In Conversation with Wen-Jay Ying of Local Roots NYC
Describe your business in a few words?
Local Roots NYC is a minority and female-owned small business revolutionizing the way you shop for groceries by bringing the farm to you. Subscribe online and pick up your bundle at a neighborhood pop-up market (or opt for delivery), get dish inspiration with easy farm-to-table recipes on our website, or attend one of our food + farm focused events.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
Two very important things happened in my life which ultimately led me to starting Local Roots. At the time, I had recently moved to NYC after college, and my family had relocated to all different parts of the world. I was longing for community and found it playing music in the underground music scene. The do-it-yourself mentality really resonated with me. I began working at a food justice nonprofit through Americorps and felt a similar energy in the grassroots food movement. I also loved how the food movement connected you to nature in an urban environment. After my service at Americorps, I worked for a New York state orchard at their city based farmers markets; but they had a poor growing season and laid off many of their employees. I found myself without a job, but in that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: create convenient and inclusive local, organic food markets for New Yorkers. This job didn’t exist anywhere in the world, so my mom suggested I start my own business. At the age of 25, with no business experience, I thought it was an insane idea. But I have a hard time doing anything I don’t love, so I said fuck it, used what I learned in the DIY music scene, and started a business.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I moved to NYC with a psychology degree and originally started my career in fashion. While interning as a technical designer, I felt uninspired by the industry and spent the next few years playing in multiple bands and working at random jobs, with the intent of always finding a job that would do something good for the world. I was motivated to join Americorps at an NYC based food justice nonprofit after a conversation with Flaming Lips lead singer Wayne Coyne backstage after a show.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Since I was a kid, I have always dreamed of being a business owner, and I definitely embrace an alternative lifestyle and mindset. I tend to opt for the road less traveled and growing up in a Chinese household, starting a company selling local produce without a business education was definitely not expected. As an entrepreneur, I’m motivated by making the change I want to see in the world. I wouldn’t be able to be who I am without my parents though; they’ve always encouraged me and even motivated me to stay open during the pandemic. My dad is also my bookkeeper!
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I walked around every neighborhood everyday and put tear-away flyers up. Simple yet effective!
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Owning a small business is usually challenging, but some of the hardest moments I can think of are earlier on. In our very first year, the hurricane damaged most of our partnering farms. A few years later, I faced an identity crisis in trying to figure out the type of business I wanted to have. Do I try to be like every other business and scale as quickly as possible, or do I use our values as a guiding light and scale slowly? What we are all enduring through the current pandemic also stands out to me. The first few days were really intimidating. I had to evolve our business within 2 days and train an entirely new staff. It felt like the first day I started my business; everything felt unknown. The lesson throughout all of this has been to trust my intuition. I have proven to myself that I’m able to face any obstacle with grace and leadership while acting quickly.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Since March, we have donated over 3,000lbs of produce and delivered organic veggies to 217 essential workers. We also hired 15+ employees who were formerly laid off during COVID-19.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
Hire extremely slowly. We always ask candidates what they hope to learn in the position and where they see themselves in 3 years. We always hope our employees will grow and develop their own local food and farming interests.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
We needed to evolve our business and operations within 2 days to offer home delivery to hundreds of New Yorkers. We hired and trained nearly 7x more staff, figured out routing software, and learned every day how we needed to perfect this new model. Previously, only 10% of our customers opted for home delivery. With the pandemic hitting in the Spring, the number jumped to 90% for home delivery. We faced many food and warehouse supply issues due to the pandemic, so we had to constantly research and onboard new farms and vendors.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
Our big next phase is the Local Roots marketplace and café, which is our version of a social club focused around food and sustainability. You’ll be able to shop for local and organic veggies, heritage meats, pantry items, sustainable beauty products and more, and also pick up grab and go farm-to-table café dishes! There are a ton more things happening at Local Roots but you’ll have to follow us at @localrootsnyc to find out more.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
I’ve proven to myself I can problem solve with grace and continue to improve, improve, and improve. We are all works in progress. I’ve also learned what it takes to work 14 hour days for 4 months straight if needed, just good to know for the next apocalypse!
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
Charge enough for your product with a growing infrastructure in mind, invest in an incredible team, and make sure to have a work/life balance.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Hiking, exercising, and routine socially-distanced socializing with friends.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Yes, it’s necessary and I wish I had focused on this from the very first day. There is always more work to do, so you just have to know to walk away at the end of the day and realize that a personal life and healthy living is as important to happiness and success.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
Maybe this isn’t surprising, but I used to absolutely love crowd surfing at concerts. Maybe more surprising is that I was flown to Amsterdam with my all girl rock band to play at the Black Magic Woman Festival.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
Hydrate often, don’t have too many windows open in your browser, and eat clean.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
As an Entreprenista, it feels exciting and comforting to know that there is a community of other female entrepreneurs that might be able to relate to my own experiences, and have worked their asses off to make their dreams a reality.