In soup, the meat often falls apart into thin threads, which has been described as "bamboo-thread chicken" (juk si gai, in Cantonese) Threads and silk have similar meaning, which may be why these chickens are called Silkie chickens. In Chinese food culture, the black chicken meat is considered medicinal or a curative food. It is known for being restorative and as a tonic for building blood.

The information given by the Squab Producers of California (SPOC) is that:

"... Silkies contain certain hormones, blue pigment, and amino acids which can increase blood cells and hemoglobin, and many use it to aid with women's health relating to pregnancy and child bearing. In fact a sizable industry now flourishes in China marketing products based on the black colored foods and herbs, with these factories manufacturing pills designed to help with various illness which include the meat of the Silkie mixed with many herbal combinations...The health benefits aside, Silkie is popular for its very sweet and rich flavor. Silkie chicken is often enjoyed at banquets as well as at home. It is most common now to enjoy Silkie in a very special soup containing particularly flavorful herbs."

Now, customers have asked if the chickens are organic, or natural, or humanely raised. And, honestly, I have no idea if they hold to the same standards as a Whole Foods chicken. It's all a bit lost in translation. The criteria for "good" is totally different to the Asian market. A lean breast is prized and the head and feet are left on so you can inspect the whole chicken.  

We're lucky! There are a few specialty farms in California that produce Asian chickens. Silkie Chickens in particular are raised in the Central Valley in California. I'm guessing that they also provide these varieties to Chinese markets all over the country. 

Just in case you were wondering, Vikon and Silkie chickens cost in the $10-15 range for a whole chicken. Not too bad, eh?

What is their particular taste? They, well, taste like chicken. You should try some! Make some soup today!

 

This handsome chickie is a Silkie Chicken. She's aware that she's going to be soup if she's not careful.

This handsome chickie is a Silkie Chicken. She's aware that she's going to be soup if she's not careful.

Storing soup with your freezer

If you bought some of our soups, you received a frozen package (16 oz.) with soup in a bag. This was an ideal packaging system because the soups could be stored more easily in the freezer. We first started by using round plastic deli containers but those took up a lot of space and would not seal perfectly. Whereas, the seal on the plastic bags made the packages leak proof, which is essential for shipping and handling. By having these thinner packages of soups we were able to bundle them more easily into care packages.

Here is an example of one of our soups packaged, sealed, and frozen in a pint-size freezer bag. 

Here is an example of one of our soups packaged, sealed, and frozen in a pint-size freezer bag. 

Our first packaging experiments included plastic pint-size deli containers. These were cute, but wasted a lot of space in storage.

Our first packaging experiments included plastic pint-size deli containers. These were cute, but wasted a lot of space in storage.

Pretty isn't it? This is the pork vinegar soup in a quart size Ball jar. This is an ideal way to store soups you make yourself that you are going to eat within a week.

Pretty isn't it? This is the pork vinegar soup in a quart size Ball jar. This is an ideal way to store soups you make yourself that you are going to eat within a week.

There were several iterations for packaging. We first started with glass and toyed with the possibility of canning. But, since the soups have meat in them the process would have been dangerous and our initial batches were too small to justify finding a processor who would can the soups for us. The soups did look gorgeous in glass, and it was likely that the glass could be reused. However, it just didn't make sense in every way (cost, storage size, durability in shipping and handling, and weight) except perhaps in packaging recycling when compared to plastic bags. 

Freezing the soups allowed us to keep the soups from perishing in the shipping and handling process. Using these bags and sealers to freeze our soups helped us keep the soups from perishing without using other processes or additives. The soup were cooked like they would be at home and frozen in that state until reheated. The freezing had minimal effect on the foods in the soup (they were stewed after all).  The most ideal way to enjoy the soup is hot and straight from the cauldron, which is always possible at the events we attend.

We tried many different kinds of bags and found that FoodSaver Pint Size bags (16 oz.) were the best solution for storing and keeping soup. For one, they are BPA free and they can be microwaved or boiled and once sealed soup could keep for up to a year. We marked use by dates for 6 months after the date the soups were packaged as a cautious assumption of safety for the soups.

At first we used the FoodSaver Vacuum Sealer to make our leak proof seal. It is a great tool, but we found that we did not need the vacuum function and that an impulse sealer provided a quicker seal in packaging the soups. The fancy FoodSaver is still useful for sealing non-soup foods like marinating meat or preserving the last tomatoes of the summer... we never stopped using it at home. But we did move on to an ULine Impulse Sealer to package our soups as our production increased.

Here is my beloved ULine Impulse sealer. You have no idea how hard this baby has worked. You can see the stand behind is the bottom of the prototype "bagger" stand which helped hold the bags open when pouring in soup. Credit is due to my husband Andy Schuetz for designing and fabricating the "bagger." Some girls want diamonds. I wanted a bagger... (and diamonds)!

Here is my beloved ULine Impulse sealer. You have no idea how hard this baby has worked. You can see the stand behind is the bottom of the prototype "bagger" stand which helped hold the bags open when pouring in soup. Credit is due to my husband Andy Schuetz for designing and fabricating the "bagger." Some girls want diamonds. I wanted a bagger... (and diamonds)!