Nona Lim is the founder of Nona Lim Foods, a line of packaged, Asian-inspired foods that boast healthy, high-quality ingredients (with healing herbs!), without preservatives or additives. Inspired by her upbringing in Singapore, Nona has made her favorite childhood treats accessible for everyone to enjoy. Here we talk to Nona about how she maintains a high standard for her ingredients, how social responsibility is integrated across her supply chain, what trends she sees in the sustainable food industry, and her advice for similar companies looking to raise capital. Hungry for more? Read on:
Tell us about the origins of your company. How and why was Nona Lim Foods founded?
I grew up in Singapore and as a child, I spent a lot of time at the hawker center near my home, intently watching and learning from the hawkers preparing my favorite dishes. Here I became a passionate foodie.
After working in consulting in London, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and started fencing competitively, representing Singapore. As an athlete, I sought clean foods to fuel me, so I became a certified Nutrition Consultant to learn about food as medicine.
I launched the Nona Lim brand in 2014, inspired by the flavors of my childhood and Singapore’s melting pot of culinary traditions from all over Asia. The Nona Lim brand focuses on clean-label fresh Asian products like slow-simmered bone broths and soups with healing Asian herbs, and fresh rice noodles and ramen; these are all dishes that nourish me and remind me of the comfort of home. I wanted to create products that not only have amazing flavors which are great for you, but also easy to enjoy.
You mention on your website that your products contain ‘healing herbs’. What are these healing herbs, and how do you source your ingredients? How do you make sure that everything that goes into your products are clean and healthy?
Healing herbs we use include ginseng, turmeric, goji berries, ginger, thyme, dried red dates, and shiitake. Ingredients like ginseng and turmeric are potent antioxidants that may reduce inflammation, goji berries are packed with vitamins A and C, and shiitake have been known to contain compounds that may help boost immunity.
We use real foods like high-quality whole veggies, fresh herbs and whole spices where we can. We never use any preservatives, additives or hard-to-pronounce ingredients. We believe in using temperature, not processing techniques, to keep our products fresh. Because of this, our products have better nutrition and flavor.
What best practices can you share about making sure your supply chain is reflective of social and environmental responsibility?
We first start by looking within our own organization. With our hiring and labor practices, we are committed to the ETI Base Code (Ethical Trade Initiative). We are working with a third-party audit company to become certified as socially responsible (SMETA). We also try to source locally wherever possible to build relationships within our community. With our key supplier in Singapore, we have visited their facility multiple times to build deep relationships with the supplier. However, we understand that this is a journey, and we are always striving to improve and to be better each and every day.
As a food business, packaging is key. I notice you use environmentally-friendly materials for your packaging. What is your advice for other food entrepreneurs who aspire to provide the same packaging? Is it easier or harder than getting more conventional ones? What are the challenges (if any) to choosing this kind of packaging, and what is the easiest way around it?
I think mindfulness in the selection and design of packaging is key. Depending on the type of food (e.g. frozen vs. fresh vs. shelf-stable, liquid vs. solid), there are different types of materials available. Unfortunately, a lot of the biodegradable and compostable packaging are more suitable for dried goods and shelf-stable goods than for liquid products at this stage, so what is available will also vary depending on your needs. I have been looking into environmentally-friendly packaging for many years and have been following the development of the actual materials available. We are still working to improve our packaging. Again, this is a process and it is okay to keep taking baby steps and keep improving. If you have a hot-fill liquid item, the options are more limited, but just keep pushing the envelope. We are now working on a project to look into how we can use recycled plastic in our packaging, but that comes with its challenges around stability of sourcing, food-grade materials, pricing, etc. But the key is to not give up, and I am hopeful that the market will continue to mature so we can move towards even more environmentally friendly packaging.
What key trends, advantages, and challenges do you see in the market at the moment?
A lot of specific food trends such as keto, plant-based, and paleo have been creating the tailwinds for a lot of food companies. It is not always easy to see what will become an enduring trend (i.e. a movement) and what will become a fad.
Social media and especially Instagram is becoming a way for small brands to really build relationships with consumers, without having to have the same marketing budget as large CPG brands.
With packaged food – you are either operating at a really small scale at the farmer’s markets, or you have to be pretty big and at scale to be sustainable. And capital efficient growth can be very challenging as it is expensive to grow in the retail space with the required free-fills, slotting fees, TPRs (promos), and MCBs (charge backs). Even in the online space, it is not cheap to win on Amazon.com.
Money – there is lots of institutional money available right now which can be a double-edged sword. With food companies, you do need scale and to get to scale, you do need capital. So, having access to capital is great. But if you do want to grow your business differently (i.e. build it slowly and for the next generation), you might not always have the luxury of time to do that if you happen to be an innovator that is at the forefront of what becomes a huge trend. Fast followers can learn from the innovator, raise a lot of money, and leap-frog ahead of you.
What advice can you give to food entrepreneurs looking to raise capital for their sustainable food business?
Look at different sources of financing. From micro-loans, equipment leasing, lines of credit, angels, to negotiating better terms with suppliers, etc. Don’t just look at VC capital as the first stop, getting capital from VCs is a decision more important than getting married. You can get divorced if you marry the wrong partner, but you can’t always separate from your institutional investor. Take time to really get to know them and know what you want. it is more than just the money.
What inspires you most about being a part of SVC?
Being part of a community that has like-minded values and vision for the world that we live in.