Online grocery start-up Weee! specializes in hard-to-find foods from Asian and Hispanic cuisines. It nabbed another kind of rarity earlier this year: A big Hollywood name in its executive suite.
The company hired Jon M. Chu, director of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” as its chief creative officer. Chu is bringing his storytelling expertise from the movies, in which food and culture play a central role, to an in-house team of about 10 people that spotlights unique dishes and the ingredients needed to make them — sold on the ever-expanding Weee! online platform.
Chu said he imagines bringing unconventional features to the online grocer, like playlists of songs customers could listen to while cooking or a follow-up email they might receive about the history of items they’ve purchased.
“To me, this was more important than just doing a job for a start-up,” he said. “This was about my storytelling taking new form.”
Weee! sells more than 10,000 products, from cuisine-specific items such as kimchi and frozen shrimp dumplings to staples like milk, bananas and chicken breasts. Shoppers can browse the company’s website and app in different languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean or Spanish. On the app, shoppers can also order takeout from more than 1,000 restaurants.
The San Francisco Bay Area-based start-up now delivers fresh groceries to 18 states and shelf-stable products to all lower 48 states. It has eight fulfillment centers across the country, in states including Washington to New Jersey, where orders are packed and shipped.
The company is trying to stand out in a fragmented space — and previewing how grocery shopping online could look in the future. The grocer’s app and website shake up the typical experience of online food shopping to make it more social and immersive.
Weee! encourages customers to upload videos of recipes and favorite foods to its app through a TikTok-like feature. Shoppers can buy snacks and ingredients featured in those videos with a click of a button. They get discounts if they refer a friend or family member and can share custom coupons for the items they recently purchased.
“We just believe that food shopping shouldn’t be like what we see today,” founder and CEO Larry Liu said. “It should be much, much better, much, much more inspiring and fun.”
Over the past two years, consumers have embraced new ways to fill up fridges and developed expanded palates while cooking more at home. That inspired some to try meal kits, get groceries delivered to their doors or use curbside pickup.
The pandemic sparked growth for Weee! The privately held, venture-backed start-up declined to share its total customers and revenue, but said it has fulfilled more than 15 million orders so far. Its monthly active users have grown more than 150% year over year. To date, the start-up has raised more than $800 million in funding — including a $425 million investment round announced in February led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2.
The pandemic also catalyzed the U.S. online grocery market, which accounts for a small but growing fraction of the industry’s total sales. Online grocery sales almost doubled from $29.3 billion in 2019 to $57 billion in 2020, according to IRI E-Market Insights and Coresight Research. Online grocery sales in the country will reach nearly $90 billion this year, according to the firms’ estimate. Yet brick-and-mortar still dominates the grocery category, with as much as 95% of food retail spending taking place at stores in 2021, according to Coresight’s research.
Online grocery retailers don’t have sample stations, colorful displays and other experiences that draw people to stores and prompt purchases, said Ken Fenyo, president of research and advisory at Coresight Research.
At stores, customers are “able to smell the fruit. You’re able to walk the aisles and see if there’s something new you want. You might have that serendipity of ‘Oh, I forgot I needed that. Let me throw it in'” he said. “Online tends to be a lot more search-driven, a lot more list-driven.”
Retailers like Weee! can revive experiential elements to grocery shopping to make e-commerce more exciting and personalized, Fenyo said. Other direct-to-consumer grocers have carved out specialties, such as Thrive Market, which sells organic and natural foods, or Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods, which sell high-quality groceries for less by offering misshaped fruits and vegetables, broken almond pieces or similar items.
The challenge for Weee! and other smaller online grocery players is winning new customers, keeping the cost of deliveries low and fending off traditional grocers, who may encroach on their turf, Fenyo said.
An immigrant’s tale
For Liu, 41, the challenges that inspired Weee! were personal.
Liu, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, founded the company in 2015 after struggling to find some of his own favorite foods. He grew weary of the hour-and-a-half drive to his closest Asian market and got inspired by seeing WeChat groups organized by others who missed the tastes of home. In one, a woman coordinated a group order for friends — and friends of friends — who wanted to buy fresh cod from Half Moon Bay in California.
That experience later shaped some of the Weee! app’s distinct features, such as a “Community” tab that resembles a social media network with a mix of company- and user-generated videos.
Weee! caters to customers who live in communities that don’t have the density to support a large Asian market like an H Mart, from international students attending college in the States to seniors who live at assisted living facilities, Liu said. Most customers order more than two times per month and Weee! makes up about 40% to 50% of their monthly grocery budget, he said.
Weee! is gradually adding Hispanic foods, too. It offers a Mexican cuisine category in California and Texas.
Popular items include everyday staples like rice and fresh vegetables, along with seasonal items, such as sweet winter melon from Vietnam, hot pot kits from Southern China and sesame cake from Northern China during Lunar New Year.
Its app features a rotating list of suggestions, too, such as Japanese snacks to celebrate sakura, or cherry blossom, season or treats for Mother’s Day. It also offers a growing assortment of beauty and household items, such as Korean cosmetics.
A new kind of storytelling
Before Weee! hired film director Chu, he had already seen the company’s delivery trucks, heard about the company from friends and began getting deliveries as a customer of Korean barbecue ingredients like sauce and short ribs. Intrigued by the company and its mission, he reached out to Liu. Their conversations led to a job offer.
Chu will soon start directing Universal Pictures’ adaption of Broadway hit “Wicked” with Ariana Grande and Cynthia Erivo. Despite the big project, he said he wanted to make room in his schedule for Weee!
As a kid, Chu often did his homework at the bar of Chef Chu’s, the family restaurant his parents opened in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1969. The restaurant is featured in a video about Weee!’s purpose of connecting generations and cultures through food.
Now a father himself, Chu said he wants to make sure that his three young kids learn about their culture.
“I wanted them, when they smelled Asian food, [to feel] that it wasn’t exotic or weird for them,” he said. “That it was home for them the way it was for me.”
Chu recently capitalized on his Rolodex of Hollywood connections, teaming up with Disney and Pixar to develop recipes and shoot videos for the Weee! app inspired by “Turning Red,” a coming-of-age movie about a Chinese-Canadian teenager who turns into a giant red panda. Chu interviewed the movie’s director, Domee Shi, about making the film and did an unboxing of some of her favorite childhood snacks.
Chu and Liu said by telling the stories behind dishes, the grocery service can introduce people to new traditions and flavors.
Erin Edwards, 34, of Santa Ana, California, and her family are among those kinds of eaters. Edwards, who is not Asian or Hispanic, placed her first order from Weee! in February after watching a video shared by a friend. Since then, she’s kept shopping with the site to supplement her weekly shopping at Trader Joe’s and Target.
Her family of four has bought Chinese snacks and ingredients for Asian recipes, from crab-flavored potato chips to noodles for homemade pho. Pocky, Japanese chocolate-dipped biscuit sticks, has become a favorite dessert for her 2-year-old daughter, Holland, and 4-year-old daughter, Wren.
“Seeing people make videos and do tutorials, it makes it so easy,” she said. “We’ve been much more empowered in doing it ourselves.”
Liu said he sees a similar culture of sharing in his three young children.
“Their classmates, no matter what their skin color, they all drink boba milk tea. They all eat sushi. They all eat Korean barbecue and Indian curry and Mexican tacos,” he said. “So I think the future generation, their taste is going to be very, very diverse. In a way, we are really building the assortment for the future cultural explorers.”
Disclosure: CNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, the parent of Universal Pictures.