Expand your product line — To elaborate on listening to your customers, expanding your product line is another layer of success. We are planning to expand beyond the original Bing format. Everyone would like to see smaller versions of bings for hotel, parties, and holidays. It is something I have always wanted to do, Bing Bites.
The plant-based revolution is here. As consumers globally are shifting towards more eco-conscious and health-oriented choices, the demand for plant-based products has never been higher. From food and beverages to cosmetics and clothing, the plant-based industry is blossoming with opportunities. But how does one tap into this growing market? What are the key ingredients to launching and scaling a successful plant-based product business? In this interview series, we are exploring the world of plant-based entrepreneurship. We are talking to founders, product developers, industry experts, and innovators who have successfully navigated the plant-based business landscape. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Iron Chef Ming Tsai.
Iron Chef Ming Tsai is a James Beard and Emmy Award-Winning chef, philanthropist, TV personality, entrepreneur, and host of the longest-running cooking show on PBS, Simply Ming. Chef Tsai launched his East-meets-West pocket line, MingsBings in 2020, now available at over 5,000 grocery stores nationwide including Sprouts, Publix, Market Basket, Wegmans, Whole Foods, select Targets, and at iconic venues like Fenway Park, TD Garden, Tropicana Field, and Hard Rock Stadium. Founded with the mission to “Eat Good. Feel Good. Do Good.” MingsBings bring flavor-forward, better-for-you meals to households while also giving back. Chef Ming Tsai and MingsBings are proud supporters of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Family Reach.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Hard work. I forget who said this, but “people are not born lucky, people that work hard get lucky.” So you have to work hard, and the key to working hard is never giving up. Which I guess would be the second trait, don’t get stonewalled and think you can’t do it. Never give up. Just because “it” has not been done before doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. And for the record, if it hasn’t been done that means that you should do it. For instance, with bad fusion cuisine which I call confusion cuisine, peanut butter and escargot were never supposed to go together. That’s probably right, so don’t just do stuff because it’s never been done before or things that don’t make sense. Do things that people want or create something that people didn’t know they wanted, but once they try it they want it. So hard work, never give up and attract.
Attract great people and the only way to do that is behave in a way you want the people around you to behave. I think that’s paramount. My dad said, “the most important people on your team are those that work for you, the ones under you, not the ones above you. The ones under you are the ones that brought you to the top.” You can never forget the people that got you where you are. One of the best things I learned in French kitchens is that you say hello to everyone when you walk in and you say goodbye to everyone when you walk out. The most important people in kitchens are the dishwashers, they’re irreplaceable. My dishwashers left one of my restaurants, so I washed dishes for three days. It was possibly the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. It was so physically demanding and when you are doing 250 covers and you only have one person, it’s brutal.
A recent never giving up story, that is still in the works, is acquiring a tunnel fryer for our new factory in Denver. When relocating MingsBings from Massachusetts to Denver we learned we needed a new tunnel fryer. After one deal fell through we got a second lead to purchase one from a company in San Diego. This was from a huge corporation so getting responses from them was near impossible, but if we did not secure the fryer we would have been in trouble. After many unanswered calls and emails I got on a plane (without an invitation), got through their security, and showed up at their office. The man apologized profusely and let me know how many deals he has going on and how busy he is. He gave me a tour of their company, we secured the fryer and I’ve made a new friend and connection. If you are passionate about something, never take no for an answer. Show up at their door.
Working hard is the story of every entrepreneur. You can’t be a successful entrepreneur if you are not ready to work hard. Everyone can work hard, just like how everyone can cook. You don’t need to have rhythm, be able to dance or be athletic to become an amazing chef. That comes from working hard and, of course, passion. So, if I can sneak in a fourth trait it’s passion. You have to love what you do. There’s no chance on Earth that you will be great at anything if you don’t love what you do. That’s just a fact.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
We are gearing up for one of our biggest announcements yet– the launch of our new Better-For-You, Meat-Based MingsBings line. We crafted and developed this new line of Bings in less than 8 months after hearing stories from customers and retailers. They made it clear that they wanted an option with meat and poultry that would also be good for their health like our plant-based line. So we got to work, and made a delicious Bing with meat, but we upped the veg count, adding about 20% vegetables for more plant-based nutrients and a lower cholesterol count. That way, people can experience the flavor of classics like Cheeseburgers and Tacos, but still with a veg-based spin. Think cheeseburgers, but with hidden riced cauliflower inside.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about creating a successful plant-based product business. What inspired you to enter the plant-based product industry? Did you have a turning point or eureka moment that led you into the plant-based industry? Can you share some key milestones that helped shape your journey to success?
