Annie Chun, who grew up in South Korea, already has one successful company to her name. Now she’s building her second with just one ingredient: seaweed.
When Chun came to San Francisco in the late 1970s, she ended up in the food industry and, like so many other food entrepreneurs, started out at the farmers’ market. In the early 90s, she entered the local markets with her Asian-inspired sauces. In 2009, she and her husband Steve Broad, who is also her longtime business partner, sold that first venture, Annie’s Chun’s Foods, to CJ’s, a South Korean company, after reportedly reaching annual sales of $15 million.
In 2012, Chun wanted to do another business that reminded her of the seaweed snacks she grew up in South Korea. GimMe was born. “There was nothing comparable on the market. And certainly not organic.”
Chun and Broad had a big task ahead of them. Not only did they change the way seaweed was harvested off the coast of South Korea, but they also had to introduce a relatively new concept to American consumers: a snack with a chip-like texture, but an earthy, salty taste of the sea.
The duo had capitalized on the success of their previous company; so they used some of the profits from that company to start this new business. “The sauces had too many loose ingredients to make it organic. It was hard to get copackers to put in that extra effort, too. But with seaweed, it’s just one main ingredient,” Chun notes.
The Bay Area native who was an organic food advocate now had the opportunity to bring in an all-organic product line, while working closely with her supply chain.
Seaweed, a staple of Japanese and Korean diets, was restricted to the ethnic food aisles in the US. Plus, Chun wanted to make it tastier for American tastes. So she developed a crunchier, chip-like version that comes in a variety of flavors: teriyaki, wasabi, sesame, avocado oil, chili-lime, and more.
Plus, seaweed is a nutrient-rich food, explains Chun. “If you don’t have anything else to add to rice, just crush some seaweed and put it on top.” Seaweed contains, among other things, iodine, omega 3, iron, calcium, fiber, proteins. “It’s a very nutritious food for its weight,” explains Broad. “And if we have to look for more vegetarian options, that’s a good choice, as we’ve overfished our seas.”
It has also become a popular ingredient due to its ecological properties. Seaweed can be grown in regenerative organic farms, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Unlike land-based farms that require large amounts of external input for their crops, seaweed can be a more low-maintenance crop. Seaweed can help regenerate the marine ecosystem by reducing ocean acidification and creating a habitat for countless marine species. It is estimated that a 20-hectare farm can store 9,000 kilograms of CO2 and 300 kilograms of nitrogen annually.
GimMe states that one ton of seaweed can capture about one to four tons of CO2 per year, and generally two to five times the amount of CO2 of tropical forests such as the Amazon.
Growing it organically adds a new layer to this environmental story. Broad explains that their process is different from conventional growers. GimMe’s seaweed is grown in deeper waters in Jangheung Bay, he says. “They use buoys. When the seaweed is submerged in the water, it grows. Then they spin it and expose it to the sun above water. That kills all species that can affect the seaweed and turn it brown.”
This natural approach to seaweed farming avoids the use of chemicals or additives that can harm marine life.
When Chun first pitched the organic seaweed to a number of grocers nationwide, she didn’t get much of an enthusiastic response. When she went to Whole Foods, she says, “The buyer immediately understood and understood the value of organic. And then launched us nationwide.”
For Chun, growing GimMe was a combination of sharing her Korean heritage and making snacks that are healthy and affordable. “For me this is a company about sharing, sharing my roots but also sharing something that is good for our health.”
However, packing was not easy. The seaweed chips must be kept fresh; the packaging must therefore have a high oxygen barrier. For years they were in plastic containers, wrapped in foil. Broad explains that they are now rid of plastic containers and are constantly looking for better solutions. GimMe has partnered with OSC, One Step Closer Packaging Collaborative, in the Bay Area, which is made up of similar, sustainability-focused companies looking for more eco-friendly packaging solutions.
As a company with about 20 employees, Broad says, “We’re still small and it’s hard to change a packaging industry on your own. But we are constantly looking for better options.”
During the pandemic when sushi restaurants closed, GimMe’s nori became a staple for DIY sushi makers at home, he adds. That has helped the company get on board with a new demographic. “But what’s amazing is that we have kids who share snacks in schools, and that exposes kids to seaweed. Plus, we’ve seen some big hits with TikTok.”
So could the youth help make seaweed more popular in America? Broad hopes so. “Our data tells us that seaweed has about 4% penetration into US homes, so it’s early days.”