BROOKLYN — The connection between creating music and making kimchi, a Korean side dish of fermented vegetables, is a logical one, swears Kheedim Oh, who is the founder of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi and his "Korean insult punk band" KHOLE (pronounced K-hole).
"It's all chopping and mixing, just a different medium," Oh said referencing his kimchi production and his work as a DJ and as a songwriter for the band.
"You have to mix a few things and it has to be in the proper ratio — have to do things at the correct ratio. You can't start out the party with a bang. Sometimes you have to start out slow. Just like with kimchi, the beginning is slow — fermentation takes time,” he said.
Oh isn't the only musican who used his musical inclinations to fuel a successful artisanal food business. Shamus Jones created Brooklyn Brine five years ago, shortly after forming his now-defunct grindcore band Psychic Limb, and Elizabeth Valleau of the electronic group Wolvves partnered with chef Sam Mason to create Empire Mayonnaise.
All three are taking advantage of New York's expanding artisanal food scene by creating some of the movement's most successful homegrown products that have snagged lucrative shelf space in national retail stores like Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma or Dean & Deluca.
A dedication to music has only helped to power entrepreneurial efforts for these three artists. Here's how:
1. Make Music. Make Money. Love Both.
Just as music is often a labor of love — and often isn't well-paid — starting a business sometimes requires a passion and hope that the money will follow. Eventually.
"Both are things I do because I enjoy them," Oh said. And both can be all-consuming.
When Oh started his business, he spent 95 percent of his time making music and 5 percent of his time making kimchi. That allocation of time swapped three years ago to 95 percent kimchi and 5 percent music. Now, he estimates its 85 percent kimchi and 15 percent music.
"The center focus was not about money. It was about making a product that we wanted. There was a distinct parallel to starting a pickle company that went against the grain and focused on innovation," he said.
Jones was a pioneer in the pickle industry, creating new flavors like adding distilled spirits to a pickle.
"It would have been easy to make a more conventional recipe," Jones said. "But this was the vision I had and wanted to do."
He remains very "intentional" about his company's path.
"We're growing responsibly and not selling out," he added.
2. All Day and All of the Night: Be Willing to Work at Any Hour
As a DJ for two decades, Oh was accustomed to an unconventional schedule.
Because he was never working 9-to-5, he was comfortable with the odd hours needed for making kimchi.
And then there were the crazy hours he put in when he bought a bodega in Ridgewood four years ago, mainly to use as his kimchi factory. But then he realized he needed to run the deli side of things to keep the business afloat and had to be there every morning at 6:30 a.m. — for 10 hours a day.
(The bodega was somewhat preferable to his previous situation where he was hauling 200 pounds of cabbage on a hand truck on the No. 7 train from Flushing and then on NJ Transit to a friend's restaurant where he worked in a basement without running water. Luckily, he was able to sell the storefront and move into a space at the Pfizer factory, a hub for foodie companies.)
3. Practice Makes Perfect: You need a strong work ethic, commitment and communications skills.
Being in a band takes serious commitment to the other members and requires a solid work ethic too, Jones said.
It also requires good time management and communication skills "since songwriting is very collaborative."
All of those qualities were key in starting a business, too, where Jones has prized his collaborations like with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, whose 60 Minute IPA is used to make the Hop-Pickle.
4. Kick Out the Jams: Learn How to Stand Out.
Elizabeth Valleau recalled the "whirlwind" period of getting Empire Mayonnaise off the ground, opening a shop and kitchen in Prospect Heights in 2012. That same year, she started the band Wolvves, which has "morphed into an electronic beast."
Both have been growing in popularity.
"Branding is branding and ‘cutting through’ the noise of cluttered categories is a similar challenge," she said. "We’ve used the same devices in different ways: uniqueness, consistent communication devices and styles, stunts, surprises and constantly evolving content to help both the band and the brand to break out. It works."