MingsBings’ company motto is “Eat good. Feel good. Do good.” In 2017, my wife had a health scare. While we explored medical treatment options at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, we decided to transition to a mostly plant-based and gluten-free diet with the hope of lowering inflammation by using food as medicine. When I was traveling, I could not find delicious, plant-based options to stock up on for my wife. Everything out there were emulsified hockey pucks. They were made of chickpeas, soy or beans and I don’t care how good of a chef you are, it’s hard not to make that mushy. So I decided to flip the paradigm, put the emulsification on the outside and just fill it with a delicious plant-based filling. I developed a gluten-free brown rice wrapper, so it has less carbs because you don’t need a bun. And, like a Hot Pocket, it’s convenient! They’re easy to heat up and you can take it on the go. This is how I developed what you see on shelves today– MingsBings.
What do you believe are the key factors behind the recent surge in demand for plant-based products, and how can aspiring entrepreneurs authentically tap into this growing trend?
What I have been practicing and preaching my entire career is now coming to full light– you are what you eat. Beyond this sentiment, you only have one planet. Two incredibly important reasons to add more plant-based products into your life 1) Live, it’s really important to live and feed your body well 2) Be eco-conscious, let’s keep a planet for not just us, but for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.
Veg-forward is not the solution for everything, but it’s here to stay. It’s the way all of Asia eats, it’s the way I have always eaten. A veg-forward diet is 80% plant-based to 20% animal protein. The protein is used for flavoring the vegetables in my cooking. I never sacrifice flavor when I am eating plant-based. Plant-based meals are just as good, if not better tasting than meat-based dishes. Can you compare it to an A5 Kobe beef shabu shabu, no. Would I enjoy Kobe beef if I were in Kobe, Toyoko? Yes I would. But I do want to live longer, so I try to eat as much plant-based food as I can.
How can aspiring entrepreneurs tap into the trend? Look at everything that is already being consumed and look into other ways of using plant-based. The reason the market is wide open, in my opinion, is that there are not a lot of delicious and convenient plant-based options out there yet. PLNT Burger, by Chef Spike Mendelsohn, is doing a good job, they serve plant based burgers on the East coast. Also, Kevin Hart opened Hart House in LA, it’s a vegan restaurant chain and I went there and it was awesome.
How do you envision the evolution of consumer preferences in the next 5–10 years?
People are going to realize that plant-based is not a diet, trend, or fad. It’s just the way the majority of the world eats. In the right hands, i.e. in the hands of a chef, no one is ever going to sacrifice on flavor. It shouldn’t be, ‘I have to eat plants’ it should be ‘I want to eat plants’. That’s what MingsBings vegan achieves. We need to continue making delicious plant-based options and that’s going to be the evolution. I truly believe more people are going to move towards plant-based eating because it tastes good. They are also going to start caring more about where their food is coming from because GMO (Genetic Modified Organisms) may not be the best thing. I understand we need it, our population is soon to be 10 billion and there is just not enough food, so obviously if we didn’t have the GMO crops we wouldn’t be able to feed everyone.
I also think that krill (the very small sea creatures) are going to be grown in millions and millions of tons. It will be able to give us the flavor nutrient of the sea easily because when it is farmed it grows very quickly. I also think kelp, seaweed, and algae have always been very good for the body and that it will also grow in popularity. I truly believe more people are going to turn towards plant-based or at-least plant-forward.
What is your favorite plant-based product (not necessarily your own) and what makes it stand out? What can we all learn from the appeal of that product?
I can’t say enough about MingsBings. First, they’re delicious while also convenient. We have partnered with great plant-based companies, like JUST Egg and Abbott’s Butcher, so you know you are getting quality ingredients. These products were created by chefs, so they are elevated in flavor and taste. Lastly, our company is built on a cause and it is in the fabric of our company to give back. I would say that this sets us apart from our competitors and why it is my favorite plant-based product. “Eat good. Feel good. Do good.”
Based on your experience, what are some of the biggest myths or misconceptions people have about the plant-based industry?
The biggest misconception is that plant-based is a fad or just a trend. It’s not. It should have never been called its own movement, but a delicious lifestyle with veg at the core. I’m a flexitarian- I’ll sometimes eat meat and chicken, but generally I eat plants. It’s not a diet, it’s not a trend. It’s here to stay.
Developing and marketing plant-based products often involves unique challenges, from sourcing quality ingredients and sustainable packaging to building a brand that resonates with consumers. What strategies have you found most effective in overcoming these hurdles?
Luckily, because of the extent of my career, it was easier for to connect directly with the CEOs of companies. When I started MingsBings I was able to get the best onion producers, mushroom producers, etc., and it was all CEO to CEO conversations. I explained what my company was about and our mission: “Eat good. Feel good. Do good.” MingsBings are proud supporters of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Family Reach, a charity focused on alleviating the financial strain of a cancer diagnosis for families. It was amazing to connect with these CEOs and to hear how their lives were touched by cancer. This led to more open discussions on how we could work together to help people who have been touched by cancer. That’s been part of my mission from the start, designed by myself and my team- we wanted “Do Good.” in the DNA of our brand. As a result, we found that purveyors were happy to provide quality ingredients for a good price for a company that was founded on giving back.
