Two years ago, Vincent Kitirattragarn was starting to think about refocusing Dang Foods on the cultural heritage behind the snack company.
So he flew the entire company to Thailand for 10 days.
On the supercharged company retreat, the 14 or so Americans — some of whom had never left the United States — visited suppliers, traveling to coconut farms and rice paddies. They saw the labor-intensive way that Dang's signature products, including coconut chips and Thai rice chips, are made.
"They can go into every meeting now and say, ...'Let me tell you how this product is made. Let me tell you about the guy who owns the factory,'" Kitirattragarn told Food Dive. "They're just armed with so much more ... juicy details. That they can talk about this product and it's not just like them reading selling points. It's bringing their whole experience into it and saying, 'Hey, this is something that I've lived and breathed and seen how it's made and seen how it's grown.'"
The background and cultural knowledge is important for Dang Foods. Earlier this year, the snack brand officially pivoted its strategy. Since the company's founding in 2012, it marketed itself as a clean-label, better-for-you and keto-friendly snack brand with the tagline "Dang, that's good." Today, Dang snacks and bars are in about 13,000 grocery stores in all 50 states, and Kitirattragarn said sales grew 54% in the last year.
Now, Dang is embracing its cultural heritage as an Asian-American snack brand named after Kitirattragarn's mother.
Kitirattragarn said the company has always been selling Asian snacks to Asian-Americans. And now, as its distribution is wider, the brand is better known and consumer data shows that those of Asian descent buy more of the company's snacks, Kitirattragarn said it seemed time to use the brand to claim its distinct heritage. According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 20 million Asians in the United States. The population of Asian Americans grew 72% between 2000 and 2015, making it the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the nation.
"There's also not a lot of retailers talking about this consumer group right now. And so I think there's actually a unique opportunity to partner up with retailers," Kitirattragarn said. "...We're having conversations about how do we own Lunar New Year and partner with retailers and create messaging that's very inclusive and says, 'Hey, we're here.'"
While Dang's shift is in the beginning stages, Kitirattragarn said the new look and feel is going great. Retailers, members of the Asian community and other consumers have reacted positively. Kitirattragarn said it's opening doors in the way of diverse representation in the CPG market, unique marketing opportunities, telling the Asian American story and bringing true authenticity to American consumers.
In this new storytelling platform for Dang Foods, the products are much more personal. Kitirattragarn said packages and websites include photos of him and his brother as children to show the beginning of their story.
"I think that's something that resonates with all consumers who are not just wanting to just buy a product, but wanting to be a part of a story or movement or a brand that actually stands for something," he said.
Kitirattragarn grew up visiting family in Thailand every summer, and remembers the diverse array of food that was always available. But when he came home and as he got to be an adult, the only Thai dishes easily found in the United States were staples like pad thai, sticky rice, Thai iced tea and a garnish or dessert of mango.
Wanting to bring more of the different tastes of his youth to the United States, Kitirattragarn decided to start a pop-up restaurant in San Francisco. He called his mother to get a recipe for Thai lettuce wraps, which incorporated toasted coconut chips. As he cooked the coconut, Kitirattragarn said his roommates then all started eating the chips. And he had stumbled upon the product on which he based his company.
However, as the company got off the ground, Kitirattragarn said he went out of his way to dilute its Asian heritage. He didn't want to be branded as "Asian" or relegated to the Asian food aisle in the grocery store.
"That's not where we saw ourselves, right? We wanted a greater audience," Kitirattragarn said. "... At the beginning, it was definitely more ... in the food. And the packaging was more focused on being natural, being healthy, being good tasting."
"We just want to reflect that kind of pride in the CPG world because it really isn't being done yet by any brands. There aren't any brands talking to this consumer group right now."
Founder, Dang Foods
The company also went a bit beyond traditional Asian snacking, creating the keto-friendly Dang Bar. These feature some of the same components as other protein bars, plus the coconut, rice and traditional Asian flavors like Lemon Matcha and Cardamom Chai that would be expected from the brand. Kitirattragarn said the Dang Bar was the best selling protein bar at Whole Foods last year.
Kitirattragarn said that while international flavors are trending, it's been more important for the brand to have the things that aren't necessarily equated with world cuisine: clean labels, easy-to-understand ingredients, low sugar. However, a flavor like Saigon Cinnamon Chocolate helps the Dang Bar stand out on the shelf.
A person, not a virus
As COVID-19 has spread throughout the world, some people have turned their anger and frustration against Asians because the virus was first detected in China.
As an Asian-American, Kitirattragarn said it is his responsibility to speak out against this racial discrimination. And as the CEO of an Asian-American snack company, owning that branding means he is speaking for Asians in America, he said. He's called for more understanding, more allies and more support across racial and national boundaries on LinkedIn posts and Asian-American news publication NextShark. He told Food Dive the way some people are currently feeling about Asians is likely similar to anti-Islamic discrimination after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"At a time like this, nobody wants to feel alone," Kitirattragarn said. "...This thing is temporary. This will go away. But a lot of that trauma, the trauma that comes from times like this can actually be intergenerational. You can hold that in your body and pass it along."
Kitirattragarn said that as a brand, Dang has not been the target of any racial discrimination that he has seen. Sales and demand are up, with a 40% bump in sales as the pandemic has consumers staying in their homes. The demand has not come from all channels equally, he said. More people have been buying the snacks in natural foods stores and online than other places so far. If demand keeps up, he said, Dang has adequate supply. Since the company's products come from Thailand, they work further ahead of demand than some other U.S.-based manufacturers.
In terms of its fans, the company did consumer research and found that the largest proportion are Asian, but not all of them are, Kitirattaragarn said.
"There's two distinct groups here," Kitirattaragarn said. "...There's the group that just said, 'Oh my God, I love your products because they're tasty and they're healthy and they have simple ingredients and they're better for you'. And then there's a group that's like, 'Oh, this is stuff that I used to have as a kid, or I would have this during Chinese New Year,' or, you know, 'I loved [this] when I traveled to Bangkok, and I tried these rice chips, and I couldn't find them again.'"
Kitirattaragarn said he is also hoping to elevate the traditional healthier Asian diet for American consumers. After all, he said, Asians have been eating this diet for centuries — and have fewer cases of diabetes and obesity.
"We can learn something from that, and we take that into all our products and we present it in a way that's very accessible for the consumer — so a familiar format," Kitirattaragarn said. "American consumers understand chips, right? They know what to do with chips. You know what to do with [a] bar, right? We're not bringing it to you and [saying] like, 'Hey, like you have to go buy all these healthy vegetables and stir fry them at home with these sauces.' That's more complicated and involved. But what we can do is take it in a very familiar, convenient format, which is snacking, and bring it through Asian-Americans."