Create the community you want to live in. That’s Wen-Jay Ying’s motto for both life and business. That’s why she founded her company, Local Roots, to connect busy New Yorkers with fresh, farm-grown foods—and each other. We talked to Wen-Jay about going for what you really want, powering through the panic attacks, and why money isn’t the only metric for success.
You are a native New Yorker ...
I'm from Long Island, but I've always known I wanted to live in New York City ever since I was a kid. I did a quick detour to go to college in Boston, then came back to New York.
What did you study at university?
I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I really like listening to people, learning about them and understanding them. Going to college was sort of the thing you did after you finished high school. I just went with it, and picked psychology. By the time I finished college, I wanted to go into fashion and become a tech designer. That’s what I did when I first moved to New York after college, but very quickly I did not feel like I aligned with the industry. It wasn’t what I thought it would be, and it wasn’t as diverse or creative as I hoped.
Sounds like you didn’t find your path right away.
While I figured out my next step, I worked at a kids clothing boutique. It was actually really liberating trying these different jobs, and working out what to do next. My whole life up until college had been planned out. I grew up with Asian parents, and they sort of do everything in your school life to make sure you have a good resumé and get into college. So when I graduated college, that was the first time nobody told me what to do. I wasn't doing anything to get into a school or improve my grades. I was just existing.
I fell into the music scene in New York, and played in about five bands. Every single night I was playing shows. I played violin, bass guitar and sang. There was a real DIY music scene happening at the time. So we played a lot of underground shows in Williamsburg. It was an amazing time in New York—you could really create whatever you wanted, start a band, play a show, go on tour.
Being part of that moment in New York City was really integral to me starting a business in the future. It gave me the space to try what I wanted.
How were you inspired to start your business?
So, after working a few retail jobs and playing in the bands, I decided I really wanted to work for non-profit. An ex-boyfriend of mine connected me to AmeriCorps, which is similar to the Peace Corps. You commit to working with them for one year for a small stipend.
I was placed in a non-profit that built resources for people that wanted to start their own community-based food markets. That was my first experience with the local food scene. That group of people really changed things for me. They gave me a community in New York. My parents had moved to California and my brothers went to China, so I really didn’t have a family around. Food really brings people together. People feel comfortable talking about themselves when there's food involved, so it’s a way to connect with those around you.
I felt really addicted to the community aspect of local food. It definitely changed my life and introduced me to my career. After my year ended, I got a job with an orchard upstate. Working for my year in the Corps, I got to know so many local vendors and farmers. They sold their fruit at a farmers market, so I started a fruit-only CSA. I also helped them with partnerships, to make beer out of the fruit they were growing. It was really fun. I felt so excited about this job because it was something I cared about. I was given a lot of freedom to build the kind of work that I wanted and that would support the farm.
Unfortunately, after a bad season, they had to lay off a lot of their workers and so I lost my job. I found myself really depressed. I was crying on Court Street, talking to my mom on the phone.
The old NYC “public cry.” We’ve all been there! [Laughs]
I know, right? So my mom was like, "Why don't you just start your own business?" I thought that was ridiculous, because I’d never gone to school for business and I didn’t know anything about that sort of thing. But I thought about it for a few days and just decided I had nothing to lose and would give it a try. At the time, there really wasn’t a local food scene in New York like there is now, so finding a job that already existed in the industry would have been really hard.
I made my own website and filed for an LLC, contacted some farmers that I knew, and within a month I launched my business!
That is so quick!
I think it was quick because I didn't know what a business was supposed to be like. I wasn't scared to make a mistake. Don’t get me wrong; I was petrified! But because I had no idea about business, I wasn’t comparing myself to others or to what I “should” be doing.
So what was that process like?
The first step was to source food from local farmers. That was the hardest part. Farmers are often very set in their traditions, and it can be hard to convince them to change. I had to think about the kinds of farmers that would want to take a part in a startup business that would bring locally grown food to New Yorkers in a convenient way. I had to find farmers who were a little adventurous. I was only 25 and had to convince them to try this with me.
