USC alumni start healthy and ‘authentic’ sauce business

Alumni Maxine Lau and Qiyuan You wanted to develop an authentic and healthy sauce while providing a healthier option. The sauce is currently being sold at 400 Whole Foods. (Photo courtesy of Maxine Lau)

As an Asian American college student, USC alumna Maxine Lau yearned for authentic hot Chinese dishes that reminded her of home. Unsatisfied with the campus dining halls and nearby restaurants, Lau took matters into her own hands.

While taking the Venture Initiation course at the USC Marshall School of Business, Lau developed her startup Lahtt Sauce, and met her future business partner Qiyuan You. With the goal of providing healthier food options that resonate with their cultural origins, Lau and You partnered to expand Lahtt Sauce, Chinese-style sauce made with simple ingredients to dip, marinate and stir-fry food.

Last fall, Lahtt Sauce received $2,500 for the Venture Validation award hosted by the USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase. After selling their sauce on Amazon and less than 40 local stores, Lahtt Sauce expanded its distribution to 400 Whole Foods locations across the nation this August.

After many taste tests and packaging revisions, Lau and You proceeded to pitch Lahtt Sauce to wholesale distributors and online retailers, such as Milk and Eggs and Alhambra Farmers Market. The challenge was finding manufacturers capable of delivering the health and flavor standards Lahtt Sauce promises, as well as encouraging retailers to buy into the vision and potential of the company.

“We pitch the business first with a great product that meets our standards in quality and taste,”  Lau wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “We educate the vendors with the history and versatile use of the product. We’re looking to expand our product line and launch a new product by [quarter one] of next year. We’re looking to continue to grow within the natural channel and boost online sales through Amazon.”

Lahtt Sauce originally featured two flavors: bacon and shrimp, and a vegan sauce with shiitake mushrooms. Along with their market expansion and in order to remain competitive, the company began offering a diverse range of selections for customers — including hot, medium and mild spice levels — as well as two more vegan options.

“We started out with a lot of trial and error,” Lau said. “Taking Lahtt Sauce from idea to business requires industry knowledge, network and business acumen. Many of these resources and knowledge were obtained and developed from the Master of Science in Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at USC.”

With their company’s success, Lau and You have also noticed that most Asian brands on the market were either “too Americanized” or “unconcerned with health.” To combat this problem, Lahtt Sauce aims to bridge the two extremes for health- and tasted-inclined consumers.

“Lahtt Sauce provides customers a different choice by providing a product that is not only healthy, but also authentic,” You said. “Even consumer are very concerned about health, having a healthy lifestyle and living healthier … and for those who have been to Asia and know how it tastes like … they are our target customers.”

The company devotes the majority of its efforts and attention to differentiating Lahtt Sauce from similar products on the market. The product is an alternative to Asian sauce brands that contain unhealthy levels of MSG and preservatives. Lahtt Sauce is gluten-free, crafted locally in Southern California and made with natural ingredients free from MSG, preservatives and GMOs.

In the future, Lahtt Sauce hopes to secure more sponsors and vendors that will bring exposure, volume and sales to the company. Despite fierce competition within the healthy condiment market, the company believes strongly in its mission and ability to reach the palates of more Asian cuisine enthusiasts.

“I think that consistency is really important and to be believing in what you do … Once you get to the major retailers like Whole Foods or Ralphs, I think that is 90 percent of the success,” You said. “There are a lot of competitors … so you just always have to believe in what you do and don’t give up.”