Joyce Zhu’s parents moved to America before she was born, but they made sure she grew up with Chinese traditions. Joyce shares how a traditional Asian snack recipe helped launch her business, Numa Foods.
2024 marks the sixth anniversary of the launch of Numa Foods, a company Joyce Zhu co-founded with her mom, Jane. Numa Foods makes healthy treats inspired by traditional Chinese candy recipes. They named their company after the Chinese characters for daughter ‘Nu’ and mother ‘Ma’.
Their entrepreneurial journey began in 2017, when Joyce, a management consultant who often traveled for work, had trouble satisfying her sweet tooth. Joyce was born with an autoimmune disease, and struggled to find snacks that helped her adhere to her diet while keeping sugar consumption low. When she expressed her frustration to her mom who was back home in New Jersey, Jane felt she could do something to help her daughter.
Jane was born and raised in Shanghai, one of the world’s largest seaports and a major industrial and commercial center of China. She and Joyce’s father, Chaoying, moved to the US for further education. Their daughter, Joyce, was born in South Carolina and raised in New Jersey, where the couple eventually settled.
“They are the classic immigrant story,” Joyce says. “They had a few dollars in their pockets and one suitcase to their name.”
Thinking back to her childhood in Shanghai, Jane remembered a milk candy recipe that had been passed down from her own grandmother. She wondered if a reduced-sugar version of the recipe might work for her daughter. She set to work in her kitchen, gathering all-natural ingredients that included whole milk powder, whipped egg whites, brown rice syrup, nuts, and fruit. She recreated the chewy milk candy (also known as nougat) that is popular around Asia, and that her own mother used to make decades before in Shanghai.
Her experiment worked. Joyce called home to report that, not only did her mom’s homemade, low-sugar candy satisfy her sugar cravings, it also didn’t trigger any of the typical adverse symptoms caused by her autoimmune disorder. Joyce also shared the candies with her colleagues, many of whom had never tasted Asian milk candy before, and they loved it as well. Before long, Jane was preparing additional candies for her daughter to snack on and share with her friends and coworkers.
Joyce, an economics graduate from the University of Chicago, soon recognized a potential business opportunity. Joyce shares how she and her mom decided to test it out on their community:
We went to farmers markets just to see if complete strangers would buy the product. And they did. They loved it and they loved the story behind it. We laid out the ingredients on the table for them so they could see exactly what was in the candies, and they really loved that. We realized that it was not just me who had trouble finding a convenient low-sugar, clean sweet option. That was when we decided to launch it out of our own kitchen at home.
Even as the mother-and-daughter team found local success with their handmade healthy sweets, it wasn’t a formal business, and they treated it as a side hustle. Joyce continued to maintain her day job, even though she wasn’t sure she saw a future for herself there. While discussing potential career moves with her mom, she mentioned her desire to work for a startup.
“Why don’t you start your own company?” was Jane’s gentle response, suggesting her daughter go all-in on founding her own food business. When Joyce realized how serious her mom was about supporting her, she decided to take the plunge and launch Numa Foods.
Launches and lessons
From the beginning, I always felt like it wasn’t just that we were selling candies. We were also bringing diversity to the food industry in the US.
“The food industry just really intrigued me, along with the fact that I had a personal connection to this particular food item,” Joyce says. “And I felt like there was an opportunity for me to share not only my story, but a piece of our family, our culture, and our heritage.”
In 2018, the duo expanded to a dedicated production facility and launched the first flavor—original crème—of their “good for you” taffy. Soon after, they added more flavors: strawberries ‘n cream, banana cream, creamy coconut, and coffee. The high-protein, low-sugar nature of the candies was a hit with customers. In 2021, the company introduced its newest product line, mini peanut butter bars with coconut and black sesame flavors, inspired by crispy Asian peanut candy. That same year, actress Mindy Kaling declared Numa Foods one of her favorite finds.
“From the beginning, I always felt like it wasn’t just that we were selling candies,” Joyce says. “We were also bringing diversity to the food industry in the US.”
The pair celebrates their wins and also learns from their mistakes. In the early days of the business, while they were still undergoing iterations of their product, they ordered four shipping pallets of maltose. It turns out that maltose comes in different varieties, and they ordered a type that wouldn’t boil at the temperature they needed.
“None of us, my parents nor I, come from the food manufacturing background,” Joyce explains. “So we had a steep learning curve to climb. And I think we’re still on it, but we’ve obviously gathered a lot more experience now than when we started five years ago. The first three years were focused on just figuring out how to make this product.”
Looking to the future
Since Numa Foods began selling in Amazon’s store, the experience has given the young business a chance to focus on manufacturing, and has also helped Joyce with her decision-making.
“In Seller Central, Amazon gives us a lot of excellent data,” she says. “We religiously record the repeat rates per SKU per month. It helps us see which flavors are doing really well, which ones can we improve on, and then, how we can improve on that. I read every single review on our listings. They’re all real people writing these reviews, and they’re all real opinions. And so, we’ve gotten a really, really good snapshot of how people feel, and we’re constantly analyzing that feedback to find ways to improve.”
Feedback comes in many forms and from many customers, ranging from a grateful celiac patient whose illness also restricts what they can eat, to a trucker who wrote in to explain how Numa Foods’ candy helps him get through long cross-country trips. Many customers also mention the brand’s origin story, which is printed on the packaging, and how they’ve connected with it.
“Sometimes, the emails are extremely touching to where I could have never imagined that a piece of candy could impact someone so deeply,” Joyce says. “So, it’s very cool to hear people connect with the candies beyond just being delicious. Numa has become a vehicle for us to introduce a piece of our culture, heritage, and identity as Asian-Americans.”