PLEASANTON -- San Francisco boasts the country's largest Chinatown and Japantown, but Pleasanton has bragging rights to Mrs. Lin's Kitchen.
The extensive Asian specialty kitchen and home décor retailer is tucked away in a suburban business park, its low-slung profile belying the burgeoning online business nestled inside.
"Now that I think about it, I was pretty brave," owner Julie Hsu said of her online business. "Most people who get into business have a business plan. I did not. I just started it as a passion." Hsu's passion is for food, Asian food in particular. Her keen interest in cuisine dates back to when she emigrated from Taiwan to Los Angeles with her family when she was just 13 years old.
"In high school, I often looked at the back of the package and loved reading the ingredients," she said. "I was always interested in what goes into food to make what ends up on the table. I was very intrigued by all of that."
Hsu also enjoyed sharing her knowledge of Asian food with her new Southern California friends.
"Friends are interested in your heritage and your culture," she said. "I always have non-Asian friends' parents who'd ask how to make different dishes. I found myself always explaining about how to cook."
After high school, Hsu, 48, attended UC Davis to get a degree in food science and technology. She ultimately fell into a career with the U.S. Agriculture Department, a job with a long commute that took her further from her joy of cooking.
In 1997, Hsu left her government job and started an online gift basket business in a spare bedroom in her San Ramon home. The specialty baskets included everything needed to make a specialty Asian dish such as stir-fry or sushi. She also sold a few Asian cooking items, such as rice cookers and tea sets.
"It just grew and grew," Hsu said of her home-based business. "It went from one bedroom, and it got extended into one of the garage spaces and then two garage spaces. If I kept on expanding, we'd have no more garage."
Nearly five years after starting her business, which bears her married name, she rented office space in San Ramon. She eventually outgrew that space and relocated in 2005 to the Hacienda Business Park, where she has an office and warehouse for storing and shipping merchandise. Five employees keep the business humming.
"It was just the right time," Hsu said, still marveling at her incredible start in the online business world. "I love food, I enjoy the Asian culture, and I enjoy cooking. And with the infancy of the Internet, everything just came together."
Hsu quickly branched out beyond gift baskets as her customers sought a wider range of specialty Asian cookware and home décor items. The company that started with 50 items now boasts more than 3,000 products that grow and change based on customer demand.
"She's got the biggest selection of cookware and servingware of all the online retailers," said Francine Imai, who owns a Chino-based serving ware company that sells products to Hsu's company. "She's not scared to try products from different vendors. She has a wonderful selection of products online."
Imai credits Hsu's customer service and extensive product line as reasons for her success, but the ease of buying online is also a huge factor.
"A lot of people just want to go online and have it shipped," Imai said. "They don't want to go look for these specialty items. If they're not close to a Chinatown or a Japantown, they can just look online at Mrs. Lin's Kitchen and boom, it's there. She has some really cool stuff."
The company offers more than 500 styles of chopsticks, a specialty item that's popular to give as gifts, Hsu said.
"You'd be surprised what people like to buy," she said. "Corporations might buy from us for the holiday seasons to give as holiday gifts to their clients or customers. We have people who buy for weddings. A lot of people buy chopsticks or chopstick rests as party favors."
The bulk of Hsu's customers are not Asian.
"Our customers, you'd be surprised, are mostly non-Asians," she said. "We explain our merchandise and explain how to use it. Other websites give very few information. We actually took the time to write newsletters and explain our merchandise. I think that's why it's attracted many non-Asian customers."
While Hsu has customers worldwide, most are in America, particularly in California, New York and Florida. Most of her Asian customers don't live near major cities where they'd have easy access to Asian specialty stores, she said.
"We have Asian customers in the middle of the U.S. who might have to drive four or five hours to get to an Asian store," she said.
Hsu recently branched out into YouTube with videos to explain how to use her merchandise to make Asian dishes, such as beef shabu shabu, Mongolian barbecue or chawanmushi.
"There's some merchandise on our website that people may want to buy, but they don't exactly know how to use them. So we're using videos to show people how," said Hsu, who travels often to trade shows and overseas in search of interesting and unique items.
Imai, the Chino vendor, believes Hsu's company is on the brink of even more growth as Asian trends continue to spread through mainstream America.
"Sushi and green tea are so popular right now," Imai said. "The trend is that eventually tea will be bigger than coffee ... (Hsu's) looking at the trends and bringing in what she needs to bring ... I know she's going to prosper because of how she conducts her business."