Kevin Lee tells us how his new startup immi is shaking up a $42B food category

The popular (but unhealthy) instant ramen market hasn't seen innovation in decades...until now. Startup immi just launched a low-carb, high-protein alternative.


January 4, 2021

immi co-founders Kevin Chanthasiriphan (L) and Kevin Lee (R) getting their ramen on

***

If you’re tired of the garage as the go-to location for founder stories, the team behind immi will make your day.

The startup’s co-founders, Kevin Lee (KLee) and Kevin Chanthasiriphan (KChan), met 8 years ago as product managers at mobile gaming company Kabam and bonded in a food court over bowls of noodles … for breakfast.

The pair would eventually move on to new professional roles (KLee to venture capital, KChan to a healthtech startup and Facebook) but remained friends and roommates. 

After noodling (sorry) on how they could work together again, the Kevins decided to attack the $42B global instant ramen market with a healthier alternative that has lower carb and higher protein content. 

After 18 months of working on the idea, food startup immi is officially live.

immi’s “Black Garlic Chicken” ramen

We caught up with KLee to find out:

  • Why they started with instant ramen
  • What products they are launching 
  • What other packaged Asian food opportunities there are 

***

Let’s start from the top. Why ramen? 

KChan and I both grew up in Asian food families. 

My grandparents grew rose apples on their farm in Taiwan while KChan’s grandmother ran a noodle stall in Thailand and his dad ran a Thai restaurant in LA.

We’ve been making and eating Asian food since childhood. During our time working at Kabam, we were the only two product managers on the team who would go get noodles for breakfast. [Author’s note: respect!]

As someone that lived in Saigon for 5 years, I can fully support noodles for breakfast. Why ramen and not some other Asian food? 

Instant ramen is a massive $42bn global market but there hasn’t been much innovation in decades. There are a few big Asian food conglomerates (think Nissin) that dominate market share, but still sell the same high-carb, preservative filled, and sodium-loaded instant noodles that they’ve sold for 60 years. 

KChan and I grew up in families who didn’t get the same education around nutrition that we did growing up in the States. Both our families ate so many packets of instant ramen without realizing how terrible they were for our health. My grandmother is pre-diabetic and both my parents took medication for high blood pressure. KChan’s family members have the same chronic health conditions. 

As addictive as instant ramen can be, the traditional brands are terrible for you. If you ask any stranger on the street what they think about instant ramen, they usually say “Damn I love instant ramen but it makes me feel sooo guilty.“

We’re trying to reinvent this food category that brings nostalgia for a lot of people who ate instant ramen as a child or in college.

immi Ramen is WAY more nutritious than traditional instant noodle alternatives 

I totally get it. Both my parents are in their 70s and still eat a ton of instant noodles and it’s bad. What makes immi different? 

Immi’s ramen is the world’s first low-carb, high-protein instant ramen. Compared to traditional brands, immi is up to 75% lower in net carbs, 5x more protein, 3x more fiber, and up to 35% lower in sodium.

We’re paying homage to the old packaged instant noodles but with a significantly enriched nutritional profile.

If you’re familiar with Magic Spoon — both of the founders are advisors to immi — they make low-carb, high protein cereal that’s done very well. 

We previously spoke with the Magic Spoon team! They told us about challenges they face regarding price and taste. Is that similar for you?

Regarding those 2 points: 

  • Price: We cost ~$6.25 per packet, which is more expensive than traditional instant noodles. However, our product is so high in protein (31g) and fiber (9g) and contains so many high quality ingredients, that we really see it as a meal replacement.

    It’s not a snack and we believe immi should be compared to a fast casual meal like Chipotle ($10-12), which makes it cheaper and relatively more nutritious.

  • Taste: The broth is fantastic. We’ve worked with professional chef and food scientist advisors to create our three starting plant-based flavors (Black Garlic “Chicken”, Tom Yum “Shrimp”, and Spicy “Beef”).

    The noodle texture is different than what people might expect. We removed most of the starch from our noodles, which contain most of the unnecessary carbs, so the surface texture is less smooth, but it has the same chew. Feedback in our beta community (3k people) has been positive. 

(Check out our interview with Magic Spoon’s co-founder Gabi Lewis here)

Tell me more about the type of consumer you’re trying to attract. 

So, to be honest, we’re not going after traditionalist ramen fanatics right now. They will be the hardest to please.

At the moment, 90%+ of our beta community audience is non-Asian and 70% are female. It’s a group that is very health conscious (most are on low-carb, keto, or other carb-constrained lifestyles) and wants to be able to bring back noodles into their life. 

We know that we can keep improving the product over time and our dream is to have our parents eat immi and love it.

Someone in our beta community actually messaged me the other day with a note that really made our day. He said that his grandfather hasn’t been able to eat instant ramen or any noodles in decades for health reasons, but he sent him a variety pack of immi ramen, and his grandfather has been loving it and eating immi every day. 

Is there a plan beyond ramen?

Absolutely. Asian food is the fastest growing cuisine in the US right now. We want immi to be the leading better-for-you Asian American food brand. 

Nissin is an Asian conglomerate that makes the original Cup Noodles. Their instant ramen product line does $3bn a year, but they also make many other Asian food products.

Once we do ramen right (add more flavors), we can start making low-carb alternatives to other products in the Asian grocery, like Asian snacks.

immi’s 3 flavors: 1) Black Garlic “Chicken” ; 2) Tom Yum “Shrimp” ; 3) Spicy “Beef”

Is there a comparable company out there? 

Siete Foods is a Mexican-American food brand that started by making a healthier tortilla with grain-free ingredients. Now, they sell a bunch of different alternatives to Mexican staples [like tortilla chips, taco shells, hot sauces, quesos]. 

They did so well that they’ve raised $90m to keep growing the brand.

Siete Foods

Alright, so you gotta tell me about the name. What’s immi mean? 

Well, “mi” is a commonly used word for “noodle” in Asian languages. 

I can confirm that: mì is the Vietnamese word for noodle. 

Right, so immi is “mi” turned inside out. We’re taking the traditional noodle and turning it inside out. 

It’s also a short, memorable name. #gimmeimmi 

What’s the best book about food you’ve ever read? 

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.  This is such a fascinating book that opened my eyes to the past few decades of the manipulative food industry in the U.S. 

A Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Michael Moss, goes deep into the processed food industry, and reveals how many of the American food conglomerates got us all addicted to terrible quality foods. 

It’s also a fun read because you learn about how some of your childhood nostalgic foods like Lunchables came into being.

Daily briefings, straight to your inbox

Business and tech news in 5 minutes or less

Join over 1 million people who read The Hustle

Psst

How'd Bezos build a billion dollar empire?

In 1994, Jeff Bezos discovered a shocking stat: Internet usage grew 2,300% per year.

Data shows where markets are headed.

And that’s why we built Trends — to show you up-and-coming market opportunities about to explode. Interested?

Join us, it's free.

Look, you came to this site because you saw something cool. But here’s the deal. This site is actually a daily email that covers the important news in business, tech, and culture.

So, if you like what you’re reading, give the email a try.

If you don’t like it, unsubscribe any time. Privacy policy.