The other strategy was simply to make delicious food. When we are serving MingsBings, if someone says “Oh this tastes healthy,” then we blew it. None of my food should taste healthy, it should taste delicious. And then consumers find out it’s vegan or better-for-you.That’s cool.
As we build our brand, we are tapping into the power of social media. We are introducing millennials and Gen Z to the benefits of plant-forward eating, but we’re doing so in a fun way. Our “Bing on the Street” series on TikTok and Instagram has generated a few videos with over 2 million organic views. We have people on the street try our Bings, and after they try them, we tell them that they’re actually vegan and gluten-free. People can’t believe it! The unexpected delight generated through this series and our frequent influencer touchpoints have helped us with significant awareness and trial.
The plant-based market continues to evolve and grow. What advice can you offer to individuals looking to launch their own plant-based product businesses? Are there any critical lessons or insights you’ve gained along the way that you’d like to share with aspiring entrepreneurs in this field? Based on your experience can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Plant-Based Product Business”.
1 . Be flexible / Listen to your customers — I know we’re talking about plant-based, but we listened to our customers and created a line of MingsBings that are still better-for-you but meat-based. Listening and being able to pivot with market demands and company needs will keep you successful.
2 . Expand your product line — To elaborate on listening to your customers, expanding your product line is another layer of success. We are planning to expand beyond the original Bing format. Everyone would like to see smaller versions of bings for hotel, parties, and holidays. It is something I have always wanted to do, Bing Bites.
3 . Do Good — Beyond nutritional benefits, we are actively involved in the missions of both Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Family Reach, a charity focused on alleviating the financial strain of a cancer diagnosis for families.
4 . It just has to taste good — There is no middle ground on this one. To be successful, make something delicious and people will want to eat it.
5 . Reach out for help — Make connections with people in the plant-based industry. I’ve made a ton of partnerships with a lot of my purveyors. This helps keep our costs down, allows us to use the best ingredients available, and the relationships are priceless. These companies also know the plant-based industry better than us, so we know we are getting the best information and help out there.
How does your business align with sustainability and ethics in the plant-based industry, and how does this alignment impact your brand’s success and customer trust?
The first protein that we picked was a GMO-free soybean, Before the Butcher, which has a cleaner label. 90% of the packaging is all recyclable. And we’re plant-forward, which generally has a lower environmental impact than meat production.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My Grandfather’s father always said “Hao Ren, Hao Bao.” Hao Ren, is a good person. Hao Bao is good fortune. Combined, Good things happen to good people. Through life and business, through friends, through family, through love. Treat everyone with kindness, treat them well and you will have good fortune.
And never go to bed hungry, that’s just a fact.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Happy Cooking, is a school I want to create with lots of great people including Harris Schwartzberg, Principal of Two Bridge, Glen Close, and other active mental health philanthropists. The idea is to teach people how to cook, which in turn helps give them self-worth. There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, but people are finally talking about it, that’s step one. If you make a chocolate chip cookie with a bunch of chefs, you try it, and you actually think it’s pretty good, you already start to feel better about something positive you created. Then you give that cookie to a stranger or a friend and they smile. Now you think, wow I can make people happy with something I did, that’s amazing.
When I was 10 years old, I made fried rice for guests that showed up to my family’s home and it made them happy. That is when I realized I could make people happy through food. I would like to have schools in multiple cities and teach people the basics of cooking (how to make a mirepoix, how to make cookies, etc…), they would get knives and tools they need to go get a job after. It would be a short program, because that keeps it affordable.
Everyone can cook, not everyone can sing, dance, or act. With some skills, heart, and passion anyone can become a good cook. This country needs 2 million cooks right now, we’re short staffed because of Covid. For those that have the passion, you can become a Chef. You just need heart, you can never give up and you have to eat all the time. Which is one of the best things about being a Chef, because you have to train your palette. It’s that simple.
This is what we call our “matchmaker question”, and it sometimes works. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a power lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I never got to meet James Beard, so I would like to have a meal with him. Jacques Pépin knew him, cooked for him, and he tells me stories of James. James was a consummate gourmand. He literally helped put all the Chef’s in fine dining and fine cuisine on the map. I would love to pick his brain, see where his mindset was. Ideally, I would like to pick his brain on where he thinks food is going to be in 50 years and see how accurate he is. I hear he was larger than life and enjoyed life to its fullest. That is something I work to achieve daily.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
MingsBings are available at over 5,000 grocery stores nationwide and iconic venues like Fenway Park, TD Garden, Hard Rock Stadium, and Tropicana Field. You can read more on MingsBings and the brand mission at mingsbings.com and follow along on our TikTok and Instagram @mingsbings.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com .