On her first day traveling in India in 2011, Ryu encountered jackfruit -- a bounteous, green spiky fruit, which can weigh up to 100 pounds. "I actually thought it was an Indian porcupine," she laughs. Upon trying it, she recalls, "I was blown away by this fruit!"
And Ryu was blown away by what she began learning about jackfruit, as well. Jackfruit is drought resistant. And high-yielding: upwards of 200 of the fruit -- the largest from a tree on the planet -- can grow on a single tree per year. It has huge amounts of healthy dietary fibers -- both soluble (just like oats and bananas) and insoluble (like nuts and cauliflower). It has fruit-like qualities when its sugars have ripened, but -- most importantly to Ryu -- it has the "taste and texture of meat" if harvested earlier.
And most jackfruit goes to waste because no supply chain had been developed for its use.
With the same dedication she's been bringing to her medical studies at Harvard (she went to India as part of a health outreach program), Ryu started The Jackfruit Company. Her goal: to import jackfruit and develop a market for it in the United States.
When it ultimately came down to choosing between becoming a physician or a jackfruit entrepreneur -- dedicated to offering the American public healthier dietary choices and farmers in India a needed source of revenue -- she chose the latter career option. "They're both both things that I was very passionate about, but this was the one of the two that I absolutely knew I had to do," she says.
By 2020, The Jackfruit Company's products accounted for 70 percent of all jackfruit on store shelves at thousands of retail outlets. Her business had developed its own specialized machinery for the peeling of jackfruit, as well as the sectioning of it into different shapes. The company works with more than 1,500 farmers in India, providing them with "10 to 40 percent of their annual income" by buying a crop "that they previously didn't have a market for."
With a pulled pork-like appearance, meal starters containing jackfruit were the first offerings. Vegans and vegetarians were initially the target market -- people who were already experienced at cooking with items like tofu and tempeh.
But in order to expand business, Ryu began a new brand in late 2020: jack & annie's. Products from jack & annie's include chicken tenders, pulled pork, sausages, and, yes, meatballs -- all made using jackfruit as the primary ingredient. The targeted demographic is now, well, anyone, really. It's not just vegans and vegetarians, but also people who want a substitute for meat now and again (and perhaps again and again). Ryu says, "You basically just need to know how to heat up chicken nuggets, however you like: oven, microwave, air fryer. Just very, very easy."
One of the company's slogans is: "It's not plant-based. It's plants." Ryu says, "The jackfruit has not gone through a tremendous amount of processing. The food itself is so similar to meat, because it's made from a food that is very similar to meat -- which is this amazing plant, jackfruit."
Recipes add plant-based fat and seasonings to the fat-free and muscle-like jackfruit, which is formed into the shape of the targeted meat-substituted product. Meat eaters are often impressed by its chicken tenders, meatballs, and sausage.
The jack & annie's brand has taken off. "In the last 12 months, we've more than doubled our total distribution," says Ryu. "We're in over 6,000 stores right now. . . . It's really resonating with consumers."
While the products are made by a "network of manufacturing partners across India and the U.S.," the headquarters is in Boulder, Colorado. At its R&D center there, Ryu says, "We've got small-scale and then intermediate-scale equipment that we use in production to make our foods. We're rapidly developing new foods. We're able to easily go from developing in the kitchen to full-production scale."
That's helpful to not just the company itself, but also to potential food service customers -- for example, fast food chains that might want to add meat-free options. "We have a number of partnerships under development that are currently confidential," says Ryu, "but we'll be really excited to announce them soon." The expansion into the food service sector has been aided by a recent $23 million capital raise.
And Ryu's own profile was recently raised when she was named Mindful CEO of the Year at this year's Mindful Awards. "I think the biggest evolution for me is going from being a CEO/Founder-by-title to really learning how to be an effective CEO for the company," says Ryu, who's taken on multiple responsibilities while attempting to grow the business as big as a 100-pound jackfruit. "I know that [the CEO role], in and of itself, continues to change and evolve with time as the company changes and evolves with time. So, it's something I'm focused on always being ahead of the curve on. But that is a job in and of itself!"
Challenges: Ryu points to market awareness: "It's making sure that people know how we're different in terms of what we're made of, and just how delicious these foods are."
Opportunities: "Continuing to innovate to enable consumers to bring jack & annie's onto their plates, and in more applications, more different meals," says Ryu. "It's also continuing to gain entry into restaurant chains and food service, so that people can access jack & annie's -- and these delicious foods -- when they're out enjoying a meal with their family and friends."
Needs: "The biggest need for the business would be introductions to restaurants that are looking for foods that are that are looking for a plant-based option that is really delicious," says Ryu.