I borrowed a friend's car the first year and had four markets. I got customers by putting flyers up in the neighborhoods, so we just grew by word of mouth. Each time we had a market, I would either drive to the farmers market to get the food or meet the farmers in the city and transfer the food. It was hilarious; I would sometimes be making produce transactions on a corner somewhere in the city. Logistically, it was a nightmare!
How would you describe Local Roots?
We're empowering New Yorkers to be home chefs by connecting them with the best quality, sustainably grown produce in New York City. So it's a very fun and vibrant meeting place where people can swap recipes. We also offer awesome cooking tips illustrated by a local artist and classes. I've always wanted Local Roots to be more than just food—I want it to be a community, and a way for people to have a different connection to food. Six years later, we are essentially the same company. Just with more locations and more options and infrastructure.
That is a really impressive accomplishment!
Looking back on my younger self, I'm always surprised that I went after what I wanted. That initial idea that inspired me to start this company still excites me every single day. I can tell you, though, that I had a panic attack every day of that first year!
My first day, I remember sitting in this chair and having a panic attack. Not knowing what's going to happen and just forcing myself to be okay with anything that'll happen. With local food and farmers, so many things change on the day. You have to think on your feet and solve problems as you go. Now I’m still solving problems on the fly, but I’m a little better at it.
Everybody I’ve met in the community has been so supportive. We differentiate ourselves from CSAs by having shorter membership options. Traditionally, a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a six month commitment from Summer to Fall, but with Local Roots NYC people can prepay for just a three month long season and we offer markets all year round. People really love that. We also supply eggs, beef, chicken, and fruit. Not just vegetables.
In my first year, I probably worked every day from 6am to 10pm because I didn’t have employees and was doing everything myself. We had a profit from day one, though, so there was encouragement to keep going.
Honestly, I never thought about the money until this year, because I didn’t accept that Local Roots was a business. It’s always just been something I was passionate about and was able to keep doing. It felt strange to think something I loved so much could be considered work. It was a way for me to share who I was with people and for me to create the kind of community I wanted in New York.
What changed that made you think about this as a business?
When I accepted that not every business is the same. I realized what I was doing was working. Most businesses will tell you profit is the most important thing, scalability, keeping it growing. That’s never anything I’ve ever wanted. It’s not who I am as a person, and it doesn’t really fit what I want to do. I know that if I had a business like that, I wouldn’t be happy doing it.
I’ve realized that I can create my own metrics of success for Local Roots, and it doesn’t have to just be profit; it can be how many producers we support, it can be seen in families raising their kids on our food, or strengthening the bonds within our community and the relationship people have with their food source. Yes, a profit is important because it allows me to keep going. But there are so many other ways to measure success. I want to continue to build what I want most in life. Our larger goal is to have our own farm, and to maybe build a social club where we can host events and supper clubs. A place where people can come together. We’d also love to offer more grab-and-go food items that we can sell in cafes.
That’s definitely the hardest part about healthy eating in New York. Everyone’s kitchens are tiny and you tend to shop on the fly.
Exactly. Since starting this business, I'm so much more conscious of the challenges of cooking at home and we are working to address those problems. For example, curating weekly offerings of produce that fit comfortably in your fridge - you won't get pounds and pounds of massive beets and cabbage in a week through Local Roots cause it wouldn't fit easily in a NYC apt fridge.
Nearly all of the food I cook with comes from Local Roots and I'm so lucky to personally know the people who grow my food. Not everyone has that opportunity. One challenge in buying groceries is trusting the source and understanding food labels like cage free vs pasture raised; we've made it so whether you're cooking a full meal or just toasting up bread, you can trust the quality of the products because you can trust our brand.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Running a business, I’ve really learned how important the people you work with are. It’s so important to nurture the people who support you. I ran the business myself for four years, and now I can see how important it is to build your dream with the support of other people.
To stay inspired, I make sure I’m always grateful for what I have and what I get to do.
What does New York mean to you?
I love this city. I love that my job makes me feel like I’m actually part of this city. Through Local Roots and the services we offer, I aim to make this city feel not as transient. I want people to feel like they’re building a home by meeting neighbors at our markets, gathering around a dinner table, or utilizing your kitchen to nourish yourself.
Learn more about Local Roots here.